Ten of the best-known sideshow performers
The old fashioned circus may no longer exist, but some of its greatest sideshow performers still live on in our memories. Here we present ten of the best-known “freak” acts, as they were known. These folks were often just as normal as anyone, but for a physical anomaly. Ostracized from society, they made the most of their situations and gained employment as circus and sideshow entertainers. Here is a list of some of the most famous sideshow performers.
1. The Original Siamese Twins
Chang & Eng Bunker
Twin brothers Chang and Eng were possibly the most famous of all sideshow or freakshow performers. They were born conjoined at the chest. In 1829 they were discovered swimming in the Kingdom of Siam (now known as Thialand). A promoter named Robert Hunter paid the boys’ parents for the rights to exhibit them as “The Siamese Twins.” Chang and Eng toured with Hunter, doing back flips and playing badminton to the delight of the crowds. After years of performing they tired of the show business and decided to quit, looking to live a more normal life. They bought a plantation in North Carolina and married two sisters. The brothers fathered 21 children between the two of them. In 1874 Eng awoke to find his brother Chang had died of a stroke. By the time a doctor arrived, Eng had died too.
2. Zip the Pinhead
William Henry Johnson
The famous sideshow performer Zip the Pinhead was born with a condition called microcephaly, characterized by a small cranium and tapered forehead. P. T. Barnum first hired Zip to perform in his sideshow in 1860. Barnum created a missing link persona for Zip, outfitting him in a fur suit and shaved head with a tuft of hair at the top. Zip played the character well, only grunting when spoken to. Over the course of his long and profitable career he went by several different monikers, including “The Monkey Man”, “The Man Monkey”, “The Missing Link”, the “What is it?” and “Zip the Pinhead.” He was highly respected by his peers and fans alike. Zip died in 1926 of bronchitis. He was in his 80s.
3. The Elephant Man
The story of the Elephant Man has been documented in theater and film. At an early age Joseph Merrick developed an unexplained condition that deformed and distorted his face and body. His mother died when he was young. After this traumatic event, his father and new stepmother treated him cruelly. Unable to find work, Merrick signed on with a traveling show as The Elephant Man. While the show was touring London, he met a surgeon named Frederick Treves who became his benefactor and friend. Merrick only lived until age 27. In 1890 he broke his neck sleeping. Apparently the weight of his head was the cause.
4. General Tom Thumb
Charles Sherwood Stratton
Everyone has heard the name Tom Thumb, synonymous with ‘small’ or ‘tiny.’ General Tom Thumb’s real name was Charles Stratton. Stratton, who was born with hypopituitary dwarfism, stopped growing after 6 months. He was only 2 feet tall. His parents taught him to dance, sing and do impersonations. In 1842 P. T. Barnum took notice of him and hired him to perform in his circus. General Tom Thumb became very popular with audiences, including at one performance Queen Victoria. Over his career he became quite wealthy. In 1883 he suffered a stroke and died at age 45. More than 10,000 people attended his funeral, evidence of his popularity.
5. The Bearded Lady
The term “bearded lady” has been used over and over in the history of sideshows. It was used to describe any woman who suffered from hirsutism or hormonally-based excessive hair growth on their faces. Maybe the most well known of them all was Annie Jones. Born in 1865, she began touring with P. T. Barnum at an extremely early age. She suffered a traumatic event as a child when she was kidnapped by another sideshow operator who claimed she was his daughter. In court she ran to her parents’ arms and the judge closed the case. Annie toured most of her life as The Bearded Lady, but bristled at the term “freaks” to describe herself and other sideshow performers. Annie was a talented musician and had a close relationship with her mother. She died in 1902 at the age of 37.
Famous carnival sideshow performers and freaks
Many sideshow performers protested against the term “freaks” to describe themselves and their fellow entertainers. Use of the term became less popular as public sentiments changed over time.
6. The Texas Giant or The World’s Tallest Man
The Texas Giant, Jack Earle, was seven feet tall by the age of 13. His actual height was reported from various sources from 7’7” to 8’6”. Earle’s medical condition was acromegalic gigantism. He began as a Hollywood actor, but quit after an accident involving a scaffolding fall. Thereafter he signed with the Ringing Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus freak show. It wasn’t his first choice, but he needed to make a living. Earle would spend 14 years with the show. He often worked with fellow performer Major Mite (Clarence Howerton) who stood 2’2” tall. Earle worked as a traveling salesman for the Roma Wine Co. after retiring from show business. In 1952 he died of kidney failure. He was 46 years old.
7. Fat Albert
T. J. Albert Jackson (Kent Nicholson)
Baby boomers may recall Fat Albert as one of the last sideshow performers before they were phased out of most carnivals and fairs by the 1980s. Jackson weighed 898 pounds at his heaviest and stood 6’4” tall. He was a prideful man who accepted his lot in life. Although he had no connection to the Bill Cosby cartoon character of the same name, Fat Albert often used the catch phrase “hey, hey, hey!” He died in 1988 at age 47.
“If people are going to stare at me, I might as well get paid for it.”
T. J. “Fat Albert” Jackson
8. Lobster Boy
The Lobster Boy Grady Stiles led a hard-scrabble life. Born with a condition called ectrodactyly, his hands and feet became deformed with the digits spread and fused together. Stiles’ condition was inherited from his father, who was also a sideshow performer. His father put him to work in the show at an early age. Over time Grady became an embittered alcoholic. In 1978 he shot his daughter’s fiance and was convicted of third-degree murder. The judge gave him 15 years probation. In 1992 his wife allegedly conspired to kill him after suffering too long from his abuse. An accomplice of his wife shot Stiles. He died in his home in 1992.
9. Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy
Fedor Jeftichew was a well-liked performer. Born in Russia in 1868, he came to the U. S. to join P. T. Barnum at age 16. He suffered from hereditary hypertrichosis (or werewolf syndrome). The condition causes excessive hair growth all over the body. At Barnum’s shows, Jo-Jo was encouraged to bark and snarl as part of his act. At other times he was well-spoken and entertaining to his audiences. Jeftichew contracted pneumonia in 1904 and died at the age of 35.
10. The Three Legged Man
Sicilian performer Franceso Lentini, known as The King of the Freaks, was born with a third leg. A partially formed twin left him with the extra appendage. Lentini spent his childhood in a school for disabled children, where he saw others with far worse conditions than his. This revelation led him to join a sideshow, where he would kick a soccer ball with his extra leg or jump rope to the crowd’s delight. In 1966 Lentini died of lung failure. He was 82 years old.
The men and women of the sideshow often lived outside of the mainstream but also tried to make the most of their situations. This list highlights some of the most famous and successful sideshow performers over the long history of the “freak show” era.
You might like: