In the 19th century, before the development of mechanical attractions, sideshows were the mainstay of most funfairs. Typical shows included menageries of wild animals, freak shows, wax works, boxing/wrestling challenges and theatrical shows.
During the mid-1800’s, the display of sideshow freaks became big business, particularly in England and the United States. Small shows began to pop up in America in 1829, around the time of the arrival of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. In 1844, American circus pioneer P.T. Barnum travelled to England with his distant cousin, Charles Stratton (aka Tom Thumb). At just over two feet tall, the diminutive Stratton was instructed to lie about his age, claiming he was 11 years old instead of his actual age of five and billed as General Tom Thumb. P.T. Barnum had already experimented with faux-creations such as the Fiji Mermaid which he exhibited with great success in 1842.
By 1884, during the heyday of the Victorian-era freak shows, Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man) was displayed in London’s East End and billed as “half-a-man and half-elephant”. Merrick was exhibited in the back of an empty shop on Whitechapel Road (directly across the street from the London Hospital) by a man named Tom Norman, who collected and travelled the countryside with freaks such as Eliza Jenkins, Mary Anne Bevan, the Human Skeleton, and the Balloon-headed baby. Merrick had an iron bed with a curtain drawn around to afford him some privacy. Norman gathered an audience by standing outside the shop and drawing a crowd through his showman patter.
It was at this time that tastes changed and shows like Norman’s began to cause public concern, both because of the rowdy crowds that they attracted and on the grounds of human decency. London police and magistrates became increasingly vigilant in closing freak shows down.
By the 1950’s, the freak show had almost disappeared entirely. Today, Coney Island in New York remains one of the few providers of sideshow entertainment left in the world.
T.R.A.C.S at Timothy Plaza on River Island