PICKLED PUNKS – Marvels Under Glass


Picked Punks have been a part of every well stocked cabinet of curiosity and perhaps the most controversial of all sideshow exhibits. A ‘Pickled Punk’ is a sideshow term for a preserved human fetus, usually deformed and usually displayed as a specimen in a jar or other vessel.

The practice of preserving and displaying prodigious births is centuries old. In the 1600’s King Frederick III of Denmark has a personal collection of punks numbering in the thousands – a collection started in the 1500’s by Frederick II. ?During that same timeframe Ulisse Aldrovandi, an Italian naturalist, had a collection consisting of eighteen thousand various specimens.

The deformities present in pickled punks are incredibly varied. As varied as the nature of human inflictions.

The earliest and most well documented pedigree for a deformed punk display dates back to 1582 when Mme Colombe Chatri died at the age of sixty-eight – and a twenty-eight year old fetus was removed from her womb. The Stone-Child of Sens should have been born in 1554, however labor came and went with no delivery and in the resulting decades the fetus was calcified and ossified within the womb – which actually formed a shell. Mme Chatri seemed to have lived a normal life, with the exception of regular abdominal pains. Following her death and the ‘delivery’ of the Stone-Child – naturalists clamored to claim the fetus and the right to display the tiny marvel. Jean d’Ailleboust wrote a detailed pamphlet in 1582 – complete with illustrations – about the case, which became an instant best seller. Pare featured the infant in his book Des monstres et prodiges and reveals that the child was sold to M. Prestesiegle, a wealthy merchant in the 1590’s. He sold it to a goldsmith named M. Carteron who in turn sold it in 1628 to M. Bodey, a jewel merchant complete with a sort of ‘certificate of authenticity’. In 1653, the Stone-Child came into the possession of King Frederick III as well as a handwritten copy of the d’Ailleboust paper. By this point, the child was heavily damaged, with both arms broken and the marble-like skin worn off in places.

The Stone-Child remained in the possession of the Royal Museum for decades, cataloged in 1696, 1710, 1737 and was transferred to the Danish Museum of Natural History in 1826. The Stone-Child went missing sometime in the late 1800’s – it is believed that is was literally scrapped by Professor Reinhardt when he was director of the museum as he believed it was not a ‘scientific display’.

Strangely enough, the Stone-Boy condition – known today as lithopedion – is not all that rare as some 290 cases exist in modern medical literature.

The classic pickled punk – floating in a jar of preserving fluid – became most popular during the golden age of sideshow and experienced a great resurgence in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During that era many punks were linked to drug abuse, at least in the banner lines outside. Several sideshows featured extensive punk displays – some authentic and others gaffed (faked). Following this era, laws began to restrict the display of punks. To complicate matters, laws differed from state to state – making traveling displays almost impossible. Furthermore, the question of whether punks qualify as ‘human remains’ further complicates the laws.

The great modern showman, Ward Hall, once had one of the largest punk shows in the United States. During one season he was fined due to the fact that the display of human remains was illegal in the state he had set up his show in. He replaced his punks with rubber replicas – called ‘bouncers’ – and continued his tour only to be fined again in another state for being a ‘conman’, displaying ‘fakes’ and ‘false advertising’.

While there are still a few stationary legitimate pickled punk shows in the sideshow tradition. Today the best place to find pickled punks is in research or university laboratories or medical museums – like the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. The world’s largest collection of pickled punks, once owned by Peter the Great, is currently on display at the Kuntskammer Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Image: Late Sideshow owner Captain Harvey Lee Boswell’s favorite Picked Punk
– a fetus with anencephaly –currently for sale at Madame Talbot’s.

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.


  • Reply January 17, 2007


    “Its not a carnival unless they have siamese twins in a jar” – Homer Simpson

  • Reply June 19, 2009


    Very sad when you stop and think that these are small, innocent children on display, but most of them were still births, no? So I guess at least they weren’t killed only to be put on display.

    (Haha to Sam’s comment!)

