Bringing to life the tragic and triumphant stories of Victorian freak show performers
Our verdict on the latest historical books and movie releases
Author John Woolf Publisher Michael O’mara Books Price £20 Released Out now
The Greatest Showman was a surprise hit when it arrived in cinemas almost two years ago and its catchy soundtrack dominated the music charts, but the musical failed to address the dark reality of PT Barnum’s ‘freak’ shows and the unethical exploitation of his performers. In his own
words, Dr John Woolf gives ‘a voice to those frequently silent performers, who created the wondrous age of the freak’ in his book The Wonders: Lifting The Curtain On The Freak Show, Circus And Victorian Age.
Woolf provides a detailed history of the freak show from the royal courts of early modern Europe to the Victorian fairs and eventually, the museums of America. Performers with deformities were displayed in a variety of venues ranging from theatres to aquariums and demand was so great, it became a struggle to find enough performers to fill them.
One of the best parts about The Wonders is that we are introduced to a cast of performers who all led extraordinary lives, from the conjoined twins Millie and Christine Mckoy – commonly known as ‘The Carolina Twins’ – to Charles Stratton, known by his stage name ‘General Tom Thumb’, who became one of the world’s first international celebrities, meeting Queen Victoria, President Abraham Lincoln and even Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.
Woolf successfully sheds light on the figures whose biographies have largely stemmed from pamphlets, which were sold and written by the showmen that owned them, and questions the reliability of the source material that was created to serve an agenda. For example, the author of the autobiography of Joseph Merrick – the Elephant Man – cannot be verified but as Woolf states, it was ‘written to encapsulate the Victorian values of self-help and hard work.’
Although it would be easy to focus solely on the negatives, Woolf offers a balanced argument and highlights some of the positives of freak shows. Anna Swan, who was over 7ft tall, performed at Barnum’s American museum and she was treated well by the showman.
She married a fellow performer who was also over 7ft, Martin
Bates, and they semi-retired to a farm using the money they had earned through freak shows. Their story is a reminder that for many performers, being exploited for their deformities was their only way to secure a living.
The book also highlights the uncomfortable reality that in many ways, thanks to television and social media, the modern world is not so different to the world of the voyeuristic Victorians. It is extremely thought-provoking to consider our continued fascination with ‘the other’, which in many cases still comes at the cost of exploitation.
Woolf has clearly done extensive, academic research for The Wonders but somehow manages to keep it captivating and easy to read. It is clear to see that he is passionate about the topic and he approaches the discussion around the performers and the freak shows in an appropriate and humane manner, transforming the so-called ‘freaks’ into people and giving their lives the recognition they deserve.
“The book highlights the fact that the modern world is not so different to the world of the voyeuristic Victorians”