Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Roll up, roll up, as we welcome you to a mysterious tale of the most famous sideshow performers of yesteryear. Step right up as we invite you into our circus tent to bear witness to the strangest of the strange. Marvel at the eighth wonders of the world! Hear carnival folk's tragic and sometimes scandalous stories... and meet a real-life monster and cold-blooded killer.
We begin with the most scandalous circus performer of them all. Grady Stiles Jr. came from a long line of circus performers with ectrodactyly––which fuses fingers and toes together to form claw-like hands and feet. Unfortunately, the mental anguish of being displayed in "freak shows" and being called Lobster Boy took its toll on Grady, and he became a cruel and abusive alcoholic, often using his colossal upper body strength to beat his wife and daughters.
Let's jump ahead to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1978. On the eve of his daughter's wedding, Grady grabbed a shotgun with his claws and shot and killed his daughter's fiancé. He was convicted of murder but never served time as no prison could care for him. Instead, he received 15 years' probation under house arrest.
Next up is perhaps the most tragic of all exhibits, The Elephant Man. Joseph Merrick lived a woeful life––after both his siblings died, he developed terrible physical deformities. He left school at 13 and worked in a factory rolling cigars until his right hand became so deformed, he couldn't work. Aged 17, he lived in a workhouse, but by the time he was 20, his face was so disfigured; he had difficulty eating.
Joseph knew there was only one escape from the hell of the workhouse, so he became a "novelty exhibition," where cruel showmen advertised him as Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant. If you want to find out more about Merrick's life, watch David Lynch's 1980 film.
Annie Jones was born in 1865 in Virginia. As a result of her hirsutism, she joined P.T. Barnum's circus aged just nine months! Her parents received a $150-a-week salary. When she was just a kid, a New York phrenologist kidnapped her in what was almost certainly a Barnum publicity stunt. The police, along with Barnum, found her being exhibited at a church fair. When the man claimed Annie was his daughter, the matter went to court.
But it all ended happily ever after: The minute Annie walked into the courtroom and saw her parents; she ran straight over to them. The judge declared the case closed.
Chang and Eng Bunker were conjoined twins born in Thailand in 1811. The brothers are the reason conjoined twins became known as Siamese Twins because back then, the country was still called Siam. As in: "Are you the King of Thailand?" - "Yes, Siam!" They came to the USA around 1830 and toured as a curiosity act. Then, in 1839, they settled down in North Carolina, became US citizens, and married a pair of sisters.
Between them, Chang and Eng fathered a staggering 21 children. We don't even want to think about how that worked! To paraphrase Joey from Friends "Eyes open or eyes closed?"... Candles on, or candles off?
This 1935 photograph shows the Giraffe Necked Woman of Bertram Mills' "Freak Show" being examined by doctors. Unfortunately, there's not much information available about this long-necked lady, but it's most likely she comes from the Kayan or Karen tribes of Myanmar and northwest Thailand. Although, like Thailand used to be Siam, Myanmar was still known as Burma back then. For centuries, the tribeswomen have been lengthening their necks with brass rings.
You'll be glad to hear that the Karen tribes of Myanmar and Thailand are nowhere near as entitled as Karen from your Accounts Department!
Krao Farini was a hirsute woman born with hypertrichosis. Legend says she was he was captured as a child in the jungles of Laos––then part of Siam––by the explorer Carl Bock in 1885. P.T. Barnum falsely advertised her as a primitive human and billed her the missing link between humans and apes. Her name purportedly means "ape" in Siamese. She lived in New York until her death in 1926, aged 50.
As well as her body hair, she had an extrathoracic vertebra, one extra pair of ribs, cheek pouches, hypermobility of her joints, and no cartilage in her ears and nose.
Fannie Mills was born in Sussex, England, around 1859. She had Milroy Disease, which caused her legs and feet to grow to gigantic proportions. Indeed, her feet grew to be 17 inches long, and she wore a size 30 shoe! Her parents emigrated to the USA, where she became known as The Ohio Big Foot Girl. Her father took out an advert offering $5,000 and a well-stocked farm to any respectable man that would marry his daughter!
