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’

BBC History Magazine - - Interview -

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

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The Won­ders: Lift­ing the Cur­tain on the Freak Show, Cir­cus and Vic­to­rian Age by John Woolf Michael O’Mara Books, |RCIGU 

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