Freak show: What is it?


  • Intro

    ‘What Is It’ was first exhibited as a 'human curiosity' on 29th August 1846. He was advertised as the “Wild Man of the Prairies”; ill-proportioned, intelligent, and hairy. In fact ‘What Is It’ was otherwise known as Harvey Leech, a skilled acrobat, dressed in a hair-suit with stained face and hands. Shortly after the advert, a tip-off to the newspapers proved that the exhibit was a scam and Leech was publicly outed as a fraud.


    Exhibitions of live human curiosities were a popular form of entertainment during the Victorian period, when people from all classes flocked to gawp at unusual examples of human life. Novelty acts relied a great deal on shock, therefore performers were not revealed in the flesh until money had changed hands. Titillating publicity was crucial, as the people described in these adverts often bore little resemblance to what lay behind the curtain or turnstile. 


    Shelfmark: Evan 2878

  • Audio

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  • Transcript

    Freak show: What is it?

    Is it an animal? Is it human? Is it an extraordinary FREAK of NATURE? Or, is it a legitimate member of Nature’s works? Or is it the long sought for LINK between man and the orang-utan, which naturalists have for years decided does exist, but which has hitherto been undiscovered?


    The exhibitors of this indescribable person or animal, do not pretend to assert what it is; they have named it THE WILD MAN OF THE PRAIRIES; or, “WHAT IS IT,” because this is the universal exclamation of all who have seen it. Its features, hands and the upper portion of its body, are to all appearances human: the lower part of its body, the hind legs, and haunches, are decidedly animal! It is entirely covered, except the face and hands, with long flowing hair of various shades. IT IS LARGER THAN AN ORDINARY SIZED MAN, but not quite so tall. “WHAT IS IT” is decidedly the most extraordinary being that ever astonished the world. It has the intelligence appertaining to humanity and can do anything it sees done, or anything which man or animal can do, except speak, read or write etc. It leaps, climbs, runs etc. with the agility of a monkey; it lays the cloth and sets a table with the sang froid of a London waiter; bows, lifts its hat, etc., with the grace of a Master of Ceremonies; distinguishes colours; remembers what is said to it: goes through the military exercises; and plays various games with an instinct and skill that would reflect honour on HOYLE himself. “WHAT IS IT” was caught in the WILDS OF CALIFORNIA; its food is chiefly nuts and fruit, though it occasionally indulges in a meal of RAW MEAT; it drinks milk, water, and tea, and is partial to wine, ale and porter. For the last ten months it has been with a tribe of Indians, who were however uncivilised and nearly as wild as “WHAT IS IT” itself. Though sometimes shy and savage when approached too near by strangers, is kind, docile, and obedient to the slightest commands of its keeper. It is neat in all it habits, fond of ornament, and its exhibition cannot offend the most delicate taste.

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