That respectable man was one William Brown. They married in 1886, and Fannie had a baby in August 1887. Sadly, the baby died, and Fannie died in 1899, aged just 39.
Remember Marvel's The Fantastic Four? Their spacecraft was bombarded by cosmic radiation granting the four astronauts their superpowers. Reed Richards gained the ability to stretch his body into any shape and became Mister Fantastic. But how do you become a super-stretchy superhero without cosmic radiation? Well, Felix Wehrle was born in Wisconsin in 1858 with a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. He discovered he could stretch his skin to great lengths as a child.
You may think that we've moved on from sideshows in the 21st Century, but Gary Turner from England––who suffers from the same skin condition––performs in sideshows even today.
Isaac Sprague was born in Massachusetts in 1841. He enjoyed a normal childhood, but after falling ill after swimming in a lake when he was 12, he began irreversibly losing weight despite having a healthy appetite. In 1865, he joined P.T. Barnum's American Museum and was billed as the Living Human Skeleton until the museum burned down in 1868, with Sprague narrowly managing to escape with his life!
By the age of 44, he weighed just 43 pounds (19.5 kg). Time and again, he tried to leave the sideshow life but had to care for his wife and three healthy sons while battling a gambling addiction. He died penniless in 1887.
As a child, Russian performer Fedor Jeftichew went by the name Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy and toured Europe with his father, The Wild Man from the Kostroma Forest. In 1884, that man again––P.T. Barnum brought him to Stateside, where he became known as... you guessed it: Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Man. Barnum invented a story that he and his father were captured and kept in a cave by a hunter. Barnum forced Fedor to bark and growl as part of the act.
Fedor died from pneumonia in Greece in 1904. But his legacy doesn't end there. He was made famous in the movies. No, not as Chewbacca, but in The Greatest Showman (2017), where Luciano Acuna Jr. portrayed Dog Boy.
Now, many men joke about having a third leg, but Frank Lentini didn't have to lie! Born in 1889 with a parasitic twin, his family moved from Sicily to the United States. Frank joined several circuses; the famous Ringling Brothers Circus, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and Barnum and Bailey. He was known as The Great Lentini. As well as having three legs, Frank had four feet and two sets of genitals!
Also known as the Three-Legged Soccer Player, Frank could kick a ball across a stage with his third leg. He married Theresa Murray, had four children, and lived to the age of 77. He was portrayed by Jonathan Redavid in The Greatest Showman.
George and Willie Muse were two albino African American brothers who grew up in Truevine, a tobacco farming sharecropping community in Virginia. One day in 1899, when they were working the fields, a white man kidnapped them and forced them to perform in the circus. They were exhibited as Men From Mars and told that their mother, Harriet, was dead. Only Harriet was alive and well, and she ended up suing the Ringling Brothers.
George and Willie rejoined the circus in the late 1920s but were paid this time. George died in 1971, and Willie lived to a ripe old age, dying in 2001. If you'd like to read more about George and Willie Muse, we recommend Beth Macy's excellent book Truevine (2016). Leonardo DiCaprio's film company bought the rights.
Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in Brighton, England, in 1908. Their mom, Kate Skinner, was unmarried, so her employer––Mary Hilton––took them on. Mary and their violent and abusive father displayed the conjoined babies in the Queen's Arms pub. They first toured Britain when they were three years old, before touring Europe and Australia. Daisy played saxophone while Violet played violin, and they also danced. In 1926, they formed The Dancemedians troupe with Bob Hope!
When Mary died, she bequeathed the twins to her daughter, who became their manager and kept them in captivity. In 1931, they sued her, gaining freedom from their contract and winning $100,000 in damages (about $1,500,000 today!) The twins both married gay actors as publicity stunts but died in 1969 from the Hong Kong Flu pandemic.
