Murderous Lobster Boy
We’ll start with the most heinous circus performer of all. Grady Stiles Jr. comes from a long history of circus performers who suffer from ectrodactyly, a condition that causes the fingers and toes to meld together, resulting in claw-like hands and feet. Grady became a vicious and violent drinker, often utilizing his massive body strength to attack his wife and kids. Unfortunately, the mental torment of being shown in “freak exhibitions” and being dubbed “Lobster Boy” left its mark on Grady, so he became a nasty and aggressive alcoholic.
Let’s fast forward to 1978 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Grady seized a shotgun with his claws the night of his daughter’s wedding and murdered her fiancé. He was found guilty of murder but never served his sentence since no prison could accommodate him. Instead, he was sentenced to 15 years of home arrest and probation.
Joseph Merrick: The Elephant Man
The Elephant Man, probably the most heartbreaking of all the exhibitions, comes up next. Joseph Merrick had a dreadful life–he suffered horrific physical abnormalities after both of his siblings perished. He dropped out of school at the age of 13 and worked in a cigar factory until his right hand grew so disfigured that he couldn’t work any longer. He stayed in a workhouse until he was 17, but by 20, his face was so damaged that he couldn’t eat.
Joseph realized that the only way out of the workhouse was to become a “novelty exhibition,” where nasty showmen billed him as Half-a-Man and Half-an-Elephant. Watch David Lynch’s 1980 film “Merrick” to learn more about Merrick’s life, although be warned: it’s a depressing movie.
The Bearded Woman’s Story
Annie Jones was born in Virginia, 1865. She joined P.T. Barnum’s circus at the age of nine months due to her hirsutism! Her parents were paid $150 each week. A New York phrenologist kidnapped her when she was a child in what was probably a Barnum publicity ploy. She was discovered at a church fair by the police and Barnum. The case proceeded to court when the father claimed Annie was his daughter.
But it all ended happily ever after: Annie went up to her parents the moment she came into the courtroom and spotted them. Without the DNA techniques available nowadays, the court ruled that the matter was concluded.
So-Called Siamese Twins
Chang and Eng Bunker were born in Thailand in 1811 as conjoined twins. Because the nation was still known as Siam at the time, the brothers are the reason conjoined twins were known as Siamese Twins. They arrived in the United States around 1830 and went on tour as an act. Then, in 1839, they moved to North Carolina, became citizens of the United States, and married two sisters.
Chang and Eng have a total of 21 children between them. We don’t even want to consider how that went down!
Giraffe Necked Woman
The Giraffe Necked Woman from Bertram Mills’ “Freak Show” is examined by physicians in this 1935 image. Unfortunately, nothing is known about this long-necked lady, although she is most likely a member of the Kayan or Karen tribes of Myanmar or northwest Thailand. Myanmar was still known as Burma before then, just as Thailand used to be known as Siam. Tribal women have been using brass rings to extend their necks for ages.
Luckily, no one from the Karen tribes of Thailand is anywhere near as entitled as the Karens we see in America!
The Supposed ‘Missing Link’
Krao Farini was born with hypertrichosis and was hirsute. According to legend, adventurer Carl Bock caught her as a youngster in the jungles of Laos––then part of Siam––in 1885. P.T. Barnum misrepresented her as a primitive person, claiming that she was the missing link between humans and apes. In Siamese, her name supposedly means “ape.” She died in New York in 1926, at the age of 50.
She possessed one extrathoracic vertebra, one additional pair of ribs, cheek pouches, hypermobility of her joints, and no cartilage in her ears and nose, in addition to her body hair.
Remember the Marvel superhero team The Fantastic Four? The four astronauts were granted superpowers when their spaceship was assaulted by cosmic radiation. Mister Fantastic was created when Reed Richards got the power to stretch his body into any form. But without cosmic radiation, how do you become a super-stretchy superhero? Felix Wehrle, on the other hand, was born in Wisconsin in 1858 with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. As a kid, he realized he could stretch his skin to incredible lengths.
You may believe that in the twenty-first century, we’ve moved on from sideshows, but Gary Turner from England, who has the same skin disease, still acts in them.
