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Secrets of the Sideshows

Secrets of the Sideshows

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 424
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  • Book Info
    Secrets of the Sideshows
    Book Description:

    The carnival sideshows of the past have left behind a fascinating legacy of mystery and intrigue. The secrets behind such daring feats as fire-eating and sword swallowing and bizarre exhibitions of human oddities as "Alligator Boys" and "Gorilla Girls" still remain, only grudgingly if ever given up by performers and carnival professionals. Working alongside the performers, Joe Nickell blows the lid off these mysteries of the midway. The author reveals the structure of the shows, specific methods behind the performances, and the showmen's tactics for recruiting performers and attracting crowds. He also traces the history of such spectacles, from ancient Egyptian magic and street fairs to the golden age of P.T. Barnum's sideshows. With revealing insight into the personal lives of the men and women billed as freaks, Nickell unfolds the captivating story of the midway show.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7179-1
    Subjects: Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. x-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xxii)
    (pp. 1-24)

    The sideshow, as its name implies, is an adjunct to a main show. But the types of exhibits that came to constitute the sideshow preceded both kinds of shows.

    Far back in prehistory, the solitary entertainer vied for the attention and approval of others. Perhaps he had learned some simple feat of acrobatics or juggling. Maybe he was able to perform a clever trick using sleight of hand. Or possibly he had something for show-and-tell, such as a remarkable stone or an exotic trophy. Originally, his would have been an impromptu show, probably performed for a few family members and...

    (pp. 25-51)

    The midway is located between the entranceway and the big top of a circus. A carnival and what is called the “independent midway,” which containsseparateamusements booked by the fair’s own committee (Taylor 1997, 94).

    The traveling aspect of the carnival presents tremendous problems. The owner of such a “collective amusement organization” (known as ashow) must not only sell the myriad attractions to the public but also compete with other traveling enterprises androutethe show (that is, lay out the play dates for a season). The booking of a route for a new season begins long before...

    (pp. 52-79)

    The quintessential type of sideshow, often called afreak show(or sometimes akid showto distinguish it from more adult-oriented amusements), is known in circus and carnival parlance as theten-in-one.It was created in 1904 at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE). Until then, midway attractions were of the single-O type, that is, individual exhibits. These sideshows can be of two types, eitherpit showsorplatform shows.Pit shows are “typically viewed from above by climbing stairs and filing past a plywood enclosure or small room visible only to the paying patron” (Davies 1996). Platform shows utilize elevated...

  9. 4 HUMAN ODDITIES: Large and Small
    (pp. 80-119)

    With an increased understanding of genetic and other causes of deformities, the wordfreakshas given way to such euphemisms asanomalies, mistakes of nature, abnormalities, curiosities,andphenomènes.In London in 1898, some members of the Barnum & Bailey side-show troupe held a meeting to protest being called freaks. Among them were bearded lady Annie Jones and an armless wonder, who recorded the minutes by writing with his foot. They finally settled onprodigies,but that label failed to catch on in America, and it has been suggested that “the whole affair may have been dreamed up by the...

  10. 5 HUMAN ODDITIES: Between a half and two
    (pp. 120-140)

    In addition to those who defy normal parameters by their size, there are those who do so as versions of a single, complete individual.

    Siamese twins—today called conjoined twins—are monozygotic (“one egg”) twins who are not completely separated. The fertilized egg divides incompletely at an early stage, and the two parts continue to develop into two anatomically linked individuals. They may be paired in various ways, such as a single head with double neck, trunk, and limbs; a doubled head, shoulders, and arms, but with a single trunk and pair of legs; or a rare type with a...

    (pp. 141-164)

    Among the many types of human oddities are those who do not readily fit into traditional categories.

    A diverse group of human oddities consists of those whose deformities can be likened to some animal—hence “alligator” boys and girls, “frog” people, and others, such as the Lobster Boy and Sealo.

    “Alligator” people (unless they are gaffed—see chapter 8) suffer fromichthyosis,or “fishskin disease,” which is characterized by profoundly dry, scaly skin (figure 6.1). There are several different types of ichthyosis, many of which are hereditary. One type does not manifest until sometime between one and four years of...