Martin Emmerling was born in Germany in 1885, and he had an extraordinary trick up his sleeve. Well, it was actually up his collar. His party trick was turning his neck almost 180 degrees, like the possessed girl in The Exorcist! He emigrated to the USA, changed his name to Martin Joe Laurello, and appeared in Sam Wagner's Freak Show on Coney Island, Ripley's Believe it or Not, Ringling Brothers, and Barnum & Bailey.
As a result, he became known by the stage names The Human Owl and the much-less catchy Bobby the Boy with the Revolving Head. Fellow sideshow performer Percilla Berjano, aka Monkey Girl, described Laurello as "perhaps a Nazi."
Myrtle Corbin was born in 1868 in Tennessee with two separate pelvises, meaning she had four legs. When she was 13, she became a sideshow performer nicknamed the Four-Legged Girl from Texas. One early promotional pamphlet described her as being as "gentle of disposition as the summer sunshine and as happy as the day is long." Her sunny disposition meant she married James Clinton Bicknell and had four daughters and a son.
After she died in Texas in 1928, her coffin was covered in concrete, and her family kept watch until the casket was fully cured to prevent graverobbers from stealing her corpse. Yikes!
Ella Harper was born in 1870 with a rare condition called congenital genu recurvatum. Aged around 16, she became the star of a touring curiosity show act. She received a $200 per week salary and even carried a business/pitch card reading: "I am called the camel girl because my knees turn backward. I can walk best on my hands and feet as you see me in the picture."
The card continued: "I have traveled considerably in the show business for the past four years and now, this is 1886 and I intend to quit the show business and go to school and fit myself for another occupation." She died in 1921.
Arnold Gerrit Henskes, known professionally as Mirin Dajo, was a Dutch performer who was famous for piercing his body with all kinds of objects without sustaining any injuries. As a child, he claimed to have had strange dreams and paranormal experiences but when he turned 33, he realized his body was "invulnerable" to daggers, and that he could swallow glass and razor blades. According to his Dutch assistant, Dajo was telepathic, had guardian angels, and could heal people...
In May 1948, Dajo said the voices in his head told him to eat a steel needle. Surgeons removed the needle two days later and Dajo walked through Zurich to prove he was healthy. Ten days after that, he lay down on a bed, went into a trance-like state, and died two days later.
This is Madam Gustika. She was billed as a member of the Duckbill tribe, which is a non-existent and completely made-up name. Instead, she perhaps came from the Mursi tribe, a unique branch of the Surma tribe from Southern Sudan. As part of a Mursi girl's rites of passage into womanhood, she has her bottom teeth removed to make space for a lip plate, which is then increased in size once a year.
She is seen here smoking a pipe with an extended mouthpiece during a circus show in 1930. The lip-stretching process is similar to those people with holes in their ears created by earrings nowadays.
The Jaramillo sisters were from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Natalia was born in 1889, and Aurora followed in 1896. Standing with a giant man, this picture is believed to be from 1908, when Natalia was 19 years old, and Aurora was 12. It's thought they suffered from microcephaly, a disease that makes people's heads much smaller than normal. People with this affliction were pejoratively known as "pinheads."
Although she doesn't suffer from the disease, actress Naomi Grossman played a character with microcephaly in the TV show American Horror Story: Asylum but it was a much earlier film that made these folks famous.
The film in question is Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) and this isn't the last time we'll hear those names today. Johnny Eck was born without the lower half of his torso, and as a result, appeared in the shocking black and white film. Here he is with Angelo Rossitto in a still from the film. Johnny also went on to make several appearances as a bird creature in Tarzan movies.
Even though he was born with such a severe disability, Johnny was also a musician, photographer, artist, Punch and Judy puppeteer, expert model-maker, and even owned a penny arcade! The being-sawn-in-half magic trick he performed with his twin brother would send audiences running and screaming for the exits!
Minnie Woolsey, known as Koo-Koo the Bird Girl was born in 1880 in Georgia, USA. She had a rare congenital growth skeletal disorder called Virchow-Seckel syndrome, which caused her to be short in stature, and have a small head, a narrow face, large eyes and ears, and a nose shaped like a beak. The poor girl was also bald, toothless, and thought to be almost blind.
