William Henry Johnson was born into poverty in New Jersey in 1857. His parents were both former slaves and were struggling to raise six children on a meager income. So, when young William started growing but his head remained the same size, they sensed an opportunity. They agreed that their son could join the circus if received a portion of the money. At first, he appeared in the local Van Emburgh’s Circus. But then its owner smelled profit too, and he sold William to P.T. Barnum.
Barnum named William ‘Zip the Pinhead’. He made up an incredible story for him too. Barnum would tell the crowds that Zip was from a remote part of South America, and that he was the sole surviving member of an Amazonian tribe. What’s more, he would make a dramatic entrance, rattling the bars of a cage he was trapped in. The audience would be told that Zip was the “missing link” and that he only ate raw meat and nuts. Over the years, however, this element of the act was toned down considerably.
Zip became one of Barnum’s biggest and most popular acts. Both men made a substantial sum of money. Though Zip wasn’t too smart, his fellow performers looked after him and ensured he was never taken advantage of, financially at least. In all, Zip performed for 67 long years and was a show business legend when he died in 1926 at the age of 83. Doctors, both then and now, concur that William was probably not microcephalic, nor was his mental capacity reduced as much as was once believed.
Martin Hildebrandt came to America from his native Germany in the early years of the 19th century. He set up a tattoo parlor in New York City in 1846 and made a good living inking sailors and soldiers. And he honed his trade practicing on his daughter, Nora. She soon went from being her father’s personal human canvas to being a human curiosity. As a young lady, she first exhibited her heavily-tattooed body in 1882, and before long, she had sparked the interest of P.T. Barnum himself.
In all, Nora’s had some 370 tattoos, covering almost all of her body. At first, when she was touring with Barnum in the 1890s, she followed the example of some of the more famous Tattooed Men and made up a fantastical back story. She claimed, for example, that she had been taken prisoner by American Indians, tied to a tree and tattooed. Soon, however, she got tired of peddling the myth and instead was honest. Unsurprisingly, most of the audience simply didn’t care, either way, they were just happy to look at her and marvel.
While some of Barnum’s ‘human curiosities’ enjoyed long and successful careers, Nora’s was relatively brief. In the 1890s, she was a novelty, the first female to join a long line of Tattooed Men. But soon, she was no longer unique. Irene Woodward appeared on the scene and won the attention of New York City. Not only was she more conventionally attractive than Nora, she was more driven and honest about her body art from the start. Indeed, Woodward is often regarded as the ‘original tattooed lady‘, since she was the first female to get herself inked purely as a career move.
As European powers started colonizing large parts of Africa, people were curious to know what the native populations of these newly-conquered lands looked like. Inevitably, reports were sensational, inaccurate and, above all, hugely racist. North American readers were equally as fascinated as their European counterparts and, by the turn of the century, so-called ‘savages’ were being featured in circuses and other ‘human curiosity’ shows.
Though P.T. Barnum himself may have spoken in favor of African-American suffrage and against the evils of slavery, the circus that bore his name featured a “Tribe of Genuine Ubangi Savages” until well into the 1930s. These unfortunate souls were all born in Congo, and the women had belonged to a culture where lips were stretched for aesthetic reasons. This was presented as an example of their ‘savagery’. Moreover, the group were called “The World’s Most Weird Living Humans from Africa’s Darkest Depths’. The audiences lapped it up, and they were often seen as the highlight of any show.
Not only did the Africans have their dignity taken away from them, most also lost their names and identities. Some were even billed as cannibals. Tragically, the popularity of ‘human zoos’ endured up until the Second World War – though in Belgium the last humans were displayed as late as 1958. The Baily and Barnum Circus was just one organization that had cashed in on the misery of untold others.
Soon after Josephine Boisdechene was born in Switzerland in 1829, her parents started to worry. She was unnaturally hairy, and the problem only got worse. According to some accounts, she had a two-inch beard by the age of eight. Doctors were puzzled and her parents were distraught. They sent young Josephine off to boarding school, where she learned how to behave like a society lady. However, when she graduated at the age of 14, she decided to make the most of her looks. With her father as her agent, Josephine toured Europe.
While performing in Paris, she met her husband, an artist called Fortune. They had a son, Albert, who was just as hairy as his mother had been as an infant. All three of them, as well as Josephine’s father, moved to America in 1853. They met with P.T. Barnum, and he invited the family to appear in his American Museum in New York. Josephine was promoted as “The Bearded Lady of Geneva”. She dressed as a classic European aristocratic lady, though fashioned her beard in the style of Napoleon III. The paying public loved her and her hirsute son.
A few weeks after Josephine’s first appearance, a man took Barnum to court. He claimed that his bearded lady was really a man. Doctors quickly confirmed that this was not the case. The publicity generated by the case made Barnum’s museum more popular than ever. To this day, many still wonder if Barnum himself arranged the trial as a cheap publicity stunt. The Bearded Lady’s popularity lasted for a few more years, though after the 1850s, her fate is unknown.
Quite where George Constentenus was from, and how he got so many tattoos, has never been firmly established. This is largely thanks to George himself. He was born in modern-day Greece or Albania in 1833 and, as a teenager started making a name for himself as a traveling circus attraction. According to the tale George told, he had worked as a pirate and adventurer. One day, he was taken hostage. His crewmates were killed but he was punished by having almost every part of his body tattooed.
Whatever the truth of the story – though most experts of the time did agree that he was decorated in traditional Burmese tattoos – he ended up in Paris in 1874. Here, he exhibited himself for several months before heading to America in 1876. After wowing the crowds at the Centennial Exposition, he joined with P.T. Barnum and toured with his Greatest Show on Earth for two years. After a short break, he toured with Barnum again. By all accounts, he was earning $100 a day at the height of his popularity.
It’s believed that ‘Captain George Constentenus’ as Barnum called him had 387 individual tattoos. Only the soles of his feet and small sections of his ears were free from ink. His tattoos included foreign writing, animal pictures and obscure designs. However, his career in America was relatively short-lived. He gained citizenship in 1883 but by 1890, he left for Europe. After that, his fate is completely unknown to historians.
P.T. Barnum was famously bold in his efforts to part the American public with their money. And the so-called Feejee Mermaid (otherwise known as the Fiji Mermaid’) is a great example of this. While the modern observer would see it for what it was – an obvious fake – Barnum was convinced he could make money out of this ‘half-human, half-fish’. And he was right. With the public fascinated by mermaids, crowds flocked to see the curiosity for themselves.
Barnum acquired the mermaid from a naturalist at Boston Museum in 1842. Regardless of its origins, the showman sensed he could make money from it, so he agreed to lease it for $12.50 a week. He then promoted it as the ‘missing link’ between man and fish. After whipping up public interest through exclusive showings and letters from ‘experts’ placed in major newspapers, he made a small fortune as crowds flocked to his museum.
In the end, Barnum only displayed the mermaid for five days. And, in fact, it soon turned out to be a monkey’s head and torso stitched onto the bottom half of a fish. Nevertheless, the stunt was enough for Barnum to make a name for himself as a true showbusiness legend. From that point onwards, he became the biggest name in America when it came to exhibiting ‘freaks’ and ‘curiosities’ and soon agents and potential performers were knocking on his door.
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