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14 Astonishing Human Marvels Throughout History

Updated September 23, 2021 690.2k views14 items

Human marvels have always had a special place in our collective imagination. From an era of far less sensitivity and politically correctness, human oddities  were once a source of entertainment at most circuses, fairs, and carnivals.  Legendary circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum made the shameless display of such people as part of one of his most well-known attractions, the sideshow. 

And so, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here's a collection of the oddest and most famous circus sideshow performers in history... 

  • Joseph Merrick, 'The Elephant Man'

    Joseph Merrick's life not only inspired a Tony Award-winning play and Academy Award-nominated film, but changed the public's outlook on physical disabilities. 

    Merrick was born in Leicester.  His disability began in the first few years of his life, rendering him with huge facial and body deformations.  When he was 11, his mother passed from bronchopneumonia, and his father and new stepmother treated him cruelly.

    Unable to maintain any regular work, Merrick contacted a showman named Sam Torr and agreed to have himself displayed as "The Elephant Man."  While in London, he was visited by a surgeon named Frederick Treves, who took him in and became his benefactor. Treves visited him daily, and the pair developed quite a close friendship. Merrick also received visits from the wealthy ladies and gentlemen of London society, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

    Merrick passed on April 11, 1890, aged 27, when he attempted to sleep in a laying position and the weight of his head caused his neck to break. 

  • Photo: Xocolatl / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Francesco Lentini, The Three-Legged Man

    Born in Sicily in 1881, Francesco Lentini was born with an almost entirely complete third leg.

    Lentini’s condition was the result of a partially formed twin that didn't separate properly from his body.  Frank's parents brought him to America as a young child, but he quickly became depressed when he realized how different he was from other children.  

    However, after spending time at a school for disabled children, Frank had a change of heart after seeing blind and deaf kids whom he thought were much worse off than he.  Accepting himself and his unusual body was an emotional breakthrough for Frank and led to his career in the sideshow.  Frank became famous performing feats like kicking a soccer ball with his third leg or jumping rope. He eventually worked with all of the major circuses and became extremely well-respected within the sideshow community.

  • Isaac W. Sprague, 'The Human Skeleton'

    Isaac W. Sprague was a perfectly normal boy until the age of 12, when he began to suffer from a mysterious illness.  He lost weight at an incredible rate until finally, his muscle mass had virtually evaporated.  In his adult years, he weighed no more than 43 pounds. The condition left him unable to perform any normal jobs, so, to pay the bills, Isaac joined the circus.

    Sprague spent most of his career working with the iconic showman P.T. Barnum, touring with him and also performing at his museum.  Eventually Isaac's condition wore out his fragile body and he passed at the age of 46.  However, as a result of Sprague’s popularity, “living skeleton” acts became common at many sideshows.

  • Ella Harper, 'The Camel Girl'

    Ella Harper was born with an unusual orthopedic condition called congenital genu recurvatum - also known as "back knee deformity" - that allowed her to bend her knees completely backwards. She also preferred to walk on all fours. 

    In the 1880s, Ella was the star of a major sideshow billed as "The Camel Girl," and would appear on stage with alongside a real camel. But Ella herself was modest and not much interested in stardom.  She appears to have left show business around the turn of the century and never returned to the sideshow stage.  She married a school teacher shortly after her retirement and lived quietly with her husband in Nashville, Tennessee.  She passed of cancer in 1921.