P.T. Barnum started promoting the human novelties he called "freaks" in his traveling show in 1835 and he opened his larger freak show at the American Museum in Manhattan in 1841. After a fire in 1868, Barnum founded P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus. In 1881, the Circus came under the joint management and ownership of Barnum, James Bailey, and James Hutchinson and in 1887, Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show On Earth was formed.
Barnum died in 1891 and the Circus was acquired by the Ringling Brothers in 1907, a venture that led to the formation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1919. Throughout all of these changes one thing remained consistent - the presentation of human attractions or freaks. From the FeeJee Mermaid to General Tom Thumb to Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, Barnum presented intriguing individuals with unique bodies and minds as wild and exotic marvels.
Many of the sideshow performers became quite famous and wealthy, others got by eking out a living while trying to find a home. Barnum's exploitation of his so-called freaks is not without criticism and his contribution to the imperial culture of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is clear, but the lives of the freaks themselves make for some fascinating tales.
Madame Clofullia, The Bearded Lady
Josephine Boisdechêne was born in Switzerland in 1831 and signed with P.T. Barnum in 1853. Josephine displayed excessive hair growth from a young age with a beard by the age of 2 and 2-inch facial hair by age 8. Josephine's parents showcased their daughter when she was 16, in large part because her 6-inch long beard was already gathering attention wherever she went.
Josephine met an artist named Fortuna Clofullia in 1851, fell in love, and the two married. They had two children but one died as an infant. Shortly after Josephine, now Madame Clofullia, made her way to New York to work at Barnum's American Museum. She was called "The Bearded Lady," and given claims that she was actually a man, played up her femininity as much as possible with jewelry and elaborate dresses. Her surviving child, a son named Albert, was put on display by Barnum, as well.
A relatively late addition to the Barnum world, the eight "Ubangi Duck-Faced Savages" arrived to the US in 1930. They were women from the French Congo whose major appeal was the tribal customary disk-shaped plates they had in their mouths. The name Ubangi was chosen to be more exotic because Congolese was too commonplace. It was taken from a remote African river.
They toured the US until joining Barnum's Congress of Freaks, where they wore short skirts and were surrounded by their husbands who smoked pipes and banged on drums. The women had undergone lip-stretching since the age of six, with the progressive extension of their bottom lip and insertion of a plate as time progressed. A ritual meant to evoke beauty in some African cultures, it was sold as a "deformity" at the circus.
Rudolph Lucasie And His Albino Family
The Lucasie family was displayed by Barnum in 1860 as "White Negroes." Rudolph Lucasie and his wife Antiana were purported to have been born of "perfectly black parents." Really the family had albinism which accounted for their paleness. They had a son as well and collectively were one of numerous fair-skinned and light-haired acts presented by Barnum.
Joice Heth, The 161 Year Old Woman
P.T. Barnum obtained Joice Heth in 1835 from a man in Kentucky who was displaying her as George Washington's nurse. Heth was blind, toothless, paralyzed in both legs and one arm, and had long curled fingernails. Her previous owner in Kentucky claimed Joice was 161 years old and Barnum touted this "fact" when showcasing her.
She was displayed for hours a day, six days a week. She was supposedly from Madagascar but the real story of Joice's life was never really known. When she died in February 1836, Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy.