Creepy circus performers have always had a special place in our collective imagination. In an era of far less sensitivity and politically correctness, human deformities (the weirder, the better) were a prime source of entertainment at most circuses, fairs, and carnivals. Legendary circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum made the shameless display of so called "freaks" one of his most well-known attractions.
Some of these performers went out of their way to play up the "creepy" factor of their physical affliction, while others found themselves hapless victims of a cruel world that would never accept them and wanted to simply gawk at them for being less than "normal."
It's important to remember that, under the skin, all these odd performers are human beings - no matter how eerie they might appear. And so, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here's a collection of the oddest and most famous circus performers in history...
The Three-Legged Man
Born in Sicily in 1881, Francesco Lentini was popularly known as "The King of the Freaks." Francesco was born with an almost entirely complete third leg (and reportedly, fully-functioning genitalia).
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.
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 attacked 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. It turns out that Stephan was not a "monster" at all. He was, in fact, 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 died of a heart attack at the age of 41.
The Human Skeleton
Isaac 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 sideshow.
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 died at the age of 46. However, as a result of Sprague’s popularity, “living skeleton” acts became common at many sideshows.
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 alonside a real camel. Newspapers touted Ella as "the most wonderful freak of nature since the creation of the world" and that her "counterpart never did exist."
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 died there of cancer in 1921.