If you are a fan of American Horror Story: Freak Show, you’ve probably seen one of the “Real Freaks behind the Characters” articles floating around. There are a million of them, and almost every one of them gets it wrong.
It’s understandable, people match a famous freak to one the characters of the show on a purely superficial level. The general public, even journalists, do not have any sort of historic knowledge in regards to these unique freaks and so assumptions are made based on physical characteristics and not actual character traits. But the folks behind American Horror Story: Freak Show have done some really in-depth work in creating their characters. Most are actually an amalgamation of several historic and real sideshow freaks. This article, backed by a decade of research into human oddities, is perhaps the most definitive piece you will ever read in regards to the real freaks who influenced the freaks of American Horror Story: Freak Show.
The Freak Show Character: Meep
Most articles get this right, by pointing at Koo-Koo the bird lady as the main influence. Koo-Koo’s unique appearance is iconic, thanks to her tabletop dancing scene in Freaks. Koo-Koo’s real name was Minnie Woolsey and she was afflicted with Seckel Syndrome, a form of microcephalic primordial dwarfism. Some articles have claimed that Ben Woolf, the actor who plays Meep, was similarly afflicted. This is not so as Woolf has pituitary dwarfism and his physical characteristics are therefor not as adversely affected.
Few have made mention of the fact that the character of Meep was also a tribute to the Geek acts of sideshow. Geeks were the bottom rung of the freak show Parthenon as they did little more that bite the heads of living animals. In Meep’s stage debut, the character bites the head of a faux fowl.
Fewer writers have mentioned that the Koo-Koo wasn’t the only bird lady. Elizabeth “The Stork Lady” Green shared screen time with Koo-Koo in Freaks.
The Freak Show Character: Ethel Darling
The bearded lady was a staple in every freak show and so it is difficult to pin down an exact reference. Ethel, played by Kathy Bates, plays her character with a Baltimore accent. One bearded lady of note fromBaltimore was Captain Malvina Emily Perry. Born at sea around 1881, Emily exhibited herself along Baltimore’s Waterefront and was a bit of a local legend. She was also the the first woman in Baltimore to earn a sailing license. Emily also had the reputation of being a tough-as-nails fighter, once punching a judge for doubting the authenticity of her beard. The judge was right to question though, when Emily died on February 26, 1934 it was revealed that Emily was biologically a man. In her lifetime, she had been married and carried for an adoptive son named Robert.
In my opinion, Ethel is more of an amalgamation of rough and tumble Grace Gilbert, with a touch of the Baroness Sidonia de Barcsy. The Baroness, much like Ethel Darling, also gave birth to a sideshow attraction. While Ether gave birth to the ‘Lobster Clawed” Jimmy Darling, the Baroness Sidonia de Barcsy gave birth to a dwarf named Nicu.