Out of Time: Exploring the History of the Victorian Freak Show With Author Dr John Jacob Woolf

Words: Ashley Carter
Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Tuesday 07 June 2022
reading time: min, words

How is it that, in the space of less than a century, society’s attitudes towards people born with disabilities changed from them being exploited as the most popular form of entertainment in Victorian society to being seen with sympathy, dignity and respect? Partly based on our intrinsic fear and fascination with ‘the other’, and partly down to a myriad of other reasons - including the intervention of Queen Victoria herself - the freak show played an enormous role in shaping modern attitudes, and remains one of the most macabre, unusual and complex periods of British cultural history. Ahead of his talk at Nottingham Theatre Royal this month, Dr John Jacob Woolf, historian, author and expert on the Victorian freak show, explains more…


What is it that makes us look at unusual things? Is it morbid curiosity? Simple nosiness? Or something more atavistic? And what lengths would you, reading this now, go to see something you’d never seen before? Would you spend your hard-earned money for the promise of witnessing someone seen as wondrous and strange? Modern sensibilities suggest that, publicly at least, you’d answer that last question with a ‘no’. But had you been born just a century earlier – a blink of an eye, historically-speaking – the odds would have been overwhelmingly favourable that you’d have visited a Victorian freak show. 

“It was the most popular form of entertainment in the nineteenth century, available to everyone from your average man, woman or child right the way up to Queen Victoria,” explains Dr John Jacob Woolf, historian and author of The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age. “People would come to stare at freaks of nature, who would perform or answer questions, and there were all these elaborate stories told about this character on stage.” While the idea of paying to stare at people with physical disabilities seems grotesque, it’s impossible to overstate just how widespread the popularity of the freak show was, and how far-ranging its appeal spread through British society. From the showmen, like the incomparable P.T. Barnum or Tom Norman – known as the Silver King – to the performers themselves, like Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man), Charles Stratton (General Tom Thumb) or Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siam-American conjoined twins whose fame coined the now outdated expression ‘Siamese twins’, a cultural imprint was made on society to such an extent that their names survive in popular culture today. The Victorian freak show was a cultural phenomenon that appealed to the very bottom of society as much as it did to the top, and owes much of its success to Queen Victorian herself.

“A performer named General Tom Thumb – whose real name was Charles Stratton – came to Britain in the early 1840s when he was six years old. He puts himself on display, but there wasn’t much interest,” Woolf explains. “But then P.T. Barnum manages to secure an engagement with Queen Victoria, who absolutely falls in love with him [Stratton],” he continues. “She even wrote about him in her diary. Barnum then mercilessly exploited this relationship to the extent that Stratton ended up getting the nickname 'The Pet of the Palace'. Suddenly, Tom Thumb was in the press and the phrase deformito-mania was being used.” 

“She was a big freak fancier, and put the royal seal of approval on the freak show,” Woolf continues. “It set a trend – the upper classes thought that there must be something in it if Queen Victoria herself enjoyed it, and if the upper classes were doing it, the middle classes wanted to as well, and so on. There was an entertainment value as well as a social status value.”

But what was the reason behind this mania? “There was a fascination with otherness and anything different,” Woolf elucidates. “On one level, it helps to clarify what is normal. It also makes people feel better about themselves,” he continues. “You know, if you're a bit worried about your weight, seeing a fat lady on stage might help you feel a bit better. There were all sorts of interests in the other defining the self and what we are.”

The freak was very much a public persona, a character that was brought to life by the performer - an individual with disabilities that lived their own life off stage

Integral to the success of the shows were the showmen themselves, and the curiosity and appeal of their performers meant little if they weren’t able to drum up interest in a paying audience. “These showmen were entrepreneurs and business people, and the key to their success was being able to spin a good yarn,” Woolf describes. “If, for example, you found a bearded lady, could you tell a good enough story about her that would create a sense of wonder and exoticism that would entice people into your show? They were involved in constructing that freak persona and advertising the show in order to bring in as many people as possible.”

Beyond that, the role of the showman stretched to the discovering and hiring of freak performers, in order to continually maintain a new and appealing roster. “Someone like P.T. Barnum had agents – sometimes referred to as freak hunters – that would go around the globe sourcing potential freak performers,” Woolf says. “They'd try to find the weirdest looking person in some far-flung outpost of the British Empire, and attempt to bring them back to Britain or to the United States.” 

Whether it’s our modern sensibilities or just intrinsic human nature, it’s impossible to hear these stories without seeing the performers themselves as victims, mercilessly exploited by ruthless showmen who profited from their public humiliation. And, while that’s accurate to an extent, the truth is far more complicated. “The freak was very much a public persona, a character that was brought to life by the performer - an individual with disabilities that lived their own life off stage,” Woolf clarifies. “It was respectable, it was popular. It was the centre of Victorian culture.”

