Bring­ing to life the tragic and tri­umphant sto­ries of Victorian freak show performers

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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”

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