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.
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.
Myrtle Corbin, The Four-Legged Woman
A native of Tennessee, Myrtle Corbin was billed by Barnum as the "Four-Legged Woman." She was born in 1868 as a dipygus - a person born with two of everything from the navel down including two pelvises and four legs. She was put on display as an infant by her father, who toured her around the country. Her father negotiated a contract with Barnum and Bailey when she was just 13 or 14 years old.
Corbin was paid $250 a week until she left the circus in 1886. She was incredibly popular and her reproductive and sexual abnormalities were of particular interest. Corbin went on to marry and have children, after which she returned to a life in the circus in 1909. Of note, she wasn't asked to display her lady parts, but marketing material made it a point to ponder her sexual and reproductive possibilities.
P.T. Barnum found Charles Sherwood Stratton in Connecticut when the boy was only five years old. Thumb was under two feet tall and Barnum told audiences that he was the eleven-year old "General Tom Thumb." Thumb toured immediately as part of Barnum's freak show, winning over audiences and fans, such as Queen Victoria, on an European tour in 1844. He made Barnum and himself very wealthy.
In 1863, Stratton married fellow little-person Lavinia Warren, who worked for Barnum the previous year. Their wedding was a huge event in Manhattan with guests who supposedly paid Barnum for the honor of attending. Barnum toured the small couple together with a baby, even though the couple never had any children of their own. They joined Barnum's circus later as well and when General Tom Thumb died in 1883, thousands attended his funeral.see more on General Tom Thumb
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.