americans and freaks -- 8/28/14

Today's encore selection -- from The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall. P.T. Barnum was one of the best-known men in the world in the nineteenth century. Though he is best remembered today for his reinvention of the circus, that came late in his life. His claim to fame during most of his career was the American Museum in lower Manhattan. There, among other things, he assembled the greatest collection of "freaks" in the world, and thirty-eight million paying visitors passed through his museum's doors during a time when the nation's population was just above thirty million:

"In his museum, ... a person could experience in a day all the wonders of the world -- animals, spectacle, and adventure. This similarity to the fairgrounds [of Barnum's youth] is particularly evident in Barnum's relationship with 'freaks' (a.k.a. human oddities, living curiosities). As a concept, 'freaks' date back to the ancient period. African Pygmies entertained the royals of Egypt, and Roman emperors delighted themselves with midgets dueling obese women. There were self-made and congenital or natural 'freaks.' Those self-made altered themselves through body modification -- most frequently tattooing or piercing -- but also through weight gain or starvation, such as the Fat Boy of Peckham and Giuseppe Sacco-Homann, the famous World Champion Fasting Man, both celebrities on the English fairgrounds. Natural 'freaks' were usually born with some kind of deformity or genetic condition -- dwarfs, conjoined twins, and people with secondary sexual characteristics of the opposite gender (e.g., bearded women). Often they had a skill to complement their abnormality. Matthias Buchinger was born on June 3, 1674, in Nuremberg without arms or legs, but later learned to play a half-dozen instruments and perform calligraphy displays, which he did for the kings and queens of Europe.

"The first 'freak' display in the United States occurred in 1771, when Emma Leach, a dwarf, was shown in Boston. Around 1840, full 'freak shows' began to emerge, traveling with menageries or in the company of 'handlers' who managed the promotion and exhibition of the stars, enhancing their natural deformities with a story or an exotic medical explanation. (As Tom Norman, Barnum's English equivalent and the handler of the Elephant Man, wrote in his autobiography, 'It was not the show, it was the tale that you told.')

P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb

"Barnum was in this tradition, and he excelled at it. According to his biographer, A. H. Saxon, nearly every famous freak of the period spent a few weeks in the showman's employ: R. O. Wickward, the skeleton man; Jane Campbell, 'the largest Mountain of Human Flesh ever seen in the form of a woman'; S. K. G. Nellis, the armless wonder, who could shoot a bow and arrow with his toes. Many of the freaks appeared as stars in his museum, either as roving attractions, as part of special exhibitions, or as spectacles in the theater in back. Sometimes Barnum toured with them as well. General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) was a twenty-five inch-tall four-year-old midget, who Barnum claimed was eleven. Barnum coached the boy to perform impersonations of various heads of state, including Queen Victoria, whom he visited on three separate occasions. In Paris, the duo played to Napoleon III and in a series of shows at the Salle Musard that sold out months in advance. 'The French are exceedingly impressible,' Barnum wrote of the visit in his 1896 autobiography Struggles and Triumphs, 'and what in London is only excitement in Paris becomes furor.'

"Given our modern mores and science, most people -- circus historians included -- lament these displays. At best they were grossly lowbrow, at worst debauched. Russian circus-historian Yuri Dimitriev once called them 'a disgrace to human dignity.' 'They were an insult to the very essence of the circus where the skill and beauty of the human body are celebrated,' he alleged, 'playing on the basest instincts of the gawking crowd.' But it's also important to consider the context. Though much of the interest in 'freaks' indeed derived from inconsiderate or malicious instincts, the 1850s were an age before photographs, cultural museums, or widespread literacy. Audiences were curious about the world, and Barnum played to this curiosity in his exhibits. He advertised his museum as an 'encyclopedic synopsis of everything worth seeing in this curious world.' He presented his artifacts, however strange, as part of the scientific revolution sweeping the globe. For example, he called his ape-man the 'missing link' in Darwin's theories of evolution. Barnum succeeded in this presentation because the museum's atmosphere was consistently middlebrow. A lifelong teetotaler, he prohibited profanity, sexuality, and liquor. In letters he referred to himself as the 'Director of Moral and Refined Exhibitions for the Amusement and Instruction of the Public.' 'Barnum's genius was in developing popular potential,' Bluford Adams, a Barnum scholar, told me. 'He would take an idea, make it safe for the middle classes, and then commercialize it to the hilt.'

"Approximately thirty-eight million paying visitors passed through Barnum's doors in that time span. This figure is particularly astounding given America's population at the time: thirty-two million just before the Civil War. The American Museum made P. T. Barnum rich."


Duncan Wall


The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present


Alfred A Knopf, a division of Random House


Copyright 2013 by Duncan Wall


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