Anna Haining Swan was born to Scottish immigrants in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1846. Though both her mother and father were of average height, she was a big child. Indeed, from an early age, she grew at an alarming rate. She passed the six-foot mark (1.85 metres) at the age of 10 and then kept growing for seven more years. Eventually, she reached a full height of 7 feet 5 inches (2.13 metres) at the age of 17.
Though Swan was a skilled actor and musician, as well as being academically gifted, she decided to cash in on her frame and joined with P.T. Barnum while still a teenager. However, the fire that engulfed his New York City ‘museum’ ended her time with the showman – and almost ended her life. So tall was she that she struggled to escape the flames through a window and it took a team of men to get her out of the burning building. Though she quit Barnum’s employ, she carried on in show business.
Swan’s big break actually came in 1870. She was visiting a circus in the city of Halifax, Canada. Another ‘giant’, Martin Van Buren Bates, was one of its performers. When the promoter saw Anna, he decided to form a double team. Anna and Martin toured extensively together. What’s more, they even got married in London in 1871 and started a family. With one young child to look after, Swan retired in 1880. Away from the attention of the circus sideshow, she devoted herself to looking after a small farm and became increasingly religious. Swan died in August of 1888, just a few days short of what would have been her 42nd birthday.
In the 1800s, certain parts of society developed an obsession with so-called Circassian Beauties. These were semi-mythical women from the Caucasus region. According to legend, not only were they exceptionally beautiful, they were also elegant, docile and unusually willing to please. This is why, so the legend went, they had long been the stars of royal harems and the most sought-after concubines and slaves throughout history. Of course, P.T. Barnum was only too ready to cash in on this public fascination.
Needing attractions for his American Museum in New York, Barnum contacted John Greenwood, his agent and talent scout. Greenwood was sent to Europe and then to Constantinople on a mission to bring back a ‘Circassian Beauty’ (or two). In the end, however, he found the right girl a lot closer to home. Exhibited under the name ‘Zalumma Agra‘, Barnum’s first ‘Circassian’ girl was probably a local young female, with her hair made bigger and held in place with the help of beer.
Zalumma and her fellow ‘Circassian Beauties’ were required to dress in oriental-style costumes, read poetry and generally act demure. The fact that they were neither from the orient nor even looked like people from there was largely irrelevant – the paying customers were satisfied. For a while at least. Soon, Barnum needed to freshen up the act. Simple Circassian Beauties were not enough, so his ladies were required to perform a range of circus tricks, including sword-swallowing. Before long, this type of exhibit died out, but not before Barnum had made a good deal of money from the phenomenon.
Unlike some other of his ‘human curiosities’, P.T. Barnum hardly plucked Chang Yu Sing from a life of obscurity and made him rich and famous. In fact, the Chinaman was already well-established as a celebrity when he signed for the American’s Greatest Show on Earth in 1881. To persuade him to come to the States, Barnum offered the Chinese Giant’ a princely sum of $600 a week – testament to his level of global fame at the time.
Very little is known about Chang’s early life. He was born in Fychow, China, in 1845. By all accounts, his parents were of average height. But Chang was different. As a teen, he grew rapidly. According to most estimates, he was just shy of eight-feet tall. His exceptional height brought him a job entertaining the Chinese emperor. And then, in 1864, he was invited to England to entertain the Prince and Princess of Wales. Chang was a huge hit in Europe. Crowds flocked to see him and he ended up touring England for two years, not just standing still to be gawped at, but reading poetry and singing.
With Barnum, Chang toured the world. Though actually a quiet, considerate man with a strong intellect, the show promoted him as the ultimate strongman. While in Australia, Chang met a lady from Liverpool and fell in love. The pair married, and Chang decided to quit show business for good. The newlyweds returned to England, had children and opened a tea shop. In 1893, his beloved wife died suddenly. Chang followed her just four months later. At his funeral, friends gathered to pay tribute to “a giant of giants…but with the kindest nature and a heart as true and tender as ever beat”.
Born in 1838, at the age of just six months, Charles Stratton stopped growing. He was just 25 inches tall. While the parents of young Charles may have despaired, a distant cousin, a certain P.T. Barnum sensed an opportunity. Under Barnum’s direction, young Charles learned to sing, dance and even do impersonations. By the age of five, he was ready for the stage.
Barnum gave young Charles the stage name ‘General Tom Thumb‘. He also taught the young performer how to create an on-stage persona. Tom Thumb was to be aloof and haughty while at the same time comical. In 1843, Tom Thumb toured America and then, in 1844, he went to London, where he not only performed in the West End but also had an audience with Queen Victoria and other members of the Royal Family.
