Coney Island Freaks of Yesterday and Today

Although the first "freak show" at Coney Island opened in 1880, the golden age of the village's side shows began in 1904 when Samuel W. Gumpertz opened Lilliputia, an entire miniature city scaled for its dwarf and midget inhabitants. Lilliputia became such a popular tourist attraction at Dreamland, Gumpertz spend many years afterwards finding and promoting human oddities. After Dreamland burned in 1911, he opened Dreamland Circus Sideshow. Other side shows soon opened, including The World Circus Freak Show, The Steeplechase Circus Big Show, Hubert's Museum, The Strand Museum, and Wonderland Circus Side Show. Human oddities who worked in circuses and other traveling shows enjoyed the relative stability and permanence of Coney Island. Here are a few of the most popular.

Lionel, the Lion-faced Man


Lionel, the Lion-faced Man was born Stephan Bibrowski in Poland in 1891. He had long and thick hair all over due to hypertrichosis, a genetic variation once known as "werewolf disease". Bibrowski was a very intelligent man who spoke five languages and once aspired to become a dentist. His side show act included gymnastic tricks. He appeared at Dreamland Circus in Coney Island in the 1920s.

Violetta, the Limbless Woman


Aloisia Wagner was born in Bremen-Hemelingen, Germany in 1906. She was healthy, but had neither arms nor legs. Her parents raised her to be as self-sufficient as possible. Aloisia entered show business at age 15, took the stage name Violetta, and emigrated to the United States a couple of years later in 1924. Port authorities at Ellis Island almost rejected her as a possible welfare case until they ascertained that she had employment with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Violetta could move around by hopping. Her performance was centered around her singing, but she also demonstrated her abilities, such as sewing or lighting a cigarette using only her mouth. Violetta performed at Dreamland Circus Side Show in Coney Island as well as touring circuses. See more pictures of Violetta here.

We're just getting started. Keep reading for more of the Coney Island sideshow attractions.

Jean Carroll, the Tattooed Lady


Jean Carroll started her side show career as a bearded lady, and ended it as a tattooed lady! She fell in love with contortionist John Carson, who felt a mutual attraction but couldn't bring himself to marry a woman with a beard. Jean didn't want to give up her side show career. After a fifteen-year friendship, Carroll took the plunge and removed her lucrative beard by electrolysis. She then underwent painful all-over tattooing to continue her side show career. The two married and remained lifelong partners.

Zip, the Pinhead


William Henry Johnson was born in New Jersey in 1842. He was thought to be microcephalic, as he had an oddly tapered head with a normal size face. However, he had the intelligence to perform for over 60 years as different personas with the Ringling Brothers and at Coney Island. In his early career, he was billed as a "wild man", a missing link from Africa. Later on, he became a comedic performer, and even played the fiddle so badly that people paid him to stop. He died a wealthy and popular man at age 84.

The Four-legged Woman


Josephene Myrtle Corbin was born in either Texas or Tennessee in 1868. She had the lower limbs of a dipygus twin growing from her pelvis. She was billed as The Four-legged Woman, but her twin's legs were too weak to stand on (although she could move them), and her right leg had a clubbed foot. In effect, the four-legged woman really had only one good leg. She married Dr. Clinton Bicknell when she was 19 and eventually had five children. Since her twin had reproductive organs, it was rumored that three children were born from one set of organs and two from the other.


In the mid-20th century, the popularity of side shows declined to the point that most went out of business. Part of the reason was competition from television, but it was also a change in the public's perception of the freak shows. Modern sensibilities decreed it was wrong to stare at people because of an accident of birth. There was also suspicion that those on exhibit may have been exploited. Some were, but the new attitude was a kick in the teeth to human oddities who were proud to be known as freaks. Side shows allowed them to support themselves financially, and some had become quite wealthy. Coney Island was a community where side show oddities could be accepted by their peers, and where life was easier than constant travel with circuses.

The side show never really died out. Instead, the focus turned from human exhibits to performers. Although we are unwilling to stare and laugh at people for who they are, it's OK to be entertained by what people do. The new freak shows employ people who have worked hard to become freaks. Sideshows by the Seashore employs several. Founded in 1986, the venue is the brainchild of Dick Zigun who is largely responsible for Coney Island's recent renaissance.



Insectivora, also known as Angelica, is billed as "The World's Most Partially Illustrated Woman". However, her tattoos are just a backdrop for her act. Insectivora breathes fire, eats fire, walks on a ladder of swords as well as on broken glass, swallows razors, and she sings, too! Insectivora has performed at Side Shows by the Seashore for six years. Visit her MySpace page.