A traveling showman "rescued" Minnie from a mental asylum, and put her to work dancing and speaking gibberish in a bird costume. She was known as Minnie Ha Ha but was billed as Koo-Koo the Bird Girl in Freaks.
Millie and Christine McKoy, aka The Carolina Twins, were born in 1851 to Jacob and Monemia McKoy, who were slaves of North Carolina blacksmith Jabez McKay. He sold the girls to the circus when they were just ten months old. The twins overcame slavery, being sold as babies, medical observations, and freak shows to become a song and dance act known as The Two-Headed Nightingale and The Eighth Wonder of the World.
In their 30s, they moved back to the farm where they were born. Their father had bought it from Jabez McKay and left it to the twins when he died. On October 8th, 1912, Millie and Christine died at age 61 from tuberculosis. Christine died 12 hours after Millie.
Pasqual Piñón was a railroad worker from Texas. Until, that is, a sideshow promoter noticed he had two heads. Well, not really, the second head was, in fact, a large benign tumor. So the promoter drafted Piñón into his traveling show and constructed a fake face made of wax to place on top of the cyst. Then he charged Joe Public to see The Two-Headed Mexican. After a few years of touring, the circus boss paid for Piñón to have the cyst removed.
His story reminds us of the urban legend of Edward Mordake. He was born with a second face and claimed it whispered terrible things to him at night, until he took his own life at age 23.
When Charles Sherwood Stratton was born in Connecticut in 1838, he was a healthy bouncing baby weighing in at 9lbs 8 oz (4.3 kg). At first, he grew normally, weighing 15 lbs (6.8 kg) and measuring 25 inches (64 cm) when he was six months old. But then he suddenly stopped growing. Aged 5, Charles had only grown another one inch (2.5 cm). That's when P.T. Barnum bought him...
Barnum taught 3'4" Tom to sing, dance, mime, and impersonate famous people like Napoleon Bonaparte. Charles traveled the world and became incredibly famous as General Tom Thumb until he died aged 45.
Alice Doherty was born in Minneapolis in 1887 with blue eyes and two-inch-long blonde hair all over her body. The scientific name for her condition is hypertrichosis, but you may know it as Werewolf Syndrome. Aged two, Alice's mother and father exhibited her as a sideshow attraction from the age of two years old and gave her the stage name Wooly Girl. Gee, thanks, Mom and Dad! Still, it's better than Were-wooly-wolf Girl.
By the time she was a teenager, her facial hair was 9" long and reached past her shoulders. Alice retired in 1915 and died in Dallas, Texas, in 1933, aged 46.
When Jacob Rheuben Erlich was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1906, he weighed less than four pounds. He was a small child until he was seven, and then he shot up due to acromegalic gigantism. By the time he was ten, he stood over six feet tall. By the time he was 13, he was over seven feet! Can you imagine being an auntie having not seen him for a couple of years and saying, "Gosh, haven't you grown, my dear!"
Eventually, he grew to 7'7," changed his name to Jack Earle, and traveled as a sideshow performer for 14 years before becoming a salesman. He died aged 46, but his legacy lives on in Tom Waits's song "Get Behind The Mule."
Ladies and jellybeans, this is Betty Broadbent, the Tattooed Venus. Here she is preparing to challenge traditional views of beauty for women of yesteryear by participating in a beauty pageant at the 1939 New York World's Fair in Flushing Meadow, Queens. Covered from neck to elbow to ankle, Betty had over 565 tattoos and first became interested in the art of tattooing when she met Jack Redcloud on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
The thing is, Betty was only 14 years old at the time and working as a nanny. Her first tattoos must have gone down well with her parents... in the year 1927!
Riddle me this, Batman! What has stripes like a zebra and a ring through his nose? The answer, of course, is English sideshow performer Horace Ridler. Also tattooed from head to toe, he exhibited himself as The Great Omi or The Zebra Man, and he has an extraordinary tale. Ridler was born into an upper-class English family, studied at Oxford or Cambridge University, and served in Mesopotamia in World War I.