Bigfoot Was A Lady
Fannie Mills was born in 1859 in Sussex, England. Milroy Disease caused her legs and feet to balloon to enormous dimensions. Her feet had grown to be 17 inches long, and she was wearing a size 30 shoe! Her parents moved to the United States, where she earned the moniker “The Ohio Big Foot Girl.” Her father advertised a $5,000 dowry and a well-stocked farm for any decent guy willing to marry his daughter!
William Brown was the respectable guy in question. Fannie gave birth to a child in August 1887, after they married in 1886. However, Fannie died in 1899, at the age of 39, only twelve years after her infant did.
The Skinniest Man Around
In 1841, Isaac Sprague was born in Massachusetts. He had a typical upbringing, but when he was 12, he became unwell after swimming in a lake and began losing weight irrevocably, despite having a strong appetite. In 1865, he joined P.T. Barnum’s American Building as the Living Human Skeleton, and he was marketed as such until the museum burned down in 1868, with Sprague just barely escaping!
He weighed only 43 pounds at 44 years old (19.5 kg). He attempted to get out of the sideshow business several times, but he had to care for his wife and three healthy boys while battling a crippling gambling addiction. In 1887, he died without a cent to his name.
Fedor Jeftichew, often known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, was a Russian entertainer who toured Europe as a boy with his father, The Wild Man from the Kostroma Forest. P.T. Barnum brought him to the United States in 1884, and he became known as… you got it: Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Man. Barnum made up a narrative about him and his father being kidnapped and held captive in a cave by a hunter. As part of the show, Barnum made Fedor bark and snarl.
Fedor died in Greece in 1904 from illness. His legacy, however, does not end there. In the movies, he became well-known as Dog Boy in The Greatest Showman (2017), played by Luciano Acuna Jr.
African Albino Twins
George and Willie Muse were two African-American brothers who grew up in Truevine, Virginia, a tobacco-producing sharecropping town. A white guy abducted them while they were working in the fields in 1899 and forced them to participate in the circus. They were presented as Men From Mars and informed that their mother, Harriet, was no longer alive. Harriet was actually just fine, and she went on to sue the Ringling Brothers.
In the late 1920s, George and Willie returned to the circus, but this time they were paid. Willie lived to be a ripe old age, dying in 2001. George died in 1971. We recommend Beth Macy’s wonderful book Truevine if you want to learn more about George and Willie Muse (2016). The rights were purchased by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production firm so maybe we’ll see a movie.
Three Legs At Night
Plenty of guys make jokes about having a third leg, but Frank Lentini didn’t need to! His family relocated from Sicily to the United States in 1889, when he was born with a parasitic twin. Frank worked for a number of circuses, including Ringling Brothers, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and Barnum & Bailey. The Great Lentini was his name. Frank possessed four feet and two sets of genitals in addition to his three legs.
Frank, also known as the Three-Legged Soccer Player, could use his third leg to kick a ball across a stage. He married Theresa Murray and had four children, living to be 77 years old. Jonathan Redavid played him in The Greatest Showman.
Daisy and Violet Hilton were born in the year 1908 in Brighton, England. Because their mother, Kate Skinner, was single, her employer, Mary Hilton, took them in. The conjoined infants were presented in the Queen’s Arms tavern by Mary and their aggressive and abusive father. When they were three years old, they went on their first tour of the United Kingdom, followed by tours of Europe and Australia. Daisy and Violet danced while Daisy played saxophone and Violet played violin. They founded The Dancemedians company with Bob Hope in 1926!
When Mary died, her daughter received the twins and became their manager, keeping them in captivity. They sued her in 1931, receiving $100,000 in damages (about $1,500,000 today!) and getting out of their contract. As publicity stunts, the twins married homosexual actors, but both perished in the Hong Kong Flu epidemic in 1969.
Turnabout Is Fair Play
Martin Emmerling was born in 1885 in Germany and had a unique trick under his sleeve. It was, in fact, up his collar. Like the possessed girl in The Exorcist, his party trick was rotating his neck approximately 180 degrees! He moved to the United States and performed in shows such as Sam Wagner’s Freak Show on Coney Island, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Ringling Brothers, and Barnum & Bailey.