The Twisted Shockmeister


Scott Baker, the Twisted Shockmeister is probably the first person you'll see at Side Shows by the Seashore. He's the outside talker, or the guy at the door who entices you to come in and spend your money. But he's also a performer. Scott is a magician and ventriloquist, just for starters. He also drives nails through his head, eats fire, glass, insects, and razor blades, levitates, and gives lectures. At the end of his list of talents, Baker calls himself a "Mental Flosser". You can't beat that for talent! Visit his MySpace page.



Serpentina, or Stephanie Torres is a snake charmer and contortionist with Side Shows by the Seashore. Serpentina is the reigning Miss Coney Island. You can see a portion of her act at YouTube.

Donny Vomit


Diamond Donny V, Donald Thomas, or Donny Vomit is the Master of Ceremonies for the Side Show by the Seashore. He also has a full repertoire of freak skills. His act involves some heavy hardware, including animal traps, chainsaws, a straightjacket, an electric chair, a bed of nails, and of course, "Mental Floss." Chief magazine has an interview with Donny V. Visit his MySpace page.

Heather Holliday


Heather Holliday is a sword swallower at Side Shows by the Seashore. She is also a fire eater and a human blockhead. Visit her MySpace page.

You can keep up with news from the Coney Island entertainment industry at the Coney Island Freaks Livejournal community. Side Shows by the Seashore also runs a school for those who would like to become freaks.

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If You’ve Ever Seen a Ghost, Science May Explain Why

Despite all the reports of ghost sightings (28 percent of Americans report having ghostly encounters), there’s zero evidence to support the presence of supernatural beings among us. Science may not prove the existence of ghosts, but it can help explain why people think they see ghosts in the first place.

In this video from Vox, paranormal investigator Joe Nickell identifies some of the phenomena believers may mistake for paranormal activity. One possible explanation is infrasound, or the sound waves that fall beneath levels of human perception. Though we can’t hear these noises firsthand, our bodies sense them in other ways. This can cause chills, feelings of unease and depression, and even hallucinations.

Other contributors may include sleep paralysis (when you wake up while your body is immobile and experience waking nightmares) and grief. There are also a few less common possibilities that aren’t covered in the video below: Mold poisoning, for instance, can lead to irrational fear and dementia. Suddenly, a visit from a poltergeist doesn’t sound so scary.

[h/t Vox]

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Charles Dickens, Part-Time Mesmerist
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Madame Augusta de la Rue dreaded the end of each day. After settling into bed, her anxiety kept her alert with visions of a figure that followed her into her dreams. When it wasn’t insomnia, she dealt with headaches, a nervous tic, convulsions, and a “burning and raging” mind that was impossible to quiet. Her symptoms became so severe that in 1844 she sought a trendy and controversial treatment known as mesmerism. Her mesmerist: the famous author Charles Dickens.

When Dickens encountered mesmerism in the 1830s, the practice was well-established in the medical community. The German doctor Franz Anton Mesmer had introduced it in the 1770s as a means of manipulating something he called animal magnetism—the magnetic fluid Mesmer believed flowed through the bodies of all living things. According to his theory, the state of this liquid energy was closely tied to one’s health: An uninterrupted flow led to wellness, while blockages caused problems ranging from vomiting to hysteria. Fortunately, Mesmer claimed, these conditions could be cured with a magnet and a steady hand.

By guiding magnets along his patients’ bodies, Mesmer thought he could redistribute the fluid, although he eventually ditched the magnets in favor of his bare hands after discovering they worked just as well. Soon, anyone who shared Mesmer’s supposed magnetic gifts could practice mesmerism by laying or passing their hands over the afflicted. (On top of adding animal magnetism to the lexicon, Mesmer is said to have given us the flirtatious phrase making a pass.) Although responses to mesmeric sessions varied, some claimed it gave them full relief of various physical ailments.

Mesmer died in 1815, a couple decades before the start of the Victorian era. With that period came a nationwide obsession with the metaphysical that renewed public interest in mesmerism not just as a medical treatment, but as a form of entertainment. Practitioners would mesmerize patients into trances and parade them around parties. But some were more than performance artists—John Elliotson, one of the most prolific figures in the field, was a well-respected surgeon famous for popularizing the stethoscope. He was also good friends with Charles Dickens.

Dickens first witnessed mesmerism up close at a demonstration Elliotson gave at London’s University College Hospital in 1838. The writer was intrigued, and implored Elliotson to show him more. Not everyone had a knack for mesmerism, but Dickens was a natural. He wrote years later, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a Frying-Pan.”