    (pp. 165-177)

    Ananatomical wonderis a sideshow performer whose freakishness is not readily apparent until it is demonstrated. In other words, he or she is less ahuman oddity(see chapters 4–6) than aworking act(see chapter 9) but has elements of both.

    In the early eighteenth century, a “famous Posture-Master of Europe” performed at various venues, accompanying magician Isaac Fawkes. In 1721, at the Bartholomew Fair in London (as shown by a famous aquatint discussed in chapter 1), a banner depicted him in various contortionistic positions and read, “Faux’s [i.e., Fawkes’s] Famous Posture Master.” The French lad was...

    (pp. 178-208)

    In addition to born, bona fide human oddities, there are what William Lindsay Gresham (1953, 102) terms “‘made’ freaks.” These include tattooed and pierced people and those who otherwise deliberately alter their appearance so that they can be exhibited as curiosities or perform as sideshow working acts. Then there are the gaffed freaks, those whose oddities are partially or completely faked or whose acts are bogus.

    Eighteenth-century explorers encountered native peoples of the South Seas islands, the Far East, and elsewhere who practiced tattooing—the use of a thorn, needle, or other sharp instrument to prick dye into the skin...

    (pp. 209-259)

    Apart from human oddities, the second main category of sideshow performers consists of those who exhibit a special skill. Such performers are known in carny parlance as working acts.

    Fire manipulation is an ancient art, combining skill with danger. One of the earliest of the fire-eating wonders lived in the Roman era—a Syrian called Eunus (d. 133 B.C.). In order to excite his fellow slaves to revolt against Roman authority, Eunus claimed that he had received supernatural powers from the gods, who foretold that he would someday be king. As proof, Eunus exhaled jets of fire, just like the...

  15. 10 ILLUSIONS
    (pp. 260-298)

    In addition to human oddities and working acts, a third major class of sideshow features is represented by what is known as anillusion show(figure 10.1). In earlier times, this could mean simply a magic show, particularly one that featured some of the larger effects. “Illusion shows became popular on midways,” says Al Stencell (2002, 139), “and by World War I they were competing with the new 10-in-1s and holding their own.” Such a show was the Temple of Wonders that operated at Palisades Park, New Jersey. A 1926 photograph shows banners for a “Prof. of Magic,” the “Burning...

    (pp. 299-321)

    Some exhibits feature animals. Although the premier animal acts are reserved for presentation under the circus big top, midways and carnivals often have animal shows. Like other sideshow features, animal exhibits have a long history.

    Collections of living animals, wild and exotic, are as ancient as recorded history. In the early twelfth century B.C., a Chinese emperor, Wen, established a “garden of intelligence” wherein animals from the different provinces of the empire were exhibited. Similarly, the ancient Egyptian pharaohs kept menageries as part of their temple complexes, and in the eighteenth dynasty, Egypt’s Empress Hatasu sent a fleet of ships...

  17. 12 CURIOS
    (pp. 322-344)

    A special category is reserved for inanimate objects that might be displayed in a sideshow. Since there is no general carny or showmen’s term for these, I simply refer to them as curios—that is, objects valued for their strangeness or rarity.

    When neither the banner nor the outside talker promises that an exhibit is “alive,” it probably isn’t. Many once-living rarities are preserved in some kind of solution, others are mummified, and a rare few are frozen.

    Among the first type are what carnies callpickled punks—a term never used before the public but reserved for those who...

  18. 13 THE EGRESS
    (pp. 345-352)

    Ladies and gentlemen, don’t miss this special feature: the wonderful, surprising—the Egress! Please, step this way.

    As described in chapter 3, Barnum’s “Egress” signs—seemingly leading to a major exhibit—were actually directing patrons to the exit. Here we approach the egress of our tour of the sideshows. Sadly, we also come to another egress: the end of the sideshow era. Long ago, circus sideshows disappeared, and now the century-long run of carnival sideshows—certainly the large, traditional ones—is all but over.

    The circus sideshows declined for several reasons. In earlier times, people would mill about the lot,...

    (pp. 353-360)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 361-402)