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The True Stories Behind 11 Famous Sideshow Performers

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Although the sideshow has mostly disappeared from the American landscape today, we can still look back on the performers of yesteryear and see how they became the icons of American circus culture. But the stories of the real-life people behind the legends are sometimes just as interesting as what they could do on stage.

1. Schlitzie, The Last of the Aztecs

Schlitze “Schlitzie” Surtees (birth name unknown, possibly Simon Metz) is one of the most famous “pinhead” sideshow performers in history, primarily due to his role in Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks (and although Schlitzie’s persona in the film, as well as on stage, was female, he was male off-stage).

Schlitzie was born with a condition known as microcephaly, a developmental disorder which causes the skull and brain to be undersized. (Microcephalics are also typically of short stature—Schlitzie was only four feet tall.) Schlitzie’s condition also left him severely mentally disabled, which made him unable to perform many basic tasks and only capable of speaking short words or phrases.

2. General Tom Thumb

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Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, is one of the most famous little person sideshow performers in history. Young Charles stopped growing at approximately two feet tall.

At the age of four, he was discovered by P.T. Barnum himself (actually a relative of the Strattons) and quickly became a member of Barnum’s circus. For the next 40 years, until his death in 1883, Charles had wild successes as General Tom Thumb (earning a fortune that would make him a millionaire today—he even bailed out Barnum’s circus at one point), and married another little person, Lavinia Warren (a.k.a. “Mrs. Tom Thumb”), which earned him a reception at the White House care of President Abraham Lincoln.

Although he started growing again later in life, he was only just barely over three feet tall. Even after his death, Stratton’s doctors were never able to pinpoint the exact cause of his dwarfism.

3. Chang and Eng Bunker, The Siamese Twins

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Chang and Eng might not be household names, but they did make an important contribution to the sideshow’s history—they were the original Siamese Twins, so called because they were conjoined twins who were born in Siam (modern-day Thailand) in 1811. Joined at the sternum, the brothers lived their lives facing chest to chest (though with modern medicine, they’d be easily separable since they shared no major organs other than a slightly-fused liver).

As the boys grew older, they settled in North Carolina, adopted the surname Bunker, bought a plantation (complete with slaves), and even married a pair of (non-conjoined) sisters with whom they fathered a total of 21 children. Due to the brothers’ condition, their marriage bed was custom built and had room for the four of them to sleep together. Later, however, the two wives reportedly found they couldn’t get along and so the brothers moved into two separate houses, alternately spending three days to a week at each (depending on the source).

They died on January 17, 1874, but not at the same time. Chang died of a stroke brought on by pneumonia sometime in the night. Eng discovered his brother the next morning and a doctor was called for an emergency separation, but Eng had already died by the time he arrived.

4. Frank Lentini, The Three-Legged Man

Born in Sicily in 1881, Francesco Lentini was unique from birth: He not only had an almost-entirely complete third leg, but also had a small fourth foot attached to that leg’s knee and even had a second set of (reportedly fully-functioning) genitals.

Lentini’s condition was actually the result of a partially-formed conjoined twin, which was fused with him at the pelvis. Since the twin’s remaining parts were connected directly to Lentini’s spine, his doctors determined that it wasn’t feasible to remove them. As such, Frank Lentini lived the rest of his life as The Three-Legged Man.

Originally, the young Frank was deeply depressed by his condition, but after spending time at a school for disabled children and seeing others who were blind and deaf, he became more accepting of himself, which led to his career in the sideshow, where he would perform feats like kicking a soccer ball with his third leg or jumping rope. He eventually worked with all of the major circuses and became extremely well-respected in the sideshow community.

5. Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man

Joseph “John” Merrick, also known as The Elephant Man, is one of the most famous sideshow performers to have ever lived. Born in 1862 with a still-unconfirmed series of genetic defects, Merrick’s skin and bones were eventually covered with numerous growths, protrusions, and tumors.

Merrick’s condition didn’t begin to display itself until the age of five, and his parents came to believe that it was the result of his mother being frightened by an elephant while she was pregnant with him (hence the “Elephant Man” moniker). He had trouble securing work throughout his life and eventually agreed to join the sideshow as a means of supporting himself, which also led to him being introduced to Dr. Frederick Treves of the London Hospital.

Although he later stated that he didn’t mind his time as a performer, he also didn’t make much of a living at it, and was robbed of all of his savings by one of his managers in Brussels. Making his way back to London, he became a permanent resident of the London Hospital after police found Dr. Treves’ card in Merrick’s possession. During his time there, he became famous among London’s elite and received many visitors, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

He died April 11, 1890 of asphyxiation in his sleep. Dr. Treves, who had befriended Merrick in the years since he had initially met him, believed that Merrick may have tried to lay his head down when he slept (he usually slept sitting upright), which dislocated his neck and suffocated him.

6. Ella Harper, The Camel Girl

Ella Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee in 1870, and she had a trait that made her just ripe for the sideshow—Ella’s knees could bend forward, allowing her to drop down onto her hands and walk on all fours. Nowadays, this is a known condition called genu recurvatum, but in Ella’s day, she was simply referred to as “The Camel Girl."