“Can we disassociate the 'freak' as a social construct from the freak performer, or the actor off stage?” he continues. “Facts and fiction very often intermingle in the lives of freak performers.” Having researched the lives of many of the most well-known performers from the era, Woolf is perfectly placed to shed a light on the true nature of their relationship with the freak show, the showmen and the audience that paid to see them. “If you were born with a disability in the nineteenth century, your opportunities were exceptionally limited,” he explains. “The freak show offered an opportunity to earn some money and even win some fame in the process. So, within the freak show there's a very tangled relationship between coercion and choice, and exploitation and empowerment.”

Returning to the story of Charles Stratton’s General Tom Thumb – Queen Victoria’s ‘Pet of the Palace’ – Woolf describes how he was able to achieve world-wide fame and fortune, meeting European royalty and President Abraham Lincoln. Looking at the story of Chang and Eng, Woolf explains they “went on to own slave-owning farmers in the American South, fathering 21 children between them. They went back and forth between their farm and the freak show, because it offered them an opportunity to earn money.” While the thought of conjoined twins, exploited in the name of entertainment, going on to exploit slave labour for profit seems baffling, and speaks to the complexity of judging history through modern eyes. As Woolf states, “It's easy to condemn today, but the history is much more complicated than that.”

You see it in Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer. The ingredients of sensationalism, voyeurism and a fascination with difference still exist in those sorts of shows

The triumph and tragedy of the Victorian freak show is represented most apparently in two films that arguably provided modern audiences with the biggest exposure to the Victorian freak show: 2017’s The Greatest Showman, which tells the story of P.T. Barnum, and The Elephant Man (1980), which portrays Joseph Merrick’s exploitation by Tom Norman. But according to Woolf, neither gives a true sense of the nature of the Victorian freak show, its performers or the showmen that created them. “The Greatest Showman really whitewashes Barnum, and portrays him as this great hero,” Woolf says. “But Barnum first found freak show fame on the back of a senile, paralysed, disabled slave named Joice Heth, who he showcased across America. There are so many questions around exploitation and child exploitation, and he once whipped a slave fifty times. This was a very complicated man of his time.”

But at the other end of the spectrum, Woolf feels that Tom Norman, the British showman who had shops in Nottingham and frequently showcased his freak performers at Goose Fair, was harshly treated in The Elephant Man. “Norman was a teetotaller for a start. He wasn't this piss-head, cruel drunkard as portrayed in that very sentimental portrayal of the freak show.” He continues, “You'd expect better from a post-modernist filmmaker like David Lynch, but he relied heavily on the memoirs of Frederick Treves, the surgeon who allegedly saved Joseph Merrick.” But as with all aspects of the freak show, the reality is much more complex. “Tom Norman wrote his own account, called The Showman, and Merrick himself even wrote an account of what happened,” Woolf clarifies. “The question comes down to who it was that really exploited Merrick: the showman, who paid him a wage, or the surgeon, who displayed him as a pathological freak. There are kernels of truth in both films in that some showmen were very good to their freak performers, and others weren't. Invariably, the truth is some mashed-up synthesis of the two.”

While Barnum, Norman and their ilk were making their fortunes from freak shows, doctors, researchers and scientists were making enormous strides in the medicine field and, as a result, were able to explain many of the physical anomalies on display at the freak show. “A sense of wonder was a really important part of the freak show during Victorian times,” Woolf explains. “But as advances in medicine begin to explain that sense of wonder away, people started questioning the morality of it all.” As a result, a public backlash begins to creep in toward the end of the century, with “more and more tastes starting to move away from the freak show,” Woolf states. “You start to hear grumbles of certain segments of the public wishing for freak performers to be institutionalised or locked up in mental asylums or hospitals.” As a result, the public mood turns from one of macabre fascination to one of disgust. 

Like all of the major socio-political changes to occur during the last century, the biggest decline in popularity of the freak show sees its roots set firmly in the First World War. Returning soldiers, bearing physical reminders of a magnitude of violence previously thought inconceivable, filtered back into all levels of society. As Woolf describes, “The Great War produced disabilities on such a bloody, industrial scale that it no longer seemed appealing to gawp at deformities on display at the freak show.” While World War One may have mortally wounded the freak show, though, it did not kill it entirely. “The peak certainly came between 1840-1914,” Woolf clarifies. “But the freak show limped on into the late twentieth century.” 

If you’re of the belief that basic human nature doesn’t drastically change, then you might wonder where the energy that fuelled society’s obsession with the freak show has filtered to in modern society. Most cultures throughout history, for example, relished in the spectacle of public torture and execution, and the argument has been made that the modern equivalent comes with the rabid ferocity with which people delight in seeing others getting humiliated, caught or ‘cancelled’ on social media. But what of our obsession with the ‘other’? “It’s still all over the place,” Woolf explains. “You see it in Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer. The ingredients of sensationalism, voyeurism and a fascination with difference still exist in those sorts of shows, or in programmes and magazines that focus on the negative aspects of people's bodies. We're still drawn to difference. The dynamics of the Victorian freak show are still very much there.”

Dr John Jacob Woolf will be giving a talk on his book, The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Victorian Freak Show at Nottingham Theatre Royal on Tuesday 14 June


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