Freak Shows in the United States (1840-1940)

How’d You Like to be a Giant?

For one hundred years (1840 – 1940) the freak show was one of America’s most popular forms of entertainment. Today the same shows would be considered unacceptable and cruel, or as one disability rights activist put it, “the pornography of disability.” In the mid 19th century, however, Americans were beginning to move from the farms and a family-based society to one which relied more on organizations, including institutionalized entertainment. It was at this time that P.T. Barnum brought the freak show to prominence through the American Museum in New York City.

Sideshow tent entry.

The Carte de Visite

Photo card of a Chinese dwarf.
Back of the Carte de Visite

“Freaks” are public images manufactured by the disabled people themselves and/or their promoters for the purpose of fame and fortune. As Robert Bogdan notes in his book Freak Show, “How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally. ‘Freak’ is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution – not a characteristic of an individual.” For example, the dwarf in the photo on this “carte de visite” bills himself as the “only Chinese dwarf.”

In 1851 the development of the “set-plate” technique enabled photographers to make many prints from one exposure. Human oddities would have carefully posed photos taken and often order thousands of reproductions. They would sometimes write about themselves on the back of the card bragging about their physical attributes or talents. These “carte de visites” were widely collected by Americans and made quite a bit of money for the “freaks” and the owners of freak shows.

The text on the back of the card (partial) reads:

“Che-Mah! the only Chinese dwarf, was born in Ningpu in the Island of Choo-Sang, April 13th, 1838, and now age 60 years. Height 28 inches, weight 40 pounds. Have traveled most all around the world, and have appeared before all the ? heads of Europe. The opinion of the public is that I am the smallest man in the world…”

Conjoined Twins Born in Slavery

A disabled child born into slavery in the United States was often separated from his or her family and had little chance for survival. The slave owner did not want the additional expense of feeding and clothing someone they perceived as having less value as a producer. However, if the disability was unusual enough the value of the child might be increased by his or her potential as a moneymaker on the sideshow circuit.

Millie and Christina were conjoined (Siamese) twins born into slavery in 1852. They were bought from their original owner for $30,000. As children they were kidnapped and victimized by con men. Eventually, however, they were able to obtain a decent education and they became trained as singers. They traveled widely in the U.S. and Europe.

Millie and Christina gained their freedom after the Civil War and were able to make a considerable amount of money through sideshows and publicity stunts.

Also, see information about “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a slave from Georgia who was exhibited as a musical oddity.

Conjoined twins.


Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. A social history of the world of the freak show that explores the culture that nurtured and later abandoned it. Bogdan’s premise is that freaks are not born, but manufactured by the amusement world, usually with the active participation of the freaks themselves.

Fiedler, Leslie. Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York: Doubleday, 1978. An in-depth examination of society’s views of the freak from classical times to the present.

Terry, Jennifer and Urla, Jacqueline, eds. Deviant Bodies. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995. Deviant Bodies reveals that the “normal,” “healthy” body is a fiction of science. Bodies are knowable only through culture and history; they are not in any simple way natural, nor are they ever free of relations of power.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland, ed. Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York University Press, 1996. A collection of writings on the various aspects of “freakery” including the cultural construction of freaks, practices of enfreakment, exhibiting freaks, and the relocations of the freak shows.