Around the same time he took on Dickens as his pupil, Elliotson watched his career implode. The medical community was then embroiled in a fierce debate over whether or not mesmerism was a legitimate science. One of its staunchest opponents was Thomas Wakley, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet. Wakley affirmed his suspicions after conducting a trial in which the O’Key sisters, two of Elliotson’s more colorful patients, failed to respond to certain "mesmerized" metals yet produced fits in response to materials they were only told were mesmerized. The results of the trial seemed to prove that mesmerism was fake, and Elliotson resigned from his job at University College Hospital shortly after that.

Throughout the controversy, Dickens remained a loyal friend—he even asked Elliotson to be the godfather of his second child. He also continued pursuing his new hobby. In 1842, while in Pittsburgh with his wife Catherine as part of the research for his travelogue American Notes for General Circulation, he first put his mesmerism skills to the test, with Catherine agreeing to be his guinea pig. After several minutes of waving his hands over her head just like Elliotson had taught him, she devolved into hysterics and promptly fell asleep. Dickens took her dramatic response as a sign of his power, and he considered the trial a great success.

From then on, he practiced his talent on whoever was game. His sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth reacted much like Catherine, slipping into a hysterical episode almost immediately. John Leech, who did the original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, came to Dickens for treatment after injuring his head while swimming. Leech felt much better following their session and Dickens took credit for his recovery. The actor Charles Macready, however, was the rare person who didn’t buy the shtick. After Dickens tried to mesmerize him, Macready described the experience as “very unpleasant,” saying “it could not effect me.”

Dickens’s dabblings with mesmerism culminated with a visit to Italy beginning in 1844. He was once again traveling in the name of research, this time for his nonfiction book Pictures From Italy. While staying in Genoa, he became good friends with the Swiss banker Emile de la Rue. He also became close with the banker's English-born wife, Madame Augusta de la Rue—the woman destined to become his most challenging patient. Madame de la Rue suffered from a host of ailments that stemmed from her anxiety, and after hearing about her issues, Dickens offered to help the only way he knew how.

Their first session, which took place in December 1844, may have discouraged a less-experienced mesmerist. Instead of easing her discomfort, his gestures made her more agitated. Madame de la Rue succumbed to a massive anxiety attack, and Dickens took her sensitivity to the treatment as a good sign. They both agreed to see each other again, and soon the meetings became part of their routines.

Madame de la Rue’s response to the therapy grew more promising with each encounter. Her face, once tense with muscle spasms, started to soften. The volume of her thoughts dropped a few notches and she was able to fall asleep much faster. Satisfied with his success treating her physical suffering, Dickens delved deeper into her psyche. He asked her to describe her thoughts and dreams, hoping to get to the root of her illness. The most persistent vision she shared was one of a “phantom” that dogged her whether she was asleep or awake. Dickens described the power it held over her in a letter to her husband:

“That figure is so closely connected with the secret distresses of her very soul—and the impression made upon it is so entwined with her confidence and trust in me, and her knowledge of the power of the Magnetism—that it must not make head again. From what I know from her, I know there is more danger and delay in one appearance of that figure than in a dozen fits of the severest bodily pain. Believe nothing she says of her capacity of endurance, if the reappearance of that figure should become frequent. Consult that mainly, and before all other signs.”

Decades before Sigmund Freud adopted hypnosis as a psychotherapy tool, Dickens was using mesmerism to trace his patient’s visible symptoms to her subconscious mind.

Catherine Dickens didn’t share her husband's excitement for the situation. She had always been jealous of the women her husband mesmerized, and she felt especially threatened by his relationship with Madame de La Rue. And if she thought she’d have her husband’s full attention when they left Genoa to see the rest of Italy in the spring of 1845, she was mistaken. Letters from de La Rue updating Mr. Dickens on her status followed him around the country. Even though they couldn’t be in the same room, the pair continued their appointments remotely by attempting to connect through telepathy for one hour starting at 11 a.m. each day.

Though her condition had vastly improved since their first meeting, the Madame hoped to see Dickens one last time when he finally returned to Genoa in May 1845. Unfortunately a stomach bug prevented the pair from reuniting. He wrote to her in a letter:

"You must not think I am sending you an excuse in lieu of myself. I am in a hideous digestive state, cross, uncomfortable, bilious, blah and limp. A mutton chop and a long walk, and nobody to be contradictory to, are the remedies I have prescribed myself.”

After he resettled in England, Dickens’s passion for mesmerism cooled. He indulged in other mystical hobbies, however: In 1849, he performed stage magic under the pseudonym The Unparalleled Necromancer, Rhia Rhama Rhoos; in 1852, he wrote a spontaneous combustion scene into his realistic fiction book Bleak House, a decision he defended with conviction after it angered scientists. Like many fads to emerge from the Victorian era, those areas of interest have since largely faded from fashion. Mesmerism, on the other hand, laid the foundation for modern hypnosis—but today the treatment is administered by mental health professionals, not young novelists on vacation.


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