If you have not been to a circus, chances are you still have imagery of the stereotypical circus scene: clowns in garish stage makeup, acrobatic trapeze artists, trained elephants, and a single courageous ringleader who tames the wild and ferocious lion. While all of these have taken place at circuses around the world during different points in history, you may be less familiar with some of the creepier attractions that brought the crowds rushing up to the box office to buy tickets just for a peek. Circuses of the past were not the cleaned up version of today’s circuses.
These headlining performances ranged from creepy to downright hazardous. Many of the “attractions” were really exploitative of different races and cultures. We like to imagine circuses as wholesome popcorn filled family fun, but the reality of the history of circuses is deeply drenched in corruption and exploitation. Human zoos and the showcasing of deformities was nothing short of dehumanizing. Sword swallowers and trapeze artists routinely died, often during their public performances.
Human rights eventually took a toll on the circus business, leaving the circus owners scrambling to clean up their acts and stay in business. While that is something we can all be grateful for, it does not stop our morbid fascination with the oddities of our nostalgic past. Our romanticized version of what circuses were moves to the forefront. Truthfully, most circuses were capitalizing on freak shows. Even the popular Ringling Bros. had their collection of self proclaimed freaks performing from town to town.
Here are the most famous, dangerous, and creepy attractions circuses of the past had to offer…
Freak Shows and Specimen Jars of Deformed Humans and Animals
Even in our current era, freak shows have a romanticized touch to them. Proud freaks cashing in on what they were born with. No longer content being harassed or shunned, they were the underdogs who made people want to pay to see them. Pariahs no more, their fame cemented eternally. Who can argue with that? “Freak” could really mean anything today, but back then, it was a term with negative connotations denoting one’s extreme physical differences. At the very least, while the freak shows may have not normalized physical differences, it may have helped to build confidence and camaraderie to those afflicted by suffocating social norms.
We have never forgotten about bearded ladies, or Siamese twins, or strong men. They have continued to be popularized in fiction and non-fiction, through books, television, and film. “American Horror Story: Freak Show” humanized its freak show characters and terrorized us at the same time. Countless documentaries about the origins of the Siamese twins or the science behind why ladies grow beards have been created over the decades.
While many performers likely did join the circus to escape the constant harassment of those around them, there are many documented claims of others being tricked, coerced, and even abducted and forced into joining. This leads to a much less savory story for these underdogs, and a more realistic picture of deceit and selfish people using exploitative means for their own gain.
Living, breathing people with deformities were not the only oddities on display. Out of the ordinary medical specimens were shown for others to gawk at. What exactly was housed in these jars? Oftentimes, human fetuses. The fetuses were already a very unusual and unnerving sight to behold, but many circus owners obtained specimens with odd deformities or congenital disorders. Preserving the perverse in specimen jars is a practice first historically recorded in the 1500s. While preservation of such remains was common practice for medical reasons, the distribution of such disturbing material among traveling circuses and side shows led to legal repercussions during the 1950s and 1960s. These specimens proved to be far too lucrative to give up so circus owners took to purchasing replicas instead.