Having made his fame and fortune with two tours of England, by 1847, Barnum believed Tom Thumb was ready for New York. His show in the Big Apple was a huge hit. What’s more, it was a major milestone in show business. Up until this point, critics and the public, in general, had been dismissive of ‘freak shows’. However, in seeing Tomb Thumb comfortable in his role (and richly rewarded for his work), the attitude changed. Barnum was poised to cash in on this and make a fortune of his own.
In the 1860s, Tom Thumb started growing again. Not much, but enough to reach almost one meter tall. He also got married, to a fellow ‘little person’. Their marriage was a major celebrity event. The couple became extremely wealthy and enjoyed a fine life in New York. However, Tom Thumb had a stroke at the age of just 45 and died. His wife survived him by 35 years.
Born in Maine in 1836, Hannah Perkins was a professional ‘fat lady’, and one of the stars of Barnum’s shows. According to most reports, she was the heaviest woman of her time, weighing as much as 714lbs. Notably, Hannah was also tall too – at over six feet. What’s more, she had wide shoulders, meaning she was naturally large rather than simply having been ‘fattened up’, as was undoubtedly the case for many of her contemporaries.
Hannah was already a star performer of Barnum’s in her 20s and was a celebrity in her own right when she met John Battersby. But her partnership with the circus thin man really made her a superstar. Barnum put them together as a unique double act. However, before long, the publicity stunt turned into something much more serious. The pair fell in love and married. Hannah became Hannah Battersby, and the happy couple had a daughter together.
John was naturally a weak man, and this was emphasized in the show. Hannah would cradle her much-smaller husband like a child. She was even alleged to have carried him to safety when a fire broke out at Barnum’s New York theatre. In 1873, John injured his back and was forced to retire from show business. But Hannah kept on performing, her fat lady act supporting the family and building a comfortable future for her daughter.
Tragically, the love story came to a premature end. Hannah fell off the stage while performing one night. She caught an infection and died in 1889. Her husband and daughter moved to Kansas where they settled into a quiet life away from the public glare.
Born in modern-day Thailand in 1811, Chang and Eng were Siamese-Americans. Since they were also the first high-profile conjoined twins, the term Siamese Twins became a synonym for the medical condition. They worked in showbusiness from an early age, mainly in European and American ‘freak shows’, though they also managed to overcome their disabilities and wider prejudices, including some obvious racism, to live full lives outside of the ‘human curiosities’ circuit.
As young men, Chang and Eng arrived in America in 1829. When they were 21, they decided to part with their manager and go it alone. The 1830s saw them tour extensively across Europe, though by 1836, they had made enough money to travel simply as tourists. In 1839, the twins moved to Wilkes County, North Carolina. They married local girls and fathered children, dividing the week between the different family homes. They bought land, even slaves, and looked set to live out their lives as country gentlemen. However, the cost of raising large families forced them to return to touring.
In the fall of 1860, Chang and Eng agreed to sign with P.T. Barnum. They did, however, only agree to perform in the impresario’s American Museum in New York City for one month. For this month, however, they were the undisputed stars of the show. Not only did they earn a small fortune, they also performed in front of a number of VIPs and other distinguished guests, most notably the Prince of Wales. It’s perhaps because they met the prince that the twins then agreed to accompany Barnum to England for a brief tour. The twins lived until the age of 62.
Over the years, P.T. Barnum exhibited several “fair-skinned” acts. Albinos were presented as curiosities of nature, and audiences paid good money to look at them close-up. But no such act achieved the fame of Rudolph Lucasie. As well as being the first of Barnum’s albino performers, he also had a family, making the act even more unique and memorable.
Where Lucasie came from originally is not certain, though, according to some accounts, he was born in Madagascar. What is known is that Barnum discovered him working at a circus in Amsterdam in 1857. The showman made him an offer, and Lucasie agreed. From 1860 onwards, he, his wife and their daughter worked at Barnum’s American Museum in New York City. How much they earned is not known, though the marketing from the time reveals that they were presented as ‘white Africans’ who had been born to ‘completely black’ families.
After the American Museum burned down, Lucasie and his family joined Barnum’s traveling circus. Increasingly, their wild hair was exaggerated, with the adverts talking up their bright pink eyes and pale skin. Unlike many of the stars of Barnum’s shows, what happened to the family in their later lives is not so well known, though their years in the employ of the Greatest Showman would have allowed them to lead a financially comfortable life.
George Washington Morrison Nutt was born in New Hampshire in 1848. Though his parents were of average size, young George suffered from dwarfism. His greatest height was just over 29 inches, and he made the most of it. From an early age, young George performed in ‘human curiosity’ shows> indeed, he was performing in a circus in New England when P.T. Barnum spotted him and invited him to join his American Museum in New York City.
