People who are visually different have always been subject to attention. In different eras these individuals were labelled as monsters, freaks and human oddities. It is human nature to speculate and obsess about those born ‘different’ and it is also in our nature to feel disquieted by their appearance. Freaks have always been studied, documented and displayed because, as members of the majority, we have a driving need to understand what we fear and do not comprehend. The freak show met these needs.
The freak show was an organized venture, but long before that undertaking was organized bizarre births were recorded on cave walls and whispered around campfires. Clay tablet at the Assyrian city of Noneveh describe in great detail sixty-two congenital deformities along with possible prophetic causes and meanings. As evidence of God’s Wrath or Divine Design, freaks became the subject of great attention and, as a result, sought after. Their procurement, scrutiny and display, therefore, also became inevitable and very lucrative.
Dwarfs were sought after by Roman aristocrats and wandered the courts of Egyptian Pharaohs as symbols of status, fortune and power. In Renaissance Europe, dwarfs were court jesters and the malformed were held in royal menageries. The common folk settled for stories and ballads about monsters and freaks born throughout the land and beyond its borders. Few commoners would ever actually lay eyes on such unusual beings as freaks were quickly whisked away as infants as royal collection acquisitions or starved to death in fear of religious wrath.
This all drove the public speculation and the desire to see human oddities in the flesh.
It was the changing attitudes of the 16th century that truly made the freak show a possibility. During the reign of England’s Elizabeth I enlightened sensibilities prevailed and deformities were no longer regarded strictly as spiritual omens or objects of status. They were regarded as curiosities to behold – gifts to be shared, studied and catalogued. The floodgates where opened and freaks were unleashed upon the world. While many professional freaks came before them, the display of Lazarus and Johannes Baptisa Collerdo were the most well documented of the early organized freak show exhibits. The brothers, born in 1617 in Genoa, both horrified and intrigued the public with their dyadic presence. While Lazarus was handsome and well formed, his parasitic-twin brother was little more than a mass of deformed limbs protruding from the abdomen of Lazarus. Their popularity and financial success ensured that freak shows and human exhibition would be a worthwhile endeavour for managers and freaks alike.
In these early days, freak shows were presented to royalty only after well-received appearances as fairgrounds, tavern and store fronts. A single individual would be put on display, answer inquisitive questions proposed by spectators and perform displays of talent. The limbless Matthias Buchinger, for example, amazed royal and commoners alike with his displays of magic, music and rifle marksmanship in Dublin in 1720.
However, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that freak shows truly became what we all know and equate with the greatest shows on earth. It was in the 1840’s when the freak show became a truly successful and monetized business, when people with physical abnormalities became incredibly wealthy and the viewing public lined up to pay for the opportunity to witness human marvels, oddities and freaks.