Freak Shows and Modernity

8 10 2007

Phineas Taylor Barnum, having failed at every business venture upon which he had embarked to that point, decided on a trip to Philadelphia in the middle months of 1841. Whether for leisure, recuperation or for opportunity, Barnum’s trip changed America.

There, he came upon a woman by the name of Joice Heth, a former slave now owned and exhibited by R.W. Lindsey. Lindsey, himself not beset by good luck, had not the business sense nor the charisma (nor the ambition, acuity, appreciation for the boundless thirst for the strange within the human psyche or, finally, the understanding of the fledgling mass media) to fully capitalize on Heth, a blind and half-paralyzed woman whom he claimed was 161 years old and the former nurse of George Washington.


Barnum, employed then by a dry goods shop in New York, purchased Heth on the spot for $1000. Each week after, for the seven months leading up to her death, she made him at least $1500. Wherever she went, according to a 1998 American Quarterly article, newspapers advertised her (and Barnum’s) arrival. She then proceeded to charm patrons of the exhibition with stories about “little George,” including tales of breast-feeding him. No records exist about any cherry trees. When she died, Barnum invited the public to witness her autopsy — for a price (50 cents), of course — hoping for, perhaps, internal fossils. The coroner found that she couldn’t have been more than 80.

But by that time, it didn’t matter. Neither did it with Al Capone’s vault, when the largest syndicated TV audience to that point — the final tally was somewhere around 30 million — watched intently as Geraldo Rivera utilized all forms of hyperbole, opened the vault and found nothing but debris. No matter: The money was in the bank, the viewer numbers secure, and, as Geraldo wrote in his autobiography, “My career was not over, I knew, but had just begun. And all because of a silly, high-concept stunt that failed to deliver on its titillating promise.”

P.T. Barnum built a career while the media became the media, concerned even then with all things fringe. As the two grew symbiotically, exhibitions of the extremely odd and extremely awesome overtook America.

Freak shows, the beasts riding shotgun alongside traveling circuses (if not the lone attraction themselves), came to capture the American populus’ attention in the 19th Century. Before Barnum’s show was  the Greatest Show on Earth, it was the strangest. The coterie paraded around the nation (then world) with bearded women, three-legged men, alleged half-human, half-animals, humans devoid of pigment or wrapped in hair, the very short, the very tall, the profoundly asymmetrical and others whose physical development diverged from the mass of the human race.

At their height (or, perhaps depths), freak shows numbered in the hundreds, with around 105 attached to otherwise reputable circuses or carnivals. But over time, as science and technology occupied the void where speculation and deception once flourished, they receded. Exploitation laws banned shows in many states, as political correctness (or, perhaps, human decency) checked the profitability of deformity. Today, only a few freak shows remain, including Ward Hall’s show and the 999 Eyes of Endless Dream Carnival Museum & Sideshow.

But human curiosity, the fascination with the abomination, knows no bounds. The corners of eyes are useful things. We know better than to look, but we can’t help it. The more we’re repulsed, the more we’re pulled in.

Now, thanks to new conduits — most notably, Youtube — we can stage freak shows into our homes. The internet grants us a privacy unparalleled in this planet’s history. No need for peepholes, no price of admission, no flipping your jacket’s collar up, sinking your face and looking around before sauntering into a neon-tinged chamber. Viewers remain, largely anonymous — free to indulge curiosities and urges that society once made tricky things to sate. On the other side of the lens, those who could have, mid-century, gone on tour, need only a webcam, a desire for fame (at least notoriety) and something strikingly weird to get out there.

In short, all that it takes to transform the grotesque into the popular is an internet connection. Our appetite for examples of humanity’s extremes hasn’t lessened, and our access to it has only grown.

Barnum was a pioneer, a man who could draw blood from a stone, or money from a creature that he billed as the ‘Fee-Jee Mermaid,’ which was, in actuality, a half-fish, half-monkey that was patched together with papier mache. By the time of his death, according to Wikipedia (sorry, I’ll see if I can get a better reference), the only work that had more copies in circulation in North America was the Bible.

His followers adhered to his template, attaining varying degrees of success. But they all capitalized on the turn-of-the-century Zeitgeist, when Americans were opening their eyes to other customs, re-defining reality and possibility in light of science and still pretty impressed by really weird stuff.

Curators of these shows didn’t have too tough of a time staffing their circuits. Illusions have always proven popular. But the real moneymakers, Barnum would tell you, were the truly deformed. Exploitation didn’t end with slavery, although the exploiter and the exploited, if we could draw such lines, were often complicit.

