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):