As a result, he earned the stage titles The Human Owl and Bobby the Boy with the Revolving Head, one of which is far less memorable.
Percilla Berjano, alias Monkey Girl, a fellow sideshow act, described Laurello as “maybe a Nazi.” Yikes!
Four Legs Good! Two Legs Bad!
Myrtle Corbin was born with two different pelvises in 1868 in Tennessee, giving her four legs. She became a sideshow performer at the age of 13 and was dubbed the “Four-Legged Girl from Texas.” She was characterized as “gentle in temperament as June sunshine and as joyous as the day is long” in an early promotional booklet. She married James Clinton Bicknell and produced four girls and a son as a result of her bright personality.
Her coffin was encased in concrete after she died in Texas in 1928, and her family stood vigil until the casket was completely dried to prevent graverobbers from snatching her body. Scary!
Ella Harper: The Camel Girl
Ella Harper was born in 1870 with congenital genu recurvatum, an uncommon disease. She became the headliner of a traveling curiosity show performance when she was approximately 16 years old. She was paid $200 each week and carried a business/pitch card that read: “Because my knees bend backward, I’m known as the camel girl. As you can see in the photo, I can walk best on my hands and feet.”
“I have traveled extensively in the show industry over the past four years, and now, this is 1886, I aim to stop the show business and attend to school to prepare myself for another vocation,” the card stated. In 1921, she passed away.
A Man Immune To Pain
Arnold Gerrit Henskes, better known by his stage name Mirin Dajo, was a Dutch artist noted for piercing his body with various objects and incurring no injuries. He claimed to have had unusual dreams and paranormal experiences as a youngster, but at 33, he discovered he could swallow glass and razor blades and that his body was “invulnerable” to knives. Dajo was psychic, had guardian angels, and could cure people, according to his Dutch helper…
Dajo said that voices in his brain ordered him to ingest a steel needle in May 1948. Two days later, surgeons withdrew the needle, and Dajo walked across Zurich to establish his health. He lay down on a bed ten days later, entered a trance-like state, and died a few days afterward.
Madam Gustika here. She was billed as a member of the Duckbill tribe, which is a wholly made-up group. Instead, she might have come from the Mursi tribe of Southern Sudan, a distinct branch of the Surma tribe. A Mursi girl’s bottom teeth are removed to create room for a lip plate, which is subsequently expanded in size once a year as part of her rites of passage into womanhood.
During a circus performance in 1930, she is shown smoking a pipe with an enlarged mouthpiece. Lip-stretching is comparable to the method used by persons who have holes in their ears due to earrings.
The Jaramillo Sisters
Albuquerque, New Mexico, was the home of the Jaramillo sisters. Natalia was born in 1889, followed by Aurora in 1896. This photograph, which shows Natalia and Aurora standing next to a big guy, is thought to be from 1908 when Natalia was 19 years old and Aurora was 12 years old. They may have had microcephaly, a condition that causes people’s heads to be significantly smaller than usual. People with this ailment were mockingly referred to as “pinheads.”
Although actress Naomi Grossman does not have microcephaly, she played a character with the condition in the TV program American Horror Story: Asylum, yet it was a far older film that made these people famous.
Minnie Woolsey, also known as Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, was born in Georgia, United States, in 1880. She suffered Virchow-Seckel syndrome, a rare congenital skeletal disorder that caused her to be short and have a tiny head, tight face, huge eyes and ears, and a beak-shaped nose. The unfortunate girl was also toothless, hairless, and presumed to be almost blind.
Minnie was “rescued” from a mental institution by a traveling showman, who put her to work dancing and uttering nonsense in a bird costume. While seen as a kindness back then, it was still very cruel. Minnie Ha Ha was her stage name, but in Freaks, she was credited as Koo-Koo the Bird Girl.
No Lower Half? No Problem!
Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) is the picture in question, and we’ll hear that name again today. Johnny Eck was born without the bottom part of his body and starred in the harrowing black-and-white picture as a result. In this image from the film, he is seen with Angelo Rossitto. Johnny went on to make multiple cameos in Tarzan films as a bird monster.