He also appeared at the 1939 World Fair along with Betty Broadbent and claims he was knifed in the cheek by an unknown assailant in New York. That said, it could have been another publicity stunt to drum up business.
This is well-known circus performer Josephine-Joseph, who claimed their body was split exactly down the middle, with one side being female and the other side being male. Josephine-Joseph claimed to be an intersex person, but there is no evidence to confirm whether this is true, and they may have just been a skilled impersonator, wearing a dress on the "female" side, and a Tarzan-style mankini on the "male" side.
In 1930, Joseph and her husband George were prosecuted in Blackpool, UK, for false pretenses and conspiracy for their "Half Woman-Half Man" circus show.
Not much is known about the handsome, bearded little person in this photograph other than he is nicknamed Bear Man, and he appeared at a sideshow attraction at the Greenbrier Valley Fair, West Virginia, in 1938. As well as dwarfism, his body was seemingly affected by a spinal condition, meaning he walked on all fours. The Bear Man appeared alongside fairground rides, scary clowns, burlesque dancers, and "double-sexed" wonders––bare naked Mary Casey and her sister.
The Greenbrier Valley Fair grew to become the State Fair of West Virginia and is still going to this day. Thankfully, it's less exploitative nowadays, although the livestock might disagree.
This is little Dutch person Johanna Pauline Musters, aka Princess Pauline, or Lady Dot, standing on the hand of her manager Verschueren in around 1890. She is recognized by the Guinness World Records as the shortest woman ever recorded, standing just 24 inches (61 cm) tall. She weighed in at just eight and a half pounds, which is good for a newborn baby but not for a 17-year-old.
Why 17? Well, unfortunately, that's how long Pauline lived. She was born in 1878 and died in New York City in 1895 from a combination of pneumonia and meningitis.
In 1901, in Pittsburgh, Stanislaus Berent was born with phocomelia. This congenital condition causes seal-like arms, meaning his hands grew from his shoulders. After becoming a newspaper seller, he became a circus performer for almost fifty years! Between 1920 and 1970, he appeared as Sealo the Sealman at Coney Island's Freak Show. He could shave, saw things in half, and was often joined on-stage by his partner, Toby, a chimpanzee.
Here he is enjoying a donut in 1960. Despite being described as an "avid drinker," he lived to the ripe old age of 79, finally passing away in 1980.
Throughout our trip to circus sideshows and country fairs, we've referenced Tod Browning's controversial film Freaks several times. Here is the director posing with cast members in 1931. But did you know that Tod Browning's Dracula (1931) kicked off the Universal monster horror movies? Yes, folks, this is the man we have to thank for starting the franchise that brought us Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1931), and The Wolf Man (1943).
Freaks was meant to be Browing's follow-up to Dracula but was a box-office flop. Worse, the film was banned in the United Kingdom for over 30 years and labeled "brutal and grotesque" in Canada.
Stephan Bibrowski was born in Poland with one-inch hair covering his body. Similar to Alice and Krao Farini, he suffered from hypertrichosis. Soon, his whole body was covered with long blonde hair that made him look like a lion. By the time he joined the circus as Lionel the Lion-faced Man, the hair on his face measured eight inches (20 cm), and four inches (10 cm) everywhere else.
The only parts of his body that were not covered in hair were the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. And presumably his eyes.
Remember near the top of today's list we mentioned The Ringling Brothers' "Congress of Freaks"? Well, we end with a group portrait from 1924. Look closely, and in the back row, you'll see Minnie Woolsey, aka Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, George and Willie Muse, aka the Men from Mars, and we're pretty sure Stephan Bibrowski, also known as Lionel the Lion-Faced Man. They are joined by several little people.
In the front row, there's Martin Laurello, aka The Human Owl, and Krao Farini. On the far right are the world's tallest conjoined giraffe twins! The photographer was obviously an amateur because anyone worth their salt should know that tall people go at the back and short people go at the front!