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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