Johnny was a singer, photographer, artist, Punch and Judy puppeteer, skilled model-maker, and even operated a penny arcade despite being born with such a severe impairment. His magic performance of being sawn in two, which he performed with his identical brother, would have audiences screaming and rushing for the exits!
The Carolina Twins
Millie and Christine McKoy, sometimes known as The Carolina Twins, were born in 1851 to North Carolina blacksmith Jabez McKay’s slaves. When the girls were just 10 months old, he sold them to the circus. The twins survived slavery, being sold as newborns, medical examinations, and freak performances to become The Two-Headed Nightingale and The Eighth Wonder of the World, a song and dance act.
They returned to the farm where they were born in their 30s. When their father died, he bequeathed it to the twins, since he had purchased it from Jabez McKay. Millie and Christine died of TB on October 8, 1912, at the age of 61. Christine died less than a day after Millie, a common occurrence with conjoined twins.
Putting His Heads Together
Pasqual Pión was a Texas railroad worker. Until a sideshow promoter saw he had two heads, that is. The second head was a huge benign tumor. As a result, the promoter enlisted Pión’s help in putting together a touring performance and creating a wax mask to cover the cyst. Joe Public was then summoned to meet The Two-Headed Mexican. After a few years of traveling, the circus owner agreed to pay for Pión’s cyst to be removed.
This was a rare act of generosity on the circus’s behalf. Normally, circus acts would never think of offering medical treatments to their star attractions since it would mean the loss of their performers.
Little People, Big Lives
Charles Sherwood Stratton was a robust, bouncy baby weighing 9lbs 8 ounces when he was born in Connecticut in 1838. He developed regularly at first, weighing 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) and measuring 25 inches (64 centimeters) when he was six months old. But then he abruptly ceased to grow. Charles has barely grown one inch since he was five years old (2.5 cm). P.T. Barnum acquired him at that time…
Tom, who stood 3’4″ tall, was taught by Barnum to sing, dance, mimic, and impersonate great figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte. Charles traversed the world and rose to fame as General Tom Thumb until his death at the age of 45.
One Of The Tallest Men
Jacob Rheuben Erlich weighed less than four pounds when he was born in Denver, Colorado, in 1906. He was a little boy until he was seven years old when acromegalic gigantism caused him to grow enormously. He was over six feet tall by the time he was eleven years old. He was nearly seven feet tall by the age of thirteen! Imagine being an auntie who hasn’t seen her nephew in a few years and exclaiming, “Gosh, haven’t you grown, my darling!”
He eventually grew to 7’7″, changed his name to Jack Earle, and toured for 14 years as a sideshow act before becoming a salesperson. He died at the age of 46, but his memory lives on in the song “Get Behind The Mule” by Tom Waits.
Alice Doherty was born in Minneapolis in 1887, with blue eyes and a full head of blonde hair. Hypertrichosis is the medical term for her disease, but it’s also known as Werewolf Syndrome. From the age of two, Alice’s mother and father showed her as a sideshow attraction, giving her the stage moniker Wooly Girl. Thank you, Mom and Dad! Even still, it’s preferable to Were-wooly-wolf Girl.
Her facial hair was 9″ long and stretched over her shoulders by the time she was a teenager. Alice retired in 1915 and died in 1933, at the age of 46, in Dallas, Texas.
All Tatted Up
Betty Broadbent, the Tattooed Venus, greets everyone. At the 1939 New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow, Queens, she is ready to defy traditional ideals of beauty for women of the past by competing in a beauty pageant. Betty had over 565 tattoos on her body, including her neck, elbows, and ankles. She initially became interested in tattooing when she met Jack Redcloud on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
Betty, meanwhile, was only 14 years old and working as a nanny at the time. Her parents must have approved of her first tattoos which was uncommon for the year 1927!
Riddle Me This
What animal has zebra-like stripes and a ring in his nose? Horace Ridler, an English sideshow performer, of course. He was also tattooed from head to toe, and he went by the name The Great Omi or The Zebra Man, and he has a fascinating story to tell. Ridler was born into a wealthy English family, attended Oxford or Cambridge University, and served in World War I in Mesopotamia.