She eventually made her way into W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus, where she was the star of the show. In 1886, when Ella was 16, her “pitch card” (the biographical information cards that circuses would pass out about their performers) stated that, as of that year, she intended to quit the circus and go to school. Sure enough, the Camel Girl disappeared, and no references to her act appear after that year.

7. Stephan Bibrowski, Lionel the Lion-Faced Man

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Born in 1891 in modern-day Poland, Stephan Bibrowski was an ordinary boy who just happened to have thick hair that grew all over his body. His mother was convinced (not unlike Joseph Merrick’s mother) that the affliction had resulted from her witnessing Stephan’s father being attacked by a lion while she was pregnant. (This explanation for birth defects, known as maternal impression, was popular at the turn of the century, but has long since been debunked.)

His mother thought him a monster and gave him away to a German entertainer. In truth, young Stephan suffered from hypertrichosis, the same disorder that gives us so-called “werewolf syndrome,” a trait found in contemporary circus performer Jesús Aceves, the “Wolf Boy.” Stephan’s hair pattern just happened to more closely resemble a lion’s.

Stephan was well-known for being kind, gentle, and intelligent, however. He is reported to have spoken five languages and spent a portion of his act simply talking to his audience. Stephan was able to retire in his 30s and returned to Europe. He died of a heart attack at the age of 41.

8. Annie Jones, The Bearded Lady

Annie Jones may not be the original bearded woman, but she was certainly one of the most famous (and possibly the youngest). Born at an indeterminate time in the 1860s, she started touring with P.T. Barnum when she was only nine months old.

She quickly became one of Barnum’s prized acts and had even grown a full mustache by the time she was five. She was usually simply referred to as the “Bearded Girl” (until she was too old to be called a girl anymore, that is), although she was also called “Monkey Girl."

Later in life, Jones was one of the most popular bearded women in the business, and used her fame and position in Barnum’s circus as a platform for discouraging the use of the word “freaks” to refer to sideshow performers.

9. Isaac W. Sprague, The Human Skeleton

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Isaac Sprague, born in Massachusetts in 1841, was by all accounts a normal boy—at least until he got to the age of 12, when he began rapidly losing weight. Before long, his muscle mass had essentially dropped to nil, with his doctors being unable to explain exactly why (his condition was listed by at least one as “extreme progressive muscular atrophy”). At the age of 24, incapable of working any other jobs, he joined the sideshow.

Sprague worked with P.T. Barnum on and off throughout his career, working at Barnum’s American Museum and sometimes going on tour with him when he found himself low on money, which was apparently quite frequently. (He had three sons and was rumored to have a gambling problem as well.)

At the age of 44, Sprague was officially measured by a doctor and found to be five feet six inches tall while weighing a mere 43 pounds. He died two years later of asphyxiation, probably as a result of his condition. As a result of Sprague’s popularity, “living skeleton” acts became common at many sideshows.

10. Prince Randian, The Living Torso

Prince Randian (birth name unknown) was born in 1871 in British Guiana (now the independent nation of Guyana) with tetra-amelia syndrome, a disorder that causes the person to be born without limbs, as well as other possible deformities (which Randian did not have). The rest of his early life is a mystery. According to legend, he was brought (along with his wife, “Princess Sarah”) to America at the age of 18 by P.T. Barnum himself.

The two quickly settled in America and began having children (five in total). Randian found fame with his “human snake” act, where he’d wear a one-piece wool outfit and crawl across the stage, as well as performing a number of acts (such as writing or rolling a cigarette with his mouth and shaving with a razor embedded in a wood block) that would seem impossible for a man without appendages.

Actually, Randian was very capable without limbs. He claimed that he built his props, as well as the box he stored them in, on his own. He was also extremely intelligent and multilingual, and, according to those who worked with him, possessed a great wit and sense of humor.

11. Mirin Dajo, The Invulnerable Man

Born Arnold Gerrit Henskes in 1912 in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Mirin Dajo (a pseudonym he adapted from the Esperanto word for “wonder”) was famous primarily for one thing: He could stick swords and other metal objects straight through his body without injury.

Although not strictly a sideshow performer (Dajo was in business for himself), the human pincushion is a traditional sideshow act and Dajo was one of the best at it. According to Dajo himself, he learned the trick from Hindu fakirs, who are known to occasionally pierce their bodies without injury, albeit not to the same degree as Dajo.

In reality, Dajo was never known to have visited India and he probably just used the story as part of the spiritual angle in his act. Decades before there were hippies, Dajo used his act to preach love, a unifying life force, and a disdain for materialism.

Several doctors examined Dajo, even performing X-rays on him with a sword still sticking through his body. They discovered that the blade was indeed piercing him, though they had no idea how he was able to perform the maneuver without injury. (Modern researchers believe he may have created fistulas—small scar tunnels—through his body over many years of slowly inserting the swords into himself.)

In 1948, he claimed that voices compelled him to swallow a steel needle and then have it surgically removed. He did both, but due either to complications from the surgery or from his performances (or both), Dajo died a few days later from an aortic rupture.

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

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Charles Dickens, Part-Time Mesmerist
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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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