14 Astonishing Human Marvels Throughout History

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... 

  • "General Tom Thumb" (né Charles Sherwood Stratton) was a little person who mysteriously stopped growing in height once he reached six months old. Stratton remained 25 inches tall throughout his early childhood, though he began to slowly grow again later in his life, reaching an eventual height of 39 inches.

    In 1842 at age 5, P.T. Barnum brought him into the circus. Stratton would sing, dance, tell jokes, and do celebrity impersonations. He became an international celebrity, who toured Europe and met Queen Victoria, President Abraham Lincoln, and the future King Edward VII.

    In 1863, Stratton married another little person, Lavinia Warren, thereafter known as "Mrs. Tom Thumb." He passed at the age of 45, and the cause of his unusually small size has never been determined.

  • Schlitzie, 'The Last Of The Aztecs'
    Photo: Freaks / MGM

    Schlitzie, 'The Last Of The Aztecs'

    Schlitze “Schlitzie” Surtees is perhaps one of the most famous sideshow performer in history when he was immortalized in Tod Browning’s 1932 film classic, Freaks, and was the inspiration for the underground comic book, Zippy the Pinhead. 

    Schlitzie was born with microcephaly, a developmental disorder which causes the skull and brain to be undersized. The affliction left Schlitzie severely mentally disabled.  He could not  perform many basic tasks and was only capable of speaking short words or phrases. He was sometimes billed as female and dressed in loose-fitting women's dresses, in part to make it easier to care for him as he suffered incontinence and wore diapers.

    Schlitzie was cared for by other circus performers, but when his old friends passed, Schlitzie was committed to a Los Angeles hospital.  Hospital authorities eventually determined that the best care for Schlitzie would be to let him return to the sideshow - which he did for another decade, until his passing in 1971. 

    During his retirement, Schlitzie settled in an apartment near MacArthur Park Lake in downtown Los Angeles, where he could be seen feeding pigeons and ducks, and performing for people as they passed by.

  • Stephan Bibrowski, 'The Lion-Faced Man'

    Born in 1891 in modern-day Poland, Stephan Bibrowski was an ordinary boy except for one startling fact:  he suffered from hypertrichosis, a disorder that caused a thick coat of hair to grow all over his body and his face. His mother was convinced that the affliction was the result of her witnessing Stephan's father being mauled by a lion when she was pregnant - making the boy "cursed."

    Thinking that her son was somehow inhuman, Stephan's mother gave him away to a German entertainer. Renamed as Lionel the Lion-faced Man, Stephan became well-known for being a kind, gentle, and intelligent man who spoke five languages.  He spent a portion of his act simply talking to his audience. Stephan was so successful as a circus performer that he was able to retire in his 30s and returned to Europe.  Sadly, he passed of a heart attack at the age of 41.

  • Chang and Eng Bunker, The Original 'Siamese Twins'

    Chang and Eng Bunker are probably the most famous sideshow performers in history - they were the original "Siamese Twins".  The brothers were conjoined twins who were born in Siam (now called Thailand).  Doctors at the time did not know how to safely separate them, although the procedure would be fairly easy today.

    When they were young, a promoter convinced their parents to exhibit them on a world tour which brought them fame and fortune. However, when their contract was over, Chang and Eng went into business for themselves, purchasing a large plantation in North Carolina.  

    Determined to live as normal a life as they could, Chang and Eng married local women, themselves sisters, and fathered a total of 21 children. Their wives, however, did not get along, so the brothers moved into two separate houses, alternately spending a few days at each residence.

    Chang suffered a stroke in later years and began drinking heavily (which didn't effect the other brother, since they did not share the same circulatory system). One morning however, Eng awoke to find his brother dead. Two-and-a-half hours later, his brother passed as well. 

  • 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. 

  • Francesco Lentini, The Three-Legged Man
    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.