He and Betty Broadbent both appeared in the 1939 World Fair, and he claimed he was knifed in the face by an unknown assailant in New York. However, it’s possible that it was just another publicity gimmick to drum up business.
Two In One
This is Josephine-Joseph, a renowned circus performer who declared their body was divided in half, with one side being feminine and the other masculine. Josephine-Joseph claimed to be an intersex person, although there is no proof of this, and they might just have been a talented impersonator, wearing a frock on the “female” side and a Tarzan-style mankini on the “male” side.
In Blackpool, UK, Josephine-Joseph and their husband George were charged with false pretenses and conspiracy for their “Half Woman-Half Man” circus display in 1930. Seems like the act was, well, an act.
The attractive, bearded tiny figure in this shot is known only by his nickname, Bear Man, and his appearance at the Greenbrier Valley Fair in West Virginia in 1938 as a sideshow attraction. In addition to dwarfism, his body appeared to be impacted by a spinal issue, causing him to move on all fours. Along with carnival attractions, terrifying clowns, burlesque dancers, and “double-sexed” wonders––bare naked Mary Casey and her sister––the Bear Man made an appearance.
The Greenbrier Valley Fair evolved into the West Virginia State Fair, which continues to this day. Although the animals may disagree, it is thankfully less unethical nowadays.
Johanna Pauline Musters, called Princess Pauline or Lady Dot, is shown here around 1890, standing on the hand of her manager Verschueren. She is the smallest woman ever documented, being only 24 inches (61 cm) tall, according to Guinness World Records. She weighed approximately eight and pounds, which is fine for an infant but not for a seventeen-year-old.
What is the significance of 17? Unfortunately, Pauline only lasted for that long. She was born in 1878 and died in 1895 in New York City due to pneumonia and meningitis.
Sealo the Sealman
Stanislaus Berent was born with phocomelia in Pittsburgh in 1901. His hands sprouted from his shoulders due to this congenital abnormality, which caused him to have seal-like arms. He spent over fifty years as a circus performer after starting out as a newspaper salesman. He performed as Sealo the Sealman in Coney Island’s Freak Show from 1920 through 1970. He could shave, saw objects in half, and was frequently accompanied on stage by his chimp sidekick, Toby.
In 1960, he is seen eating a doughnut. He survived to be 79 years old, despite being characterized as an “avid drinker.”
Tod Browning’s Freaks
We’ve mentioned Tod Browning’s controversial film Freaks numerous times on our tour to circus sideshows and county fairs. In 1931, the director poses with members of the cast. Did you know, though, that Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) was the first Universal monster horror film? This is the man responsible for Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1931), and The Wolf Man (1943).
Freaks was supposed to be Browing’s follow-up to Dracula, but it bombed at the box office. Worse, the picture was banned for nearly 30 years in the United Kingdom and was dubbed “brutal and obscene” in Canada. It turns out the only real freak was Browning for making the movie!
Apparently, the nickname is an upgrade from Dog-Faced Boy. Stephan Bibrowski was born in Poland with a one-inch beard that covered his entire body. He, like Alice and Krao Farini, was afflicted with hypertrichosis. His entire body was soon covered in beautiful golden hair, giving him the appearance of a lion. The hair on his face measured eight inches (20 cm) when he joined the circus as Lionel the Lion-faced Man and four inches (10 cm) everywhere else.
The palms of his hands and the soles of his feet were the only portions of his body that were not covered with hair. And, most likely, his eyes.
All Together Now
Remember how we highlighted The Ringling Brothers’ “Congress of Freaks” towards the top of today’s list? Finally, we’ll look at a 1924 group portrait. Minnie Woolsey, nicknamed Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, George and Willie Muse, aka the Men from Mars, and we’re quite sure Stephan Bibrowski, aka Lionel the Lion-Faced Man, may all be found in the back row. Several little individuals have joined them.
Martin Laurello, dubbed The Human Owl, and Krao Farini are in the first row. The world’s tallest conjoined giraffe twins are on the far right! Anyone good at their job should know that tall people belong in the rear and little people go in the front, therefore the photographer was clearly inexperienced.