P.T. Barnum started promoting the human novelties he called "freaks" in his traveling show in 1835. This show gained a permanent home when the showman opened the American Museum in Manhattan, but burned down in 1868. Undeterred, Barnum founded P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus, which later came under the joint management and ownership of Barnum, James Bailey, and James Hutchinson. Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show On Earth was formed six years later, in 1887. After Barnum passed, the Circus was acquired by the Ringling Brothers in 1907, and eventually became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The show toured the country non-stop until May 2017.
The circus that bore his name underwent many changes, but one thing remained consistent in Barnum's time: 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.
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. She had a beard by the age of two, which grew to two inches long by the age of eight. Josephine's parents displayed their daughter to the public when she was 16, in large part because her six-inch-long beard was already garnering attention wherever she went.
Josephine later met an artist named Fortune Clofullia, with whom she fell in love and married. She gave birth to their first child, a girl, in 1851. The child passed after eleven months, and Josephine gave birth to her second child, Albert, shortly after the funeral.
After Josephine (now Madame Clofullia) made her way to New York to work at Barnum's American Museum, she was billed as "The Bearded Lady." Given claims that she was actually a man, act played up her femininity as much as possible with jewelry and elaborate dresses. Albert, who also grew a beard at a young age, was put on display by Barnum as well.
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."
In reality, the family had albinism, which accounted for their paleness. Their son was also an albino, and together they made up one of the numerous fair-skinned and light-haired acts presented by Barnum.
Suffering from hypertrichosis, Feodor Jeftichew was known as "Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy" to his fans. Hypertrichosis causes excessive hair growth on the body, rendering a person animal-like in appearance.
Feodor was born in Russia in 1868. Prior to joining Barnum's show, he toured with his father, who was also excessively hairy. He made his way to the US with Barnum in 1884 and was pitted against his father as a wild savage. Feodor barked, growled, and acted like an angry dog.
Though one of Barnum's most popular performers, Feodor objected to being presented as an inhuman "missing link." In 1898, he joined his fellow performers in a successful petition to change their epithet from "freaks" to "prodigies."
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.