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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April 15, 2013 - 2:00pm
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