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Freak Show: Most Famous Circus Sideshow Performers
Take a peek inside the tent: A look at some of history’s most famous and fascinating circus sideshow performers.
In the heyday of the sideshow, the circus would roll into town with lurid banners enticing curious crowds to part with their money for a glimpse of nature gone wrong. Inside those dimly-lit tents they encountered living nightmares – horrifying mutations of humans and animals. Conjoined twins, bearded ladies, pinheads, tall men, alligator and lobster boys…human marvels whose existence defied explanation.
Often ridiculed and outcast due to old-fashioned superstitions, those with unique and misunderstood conditions found their place in the circus, where they were accepted and could make a decent living from their individuality.
Here are some of the most famous and fascinating human oddities from the annals of sideshow history:
Grady Stiles, Lobster Boy
Grady was the sixth generation of Stiles family members born with ectrodactyly, where the hands and feet are fused into claws. His father was already part of a traveling carnival, so Grady began performing early as the Lobster Boy.
As an adult, Stiles was an abusive alcoholic. On the eve of his oldest daughter’s wedding in 1978, he shot and killed her husband-to-be. He confessed and was convicted of third degree murder. Because no institution was equipped for his condition, however, he received fifteen years probation.
In 1992, his wife and her son from a previous marriage hired another sideshow performer to kill him. He was shot three times in the back of the head while he was watching TV in his trailer.
He is buried in the Showman Rest Cemetery near his home of Gibsonton, Florida.
General Tom Thumb
Charles Sherwood Stratton was born in 1838. He stopped growing when he was six months old. He then began to grow again, though slowly, in 1847. By his 18th birthday, Stratton had reached a height of 2 feet 8.5 inches.
He began touring with P.T. Barnum as General Tom Thumb at the age of five, amassing fame and fortune that later allowed him a lavish lifestyle and business partnership with Barnum.
Tom Thumb died in 1883 of a stroke at age 45, six months after narrowly escaping a disastrous hotel fire at the Newhall House in Milwaukee that killed 71 people. He had reached a maximum height of 3.35 feet and weighed 71 pounds.
Four-legged Lady Myrtle Corbin
Myrtle Corbin, known as the Four-Legged Girl from Texas, was a dipygus. She was born with a severe congenital deformity of conjoined twining that caused her to have two separate pelvises and a smaller set of inner legs that she was able to move.
When she was just a month old, her father began showing her to curious neighbors for a dime. Eventually she attracted the attention of P.T. Barnum, and began performing when she was 13. She later performed with the Ringling Bros. and Coney Island.
By the time she was 18, she had made enough money to retire. She went on to marry and have five children. It is said that three were born from one vagina, and two from the other.
Wang The Human Unicorn
Wang the human unicorn never actually performed in the freak show. He was found in Manchuria, China by an ambitious banker who snapped a photo in 1930 of the 13 inch horn growing from the back of his head. The photo was sent to Robert Ripley, who offered money to exhibit Wang in his Odditorium.
Wang, however, was never heard from again.
Lionel the Lion Faced Man
Cristian Ramos was born in Poland 1891 covered in thick, long hair most likely due to a rare condition called hypertrichosis. His mother believed his appearance was caused her the fact that she witnessed his father get mauled by a lion when she was pregnant. She thought he was an abomination, giving him up at age 4 to a man named Sedlmayer who began exhibiting him around Europe.
Lionel came to the US in 1901 and began appearing with the Barnum and Bailey circus, then at Conet Island when he moved to New York. He retired in the late 1920s and moved back to Germany, where he died of a heart attack in 1932.
Isaac Sprague, the Living Skeleton
Isaac W. Sprague was born in 1841. He had a completely normal childhood, until he inexplicably began losing weight at the age of 12. He joined a circus sideshow in 1865 as “the Living Skeleton” or “the Original Thin Man.” P.T. Barnum hired him to perform at his American Museum. After the building burned down, Sprague toured the country.
He died in Chicago of asphyxia in 1887, weighing only 43 pounds.
Ella Harper, Camel Girl
Ella Harper was born in 1873 with a condition called congenital genu recurvatum, which caused her knees to bend backward. She was featured in W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus in 1886, but there are no references to her after.
Cheng and Eng
Chang and Eng Bunker were conjoined twins born in 1811. A small piece of cartilage joined them at the sternum, and they had two complete livers that were fused together. Their condition and the location of their birth is the origin of the term “Siamese twins.”
In 1829, they began touring the world as a curiosity with a man named Robert Hunter. When their contract was up, they went into business for themselves. Eventually they settled on a plantation in North Carolina, where they married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Anne Yates. Between them, they had 21 children.
Eng awoke one morning in 1874 to find Cheng had died. A doctor was quickly summoned to performed an emergency separation, but it was too late. Eng died three hours later.
A death cast of Cheng and Eng, as well as their preserved liver, can now be seen at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.
Schlitzie the Pinhead
Though he was billed as “The Last of the Aztecs,” Schlitzie was most likely born in The Bronx in 1901. He was born with a neurodevelopmental disorder called microcephaly, leaving him with a small brain and skull, and severe mental retardation.
Schlitzie performed in sideshows for many circuses. He began his film career with The Sideshow in 1928 and Freaks in 1932. Both films were dramas set in the circus, using actual freak show performers.
His last major performance was in 1968. He died in 1971, at age 70.