Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Spectacle of Deformity

Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture

Nadja Durbach
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 288
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Spectacle of Deformity
    Book Description:

    In 1847, during the great age of the freak show, the British periodical Punch bemoaned the public's “prevailing taste for deformity.” This vividly detailed work argues that far from being purely exploitative, displays of anomalous bodies served a deeper social purpose as they generated popular and scientific debates over the meanings attached to bodily difference. Nadja Durbach examines freaks both well-known and obscure including the Elephant Man; “Lalloo, the Double-Bodied Hindoo Boy,” a set of conjoined twins advertised as half male, half female; Krao, a seven-year-old hairy Laotian girl who was marketed as Darwin's “missing link”; the ”Last of the Mysterious Aztecs” and African “Cannibal Kings,” who were often merely Irishmen in blackface. Upending our tendency to read late twentieth-century conceptions of disability onto the bodies of freak show performers, Durbach shows that these spectacles helped to articulate the cultural meanings invested in otherness--and thus clarified what it meant to be British—at a key moment in the making of modern and imperial ideologies and identities.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94489-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION Exhibiting Freaks
    (pp. 1-32)

    IN 1847, UNDER THE HEADING “The Deformito-Mania,” the popular periodicalPunchbemoaned the public’s “prevailing taste for deformity, which seems to grow by what it feeds upon.” “Poor MADAME TUSSAUD, with her Chamber of Horrors,” it continued, “is quite thrown into the shade by the number of real enormities and deformities that are now to be seen, as the showmen say ‘Alive, alive!’ ”¹Punch,ever the shrewd social commentator, was noting the widespread British fascination with, and demand for, “monsters,” “human oddities,” “lusus naturae,” “prodigies,” “novelties,” and “freaks.” Although most of these words had been used interchangeably for centuries...

  6. ONE Monstrosity, Masculinity, and Medicine: Reexamining “the Elephant Man”
    (pp. 33-57)

    IN FEBRUARY OF 1923 TOM NORMAN, one of the best known showmen of his day, wrote to the showmen’s trade journalWorld’s Fair.He was responding to an article about the surgeon Frederick Treves’s recently published memoir,The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences,which the weekly claimed “tells a true story [of a freak] that surely has never been equalled in any tragedy or romance ever written as fiction.”¹ Norman, who had served as one of four business managers for Joseph Merrick, “the Elephant Man,” during the brief period that he had exhibited himself in England, sought “to point out...

  7. TWO Two Bodies, Two Selves, Two Sexes: Conjoined Twins and “the Double-Bodied Hindoo Boy”
    (pp. 58-88)

    AT THE SAME MOMENT THAT “the Elephant Man” was admitted to the London Hospital in the summer of 1886, “Lalloo the Double-Bodied Hindoo Boy” began to exhibit himself across the United Kingdom. The following year, like Merrick, he appeared before the Pathological Society of London as a case of “parasitic foetus.” Lalloo was what was frequently referred to in the medical literature as a “double monstrosity,” the scientific term then used for what are now called conjoined twins. But rather than being attached to a fully grown brother, Lalloo had a much smaller sibling growing out of his chest. This...

  8. THREE The Missing Link and the Hairy Belle: Evolution, Imperialism, and “Primitive” Sexuality
    (pp. 89-114)

    IF “THE DOUBLE-BODIED HINDOO BOY” elicited concerns about colonial sexuality, similar debates about the erotics of the imperial—and thus nonnormative—body were playing out in the 1880s on the stage of the Westminster Aquarium in London. In 1883 the great Canadian impresario G. A. Farini unveiled his latest discovery: “Krao, the Missing Link.” Krao was a seven-year-old girl from what Victorians called “Indochina”¹ whose small, dark-skinned body was covered in soft brown hair. Farini exhibited her in the United Kingdom for seven months as “A Living Proof of Darwin’s Theory of the Descent of Man,” the missing link between...

  9. FOUR Aztecs and Earthmen: Declining Civilizations and Dying Races
    (pp. 115-146)

    THE DISCOURSE OF CIVILIZATION that was so central to Krao’s exhibition also featured prominently in a variety of other performances in the late nineteenth century. When “the Last of the Mysterious Aztecs” were exhibited in London in the late 1880s and early 1890s, contemporaneously with Krao, their publicity materials emphasized that they were the only remaining members of a once great civilization that had over time become degenerate and thus died off. Although this act was on its last legs by the turn of the century, at midcentury it had been a smash success. This chapter argues that “the Aztecs”...

  10. FIVE “When the Cannibal King Began to Talk”: Performing Race, Class, and Ethnicity
    (pp. 147-170)

    WHEN THE AZTECS WERE EXHIBITED in London in 1853, theDublin Medical Pressproclaimed that the “owners of these small people might better perhaps have exhibited them in England as a variety of the wild Irish, for by so doing they might have tickled John Bull’s pride as well as his curiosity.”¹ Ireland’s premier medical journal was here alluding to the widespread propensity in Britain for reading all ethnographic acts in relation to the archetypal Celtic “primitive.” The Barnum and Bailey Circus, which generally featured ethnographic acts, responded to this tendency by including a ditty in their 1899 British songbook...

  11. CONCLUSION The Decline of the Freak Show
    (pp. 171-184)

    THE FREAK SHOW NO LONGER exists in Britain as a cultural institution. There is no equivalent to the Sideshows by the Seashore at Coney Island, which has kept the tradition alive in the United States. In fact, by the late twentieth century the British public had deemed the exhibition of human anomalies inappropriate, indecent, and indefensible. When referred to at all in late twentieth- and early twenty-first century discourse, the freak show has been widely condemned as a product of “the worst traditions of Victorian ghoulishness,” an institution that inhabited “the backwaters of civilisation in the nineteenth century.”¹ The freak...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 185-234)
    (pp. 235-264)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 265-273)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 274-274)