Everyone’s a little bit of a freak, but for some reason we find it delightful to see these human oddities presented on stage. Our traveling carnivals and fairs don’t have freak shows like they used to, but the most famous “freak show” stars haven’t been forgotten:
1. Chang & Eng. These conjoined twins are probably the most famous freak show act. Did you know they got married to sisters and had 21 children between them? I can’t wrap my head around the idea of sex, considering Chang and Eng were conjoined at the sternum. Chang died of a stroke first, and Eng died the next day.
2. The Elephant Man. To this day, we’re still not 100% sure what condition (or conditions) Joseph Merrick had. His entire body was covered with large tumors and growths. He couldn’t find work and so he became a freak show performer and eventually became quite famous. He died in his sleep, probably due to asphyxiation caused by laying his head down as he slept.
3. The Human Skeleton. Isaac Sprague toured with P.T. Barnum as the “Human Skeleton.” In his forties, he weighed about 40 lbs and eventually died due to his strange condition.
4. The Snow sisters and Schlitze. The Snow sisters and Schlitze suffered from microcephaly, which meant their brains and skulls were abnormally small. They’re developmentally delayed as well, possessing a child-like innocence. A the time, they were referred to as “pinheads.” All three starred in the classic 1930s film “Freaks.”
5. The Fiji Mermaid. Obviously we know now that the Fiji Mermaid was just a hoax designed to attract crowds. P.T. Barnum was nothing if not savvy. He attached a monkey skeleton’s upper half to that of a large fish, thus creating what could have been a “mermaid” skeleton. An ugly mermaid for sure, but it worked. Barnum tripled his crowds solely by promising a “free” sneak peek at the mermaid with purchase of a ticket.
6. Frank Lentini, the Three-Legged Man. Lentini had three legs, yes – that’s pretty crazy on its own. But he ALSO had two sets of genitals.
7. Jo Jo the Dog-Faced Boy. Both Jo Jo and his father had hypertrichosis, which means an abnormal amount of hair growth all over the face and body. He moved from Russia to the U.S., where he joined up with who else- Barnum – and became a famous sideshow performer. He would often bark like a dog and growl at the crowds. (See also: Lionel the Lion-Faced Boy)
8. Grady Stiles, the Lobster Boy. Stiles’ extremities were fused together like lobster claws, hence the name. Two of his children inherited this condition and they toured the country. However, Stiles was a nasty alcoholic and shot and killed his daughter’s fiancé. He escaped jail time despite confessing because no prison or facility could care for someone with his disability. Later, Stiles’ wife hired another sideshow performer to murder her husband in 1992, claiming his abuse had gotten worse and she was afraid for her family.
9. Mignon, the Penguin Girl. Ruth Davis was born with phocomelia – “seal limbs.” She toured the sideshow circuit as “Mignon, the Penguin Girl” and married twice before retiring from sideshow life in the ‘60s.
10. The “Elastic-Skin Man”. This man could stretch the skin out from any part of his body AND bend his toes and fingers all over the place. He suffered from what is known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The Elastic Man toured with Barnum & Bailey shows for years.