As he often did, Barnum wanted to create a stage persona for his latest signing. He named George ‘Commander Nutt‘, and kitted him out in a naval officer’s uniform, complete with small dress sword. He was even given a small carriage to ride around in. All this combined to make Nutt one of Barnum’s biggest stars. However, Tom Thumb, a fellow small man, was his rival in more ways than one.
Nutt was alleged to have been in love with Lavinia Warren, another dwarf in the employ of Barnum. He was devastated, therefore, when she married Tom Thumb. To make matters worse, Nutt, in his full Commander persona, was required to attend the wedding and serve as best man. But still, despite his humiliation, Nutt toured the world with Barnum between 1869 and 1872. He returned a rich man and then decided to go it alone.
It was not a wise career move. Working with his brother, Nutt attempted to launch variety shows on the West Coast of America. He also tried to open several saloons, but these were failures too. Despite his lack of business success, Nutt did find love. He married an actress from California in 1879. However, he fell sick at the start of 1881 and died two months later.
Unsurprisingly, the man who would go on to find fame as Prince Randian was not born into royalty. In fact, he was born to slave parents in what was then British Guyana in the Caribbean in the year 1871. He was born with tetra-amelia syndrome, meaning he had no arms and no legs. But this didn’t stop him from becoming rich and famous, though he did so with the help of P.T. Barnum.
The legend has it that Barnum learned about the limbless young man in 1899. That same year, he arranged his passage to the United States. Aged 18, he became a star of Barnum’s shows, including the one he ran on Coney Island. Named Prince Randian and given an exotic back story, he would also tour with Barnum’s traveling circus, and was in fact active in showbusiness for an incredible 45 years.
The audience paid not just to look at Prince Randian, but to see him perform. Above all, he was famous for his ability to roll and then light cigarettes using just his lips – a trick he performed for the MGM movie Freaks. Prince Randian would also paint and write, using his mouth to hold a brush or pen. Away from the circus, he married and even fathered three daughters and a son. He made a home for his family in an upscale part of New York City and carried on working into his 60s, and in fact, had been working on the day he died of a heart attack in December 1963.
Josephine Myrtle Corbin was born in Lincoln County, Tennessee, in 1868. By all accounts, she was a normal child – except for one thing. Josephine was born with two pelvises. That meant she had four legs. The two inner legs were smaller and weaker, however, and she couldn’t walk on them. After her school days were over, she turned to showbusiness and joined her first circus at the age of 13.
P.T. Barnum didn’t need to come up with an original name for Myrtle – she already had one. From the start, she referred to herself as the Four-Legged Girl from Texas. The impresario simply tweaked this and presented her as the ‘Four-Legged Woman’. Since several other shows and promoters had similar acts, Barnum presented Myrtle as unique and genuine. Doctors were invited to examine her as part of the performance, and Myrtle would be asked to wiggle all four of her legs upon request.
At the height of her popularity, Barnum was paying Myrtle a massive $450 a week. Alongside her professional success, she also got married and – to the astonishment of her doctors – started a family. It was in order to raise her children that Myrtle eventually quit showbusiness. She died in 1928. Since then, medical experts have often looked into her case, concluding that the two extra legs belonged to Myrtle’s unborn twin, as did her extra sexual organs.
P.T. Barnum’s circuses and ‘human curiosity’ shows almost always featured an excessively hairy individual. For several years, “Jo Jo”, a chap with hair growing all over his body amazed the crowds in New York City and elsewhere in the United States. When he left, the Great Showman recruited Stephan Bibrowski. He introduced him and then promoted him as ‘Lionel, the Lion-Faced Boy’. Stephan would stay with Barnum for five years.
Stephan was born in Poland in 1891. He suffered from hypertrichosis from birth, meaning thick hairs covered every part of his body, with the exception of the palms of his hands and soles of his feet. By the age of four, he had been ‘discovered’ by the circus. A German showman called Herr Sedlmayer took him to Germany and exhibited him. But Sedlmayer also paid for Stephan’s private education. The pair stayed in Germany until 1902 when they went to America and signed up with Barnum.
To add to the act, Barnum made up a fabulous story for his new act, whom he called Lionel. According to this, Lionel’s mother was pregnant with him when she witnessed her husband attacked and killed by a lion. This affected her unborn child and he was born with feline features. It’s possible some of the audience believed this. But even if they didn’t the crowds still paid good money to see him.
As part of the performance, Stephan was directed to growl and snarl. He was presented as wild, even though he was gentle, multilingual and a thoughtful soul. Stephan left Barnum’s circus in 1907. He returned to Germany but came back to work on Coney Island in the 1920s. He died of natural causes in 1932.
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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