BBC History Magazine
Another side to Barnum
JOANNE CORMAC admires an account of the shady and often exploitative world of Victorian ‘freak performers’ – from the 161-year-old slave to ‘General Tom Thumb’
Debates about freak shows are tied into wider discussions on colonialism, race and pathology
John Woolf has chosen a good time to release The Wonders, a book probing the lives of Victorian ‘freak show’ performers. The recent phenomenal success of the film The Greatest Showman – an uplifting depiction of the life of the charismatic impresario PT Barnum, whose “Greatest Show on Earth” featured ‘freak performers’ – will surely have left viewers eager to learn more. However, those hoping for more of the sentimentality seen in the film, which positions Barnum as a saviour figure empowering those who have been forced to hide away from society, will be disappointed.
Instead, we meet a cruel, exploitative businessman. His first ‘exhibit’, Joice Heth, was a slave. She was marketed as being 161 years old; Barnum claimed that she had cared for George Washington when he was a boy. In reality, Heth was likely in her 70s: Barnum starved her to make her appear older. He kept her compliant with whisky and took advantage of her dementia until she seemed to believe the stories she told about the Washington family.
There are plenty of other shocking and sad tales to be found here. We meet Julia Pastrana, the unusually hirsute ‘Bear Woman’ who married her manager, Theodore Lent. Lent used his dual position as husband and showman to control and exploit her. He even profited from Pastrana’s premature death, earning large sums of money by displaying his wife’s embalmed body alongside that of their newborn child, who had the same congenital traits and died at two days old.
However, the story of the freak show and its performers is nuanced and complex. As Woolf deftly shows, there are stories of empowerment alongside those of exploitation. We learn of the apparently genuine affection between Barnum and performer Charles Stratton. Though perfectly proportioned, until his teens Stratton was only 25 inches tall. Today, we know that his pituitary gland did not produce enough growth hormone. To the Victorians, he was a marvel, displayed by Barnum as ‘General Tom Thumb’. Charming, witty, attractive and a talented actor, Stratton earned a fortune for himself, his family and his manager. He was grateful to Barnum for enabling him to make an excellent living and eventually achieve independence. Stratton had come from humble beginnings and, given his condition, his prospects were bleak. Performing in
Barnum’s shows saved him from destitution.
Woolf traces the rise and fall of the freak show from the beginning of the 17th century to the turn of the 20th. We meet Siamese twins, giants, dwarves and Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’. Along the way, debates about freaks are tied into discussions about race, colonialism, evolution and pathology, but the lives of the performers are always at the centre.
These men and women aroused fascination, wonder and at times disgust during their lifetimes. They still inspire curiosity today. Indeed, Woolf concludes by arguing that the ‘freak performer’ remains an important part of the entertainment industry – now dispersed across science fiction, medical documentaries and reality television.
By delving through the archives, Woolf gives these marginalised performers a voice – a voice that was rarely heard in life.
Joanne Cormac is a research fellow at the University of Nottingham, specialising in 19th-century music and culture