Mutations are things especially adept at going along for rides. They’re dangerous when dormant, passing silently from generation to generation buried deep within the genetic code like a stowaway in a ship’s bowels. Often impossible to shake, the viability of their articulation — and when exactly that might occur — is uncertain. But what is certain is that, when they do pronounce themselves, the results are nothing short of devastating, persisting often until the line ends (such as the lurid case of the Stiles family, the ‘lobster-people,’ whose most famous member, Grady, was eventually murdered by a hitman hired by his wife — click on the picture).


Freak shows gave these people a chance for fame, no matter how fleeting or double-edged-sworded. Tahat desire to be known, to leave a foot-or-clawprint, has not diminished within Americans.

Abnormality is the essence of entertainment. In entertainment, we search for some deviation from the milquetoast, benign repetition of daily life. Now, that abnormality need not be a mutation or horror — it can be a largely beautiful, elevated version of life (take, say, The OC).

It’s just that the stupifying is more interesting.

So we have this man:

And this, which is kind of like the Fiji Mermaid:

And, of course, midgets fighting (listen to the chant the crowd breaks into around 1:40 into it):


A case of the Mondays

24 09 2007

While I finish up an essay about penguins (ready by tonight or tomorrow morning), check this out, with the political season getting warmer and all.

And because it’s Monday…

Some screaming.

A true American

10 09 2007

Today, I will become a true Lower East Sider. I will kvetch, spend minutes studying the menu, and ultimately, when the quest is over, I will be eating a bagel with lox and cream cheese from Russ and Daughter’s, rated the No. 5 Ultimate Experience by Rough Guide in 2007. Sounds dangerous. But while I’m preparing a rant/meditation/rant on a capella, enjoy these. These are why Youtube exists, aside from bringing down Carlos Mencia and allowing Kramer to bring himself down.

Six-foot-eight, weighs a fucking ton.

Goldberg Hour

6 09 2007

Jon and the Transportation-Based Game Show

Last night, Mr. Jon Goldberg (below…right)

Men in charge

gives me a call at 10 p.m. in what seemed to be quite a precarious position, telling me to be around my phone sometime in the next half-hour, that I might have to pick him up because he was ‘in a bind.’ He used the ‘in a bind’ term a few times, so you could tell he was in Sell Mode. Which is to say SERIOUS MODE.

Now, John’s good at Sell Mode. But last night, a few things worked against him. These are they:

1 – I don’t have a car in the city, and thus picking him up may have required the Fireman’s Carry or, at most well-equipped, a large backpack.

2 – He was on the Upper East Side. No one is ever in a non-tax-related bind on the Upper East Side.

3 – He had told me earlier in the night that he needed me to be around my phone because he was going to be on Cash Cab.

The third one was the biggest tip-off. And perhaps the most unfortunate — it turns out that the Cash Cab is only half-spontaneous. Some preparations go into it, for both the rider and his phone-a-friend (is that what it’s called?). But ask John about it for more heart-smotheringly disappointing revelations.

So between the hours of 10 and 10:30 p.m., Greenwich Village Time, I had to stick around my phone. The call came somewhere in that time…and the question was:


(Don’t Google it)

He says that the episode’s airing in October. Wait for it to see him yelling at me for backing out of my first answer and giving him a second, wrong, one that he didn’t end up going with for good reason.

He went into the Video Bonus Round up a damn good amount. He ended up with either double that or no money at all. But whatever the outcome, the night ended splendidly, with an ever-more inebriated jaunt down Ludlow Street, from Spitzer’s (small beer-hall-type place with about 40 beers on tap) to the Local 138.

I woke up at noon today. Herra.


And thanks to John for alerting us to this credit to humanity, which means a discredit to Carlos Mencia. For impossibly confusing reasons, Mencia is not seen by the Hispanic and earth communities as a source of unprecedented embarrassment.

Gino the Ginny’s Guide to Da Clubz

29 08 2007

If you were considering a trip to Hunka Bunka this weekend, Gino urges you to reconsider.

No need to watch past about the 2nd minute, unless you happen to enjoy Gino’s moves.

A different track

28 08 2007

To make up for the post before, here’s something to balance it out.

Thanks to Mr. Jason Factor, who should be raising money for the baseball team instead of finding this:


26 08 2007

I’d been hearing a lot about this, and I just thought I’d share this simple testimony to young love. 

Gimme a chicken sandwich.

and some waffle fries.