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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.