American Horror Story is my favorite television show. I’m at least 150% obsessed with Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson. The franchise recently began releasing commercials for season four, which is themed “Freak Show.” Being in graduate school for history has it’s perks and by that, I mean there is one perk: I have free access to thousands of old newspapers online. In honor of the upcoming season, I decided to do a little research on freak shows during the early 1900s. Some of the events and people I found seem fantastical enough to actually be on an episode of the show.
P.T. Barnum and The 161 Year Old Slave
Most Americans have attended at least one Barnum and Bailey show during their lifetime. When thinking about the circus, fun images pop into one’s head: elephants, clowns, acrobats… but slaves? Certainly not.
P.T. Barnum, a borderline marketing genius, started his business with “Joice Heth, the 161 Year Old Negress.” When Barnum purchased Joice, the woman was described as completely blind and immobile due to her incredible age. Barnum trained her to tell people that she took care of baby George Washington and that the young Founding Father viewed her as a secondary mother. The previous owner of Joice gave a bill of sale from Augustine Washington to Barnum as a piece of proof that Joice was speaking the truth about her age and that her connection with Mr. Washington was legitimate. Barnum borrowed 2,500 dollars to buy Joice, only contributing 500 dollars of his own money, which was all he had at the time. He traveled across New England with Joice and drew in crowds through the newspapers, which beheld her as a living spectacle. After Joice died, a doctor performed an autopsy on her and revealed that she was actually no more than 80 years old.
The Human Skeleton
In the early 1900s, there was a very popular act in the freak show called The Human Skeleton. While on tour in Vienna, The Human Skeleton was found missing, which caused his stage manager to become insanely furious. He made it a goal to go and find his freak, who he knew had escaped the circus with an accomplice because the living skeleton was too weak to run away. “After a two hours’ quest, he came up with the skeleton being wheeled along in a barrow by a stout countrywoman… who surrendered her emaciated lover” after the manager bribed her with a little cash to give his star back.
The newspaper claims that different woman fell in love with another “living skeleton” and enticed him to see her at her home. The man agreed and met the woman. Shortly after his arrival, she professed her love for him, but he responded coldly to her. In return she, “gagged him, placed him in a large box… wherein she had him rapidly driven to a villa owed by her in the suburbs.”
Dwarf Marries Woman Under the Disguise of a Baby
The same newspaper article reported on a story in which a dwarf fell in love with a young woman, but the woman’s father refused to approve the couple’s idea to get married. The woman was forbidden to see the young man again. The man had a genius idea though. He disguised himself as a baby and met up with her in front of her friends and family. Under his disguise, no one seemed to recognize him. The woman carried the “baby” off and they got married in a church.
Please Sir, Can I Have Some More Freak?
During a visit to the US, Charles Dickens named a famous freak. On a tour of the Barnum museum in New York, the ringleader escorted Dickens to view his freaks and introduced each one to him. When he was introduced to “a strange boy with a flat head, advertised as a ‘wild man’,” he looked at Barnum and asked, “What is it?” Thus, “Zip, the Human What is It?” was born. Zip outlived both Barnum and Dickens and spent his life traveling with the circus. The reporter stated, “He does not know his age and is extremely shy on knowing anything.” Charles Ringling estimated that Zip was around 70 when the article was published in 1921. Zip’s age didn’t seem to really matter because, “At any rate, he is the dean of all the freaks.”
Blue Skinna’s Death Reveals Answers to His Mysterious Skin Color
Another famous freak, “Blue Skinna,” puzzled crowds with the brilliant blue color of his skin. After his death, an autopsy revealed that the man’s “organs and tissues, including his brain, heart, and muscles,” all held the same blue color as his exterior. The doctor’s determined that Blue Skinna was a victim of silver poisoning, which caused his skin color to drastically change to a bright shade of blue.
F.S. Woosley, Freak Hunter Extraordinaire
Less than 200 freak hunters existed in the circus business during the early 1900s. A freak hunter’s job was to find the most fascinating and freakish humans alive. These men looked for characteristics in freaks that would entertain crowds. One account tracks the life of a freak hunter, Mr. F.S. Woosley, who traveled the world looking for the best freaks that existed. Woosley claimed that he traveled nearly 50,000 miles to find top-notch talent. He described that once he found the perfect freak, his job was to train them and teach them how to perform. He feared that people would find his freaks and try to steal them, so he, “put [his] freaks where no one would find them.” He explained that, “Sometimes you will find a freak years before he is any good for exhibition,” meaning that he recruited young children and enticed them to join the circus once they grew a little older.
Woosley then describes a freak he was interested in acquiring for his show as a “leopard-faced boy” with the best spots he had ever seen. Woosley includes a story about his adventures in the hills of West Virginia, where he traveled to question the mother of a rumored freak. She told him that she had a, “big headed boy that she didn’t want anyone to see.” Finally, with a little persuasion, the mother allowed Woosley to see the freak. He was thrilled and commended the boy for being a, “beautiful freak.” He talked the boy and his mother into joining him at the circus and deemed the child as the “The Boy With the Heads of Four Men.” To Woosley’s dismay, the boy seemed too grotesque for audiences and he was disheartened to say he lost a lot of money grooming this freak for the show business. The freak hunter says the the hardest part of the job is finding people who are, “nice looking freaks.” He explains that it is difficult finding freaks who are freakish, but not horrors to audiences because crowds will not take to viewing a freak that is too monstrous.