Greatest Showman: 20 Tremendous Human Curiosities of P.T. Barnum's Shows
20 Tremendous “Human Curiosities” of P.T. Barnum’s Shows

20 Tremendous “Human Curiosities” of P.T. Barnum’s Shows

D.G. Hewitt - August 14, 2018

20 Tremendous “Human Curiosities” of P.T. Barnum’s Shows
Nora’s father was a tattoo artist and he used her as a human canvas. Pinterest.

Nora Hildebrandt, The Tattooed Lady

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.

20 Tremendous “Human Curiosities” of P.T. Barnum’s Shows
Barnum’s circus was guilty of presenting Africans as savages. Posters Please.

The Ubangi Savages

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.

20 Tremendous “Human Curiosities” of P.T. Barnum’s Shows
Barnum’s most popular bearded lady came all the way from France to make her fortune. Wikipedia.

Madame Clofullia, “The Bearded Lady of Geneva”

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.

20 Tremendous “Human Curiosities” of P.T. Barnum’s Shows
Barnum’s “Tattooed Prince” has a back story as colorful as his skin. Wikipedia.

George Constentenus, The Tattooed Prince

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.

20 Tremendous “Human Curiosities” of P.T. Barnum’s Shows
Even Barnum didn’t really believe in his fake mermaid, but it made his name as a showman. Wikipedia.

The Feejee Mermaid

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.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Feejee Mermaid: Early Barnum Hoax.” Live Science, September 2016.

“True Tales Of The Bearded Lady And The Dog-Faced Boy.” Neatorama.

“Barnum Continues to Hoodwink Audiences in The Greatest Showman.” Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

“The Greatest Show on Earth? The Myths of The Victorian Freak Show”. History Extra. May 26, 2020

“Inside The Tragic Stories Of 9 ‘Freak Show’ Performers”. By Erin Kelly. ATI. October 18, 2021

“The strange tale of the tattooed Irishman.” The Irish Independent, November 2017.

“Circassian beauties and the ugly face of race.” Al Jazeera, June 2015.

“Chang Yu Sing, The Chinese Giant.” The National Museum of American History.

“The four-legged woman was a real person, not some ghoul or monster”. Marshall Ward. The Record. Oct. 21, 2021

“Incredible Lady Who Had Two Private Parts, Four Legs & Eight Children”. Esh. Medium. Mar 30, 2021

“A beautiful friendship – General Tom Thumb and PT Barnum.” Irish Times, January 2018.

“The fruitful sex lives of the original Siamese twins.” The New York Post, November 2014.

“The Real Tom Thumb and The Birth of Celebrity. By Kathleen Hawkins. BBC News. 25 November 2014

“General Tom Thumb Was the Most Famous Circus ‘Freak’ of All Time”. Noelle Talmon. Ranker. December 28, 2018

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