  • Reply January 23, 2010

    Timothy Doran

    I should like to obtain some pickled punks. What leads have you?

  • Reply May 16, 2010


    It still happens to this day. How sad..


  • Reply July 22, 2010


    Were a very odd species, aren’t we?

  • Reply August 5, 2010


    awesome i need to get one . wish that you had put more pictures

  • Reply September 5, 2010


    Ok You let me tell you all something. This Mr. Harvey Lee Boswell was a very smart educated man, he was paralized from tthe waist down. I never met him seeing as he died a year before I was born. BUT I DO KNOW ONE THING. My Uncle Doug worked for this man. and NO THEY WONT KILLED.. The were born dead, and NEVER Were killed unless it was the parents idea. My uncle took out all of the precious babies EACH YEAR, and put them in new famaldihide. I swear to GOD on my life… This is NO LIE!!! Harvey B. Was Injured in war, and was working to save us while we were there fighting, when the Red Cross plane he was in was shot down. SO DONT SAY HE IS A BAD PERSON!! He was here for our country, and though he may be gone, his spirit’s still here.

  • Reply December 8, 2010


    Tyler, calm down. No one said he’s bad. Maybe it’s not always for the right reasons, but I think it’s good that these babies were seen by the general public instead of hidden away, especially in an era before mass communication like we have now. It’s good to see everything that the human genome has to offer, good and bad, rather than the ‘perfect’ that we try to portray all the time, and even better that someone like the late Mr. Boswell do it with sensitivity and dignity to the spirits of the dead. For some reason, I’ve always found the unusual more fascinating than the perfect, and I wish I could show others how special they are too. Even if for the wrong reasons, that was the one thing the earlier era carnivals could be counted on; displaying unabashedly that which was very different from the norm.

  • Reply March 25, 2011

    el capitan

    Pickled punks are gaffs used now for a long time, made to take the place of real curiosities placed in formaldehyde, when they where made illegal. So pickled punks came in as a way to keep these shows alive (so we should all pay enormous respect to the f.x. and artist guys that made them). One of the most recent and most famous “Pickled punks” was the Bigfoot hoax frozen in ice by two cops, i think in 2009? maybe 08. It was all over CNN, FOX THE INTERNET. There’s also an doc about it “anatomy of a Bigfoot hoax” It had been done once before by some other guy about 100 odd years ago as well. Still we all fall for it!

    • Reply March 26, 2011

      J Tithonus Pednaud

      You are incorrect. A pickled punk was historically slang for an actual preserved baby in a bottle. In recent years it has been used interchangeably with fake bottle babies (previously best known as bouncers).

      A ‘gaff’ is a fake or manufactured attraction meant for display. So, a pickled punk can be a gaff, but not all gaffs are pickled punks.

      The Bigfoot Hoax was not really a gaff as it was never really meant for display – it was just a hoax. It certainly not a pickled punk.

  • Reply September 16, 2011

    Ray Barnhill

    I worked for the Captain beginning in 1978 and was a close friend until h
    is death. Here are the facts–
    The pickled punks were kept under lock and key and very, very few were allowed to see them. He once told me that after he died the punks were to be donated to a friend who was to keep them and not display them.
    Gold tooth Jimmy was sold to a couple from up north(Penn or NJ) They wrapped the mummy in a sheet and put him between the front seats of a car and drove back north with the mummy with them.
    Marie o’Day was kept until Harvey died and his brother sold everything.

  • Reply September 22, 2011


    I have a pair of human testicles in a jar. Do you know of any collectors out there? They are about 25 years old.

  • Reply July 17, 2012


    In chicago, they have some at the Museum of Science and Industry but to show the growth and change of the human fetus, and I heard that there is a display of actual adults somewhere that shows the anatomy of the human body, so at least some good comes out of showing them. And also, I agree with Eleanor, we are an odd species. Only we could decide lets pickle this kid since its still birth anyways, but hey like I said, some good comes out of it.

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