Image taken at the Vermont State Fair in 1941 by Jack Delano. Farm Security Administration image via the Library of Congress.

On one hand, the Victorians were all for keeping the body hidden beneath layers of fabric and thinking of England when confronted with a living penis. On the other, they were fascinated by any deviation from the rigidity of their self-imposed norms, paying hard-earned money to examine the skin connecting conjoined twins or the skeletal limbs of a man with progressive muscular atrophy. The societal mandate that the human body be hidden from sight, except for the act of exposing it for “instructional” purposes, was a contributing factor to the rise of one of the most notorious celebrations of human gawkery and othered bodies of all time: the freak show.

The travelling freak show was born of cost-efficiency. After P.T. Barnum’s American Museum burned, taking down nine other buildings and boiling a pair of whales alive in the process, he realized he could make millions traveling with his menagerie of exotic animals and human curiosities while avoiding the risk of housing them in New York City tinderboxes. He wasn’t the first man to travel with a wunderkammer (or cabinet of curiosities), but he was hypest of all hype men, able to simultaneously sell his show, full of “natural” and self-made freaks, as both educational and tawdry. Barnum added an element of glamour to the act of viewing microcephalics, dwarfs, and other human exhibits. Advertisements for his acts featured the performers in fashionable formalwear, and his shows included quasi-scientific lectures under the pretense of educating primarily working-class audiences.

From his example sprang copycats, and the freak show (or sideshow, if it accompanied a circus or carnival) ultimately became a bit less glamorous as it became a staple of rural American fairgrounds. Posters and banners advertising the acts became increasingly lurid, highlighting entertainers’ bodies with little or no pretense of education. Men, women, and children huddled together into cramped tents or booths to view othered and often sexualized performers side-by-side, often using the close proximity to laugh, insult, or ask deeply personal questions of the humans on display. However, the freak viewing fad was also an opportunity for individuals used to ridicule and disgust to become performers, showcasing and profiting from their differences rather than attempting to conceal them.

But since the fees paid to the men running the show often left little room for profit—spectators were invited to view ten freaks for a dollar—the travelling freak show performers often used their acts to sell pitch cards, pseudo-academic photographs sold during the exhibition of their bodies. These cards are both stunning examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century photography and fascinating glimpses at ways in which sideshow performers were forced to play to primarily white audiences’ prejudices, fears, and repressed desires in order to part rubes from their money.

A New York Times article cataloguing the contents of Barnum’s American Museum fire made a point to note the “Nova Scotian Giantess Miss SWAN, an exceedingly tall and graceful specimen of longitude, whose movements in and about the place were such as would be noticeable in an eight-foot pair of dividers. ZERUBBY, a beautiful Circassian girl, with a head of hair frizzled by nature as no barbarous iron could do it.” Tales of bodies and cultures from far-off lands were part and parcel for Barnum’s show. However, American audiences responded well to the idea that in this country, even freaks could live the American Dream.

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Photo: Wellcome Collection.

Take, for example, Chang and Eng, conjoined twins from the Kingdom of Siam (in present-day Thailand), who were also present for the American Museum fire. Pamphlets advertising the twins, which were hand-drawn before the widespread use of photography, often highlighted the idea of how grateful the twins were for the opportunities America provided. One such pamphlet featured a line drawing of a bald eagle with the words “United We Stand” emblazoned across the front. Inside was a sketch of the twins looking dapper in full evening dress. The joke was twofold: obviously Chang and Eng were far from the picture of a “typical” American their white audiences had, and, as the Civil War raged, the brothers advertised their unity. The brothers were never photographed in anything less than formalwear with a cutout revealing the expanse of skin connecting their bodies because it was also essential for them to distinguish themselves from Chinese immigrants, commonly called the “yellow peril,” hated and feared by much of a white America that also depended on their labor. The formalwear establishes them as a better class than impoverished immigrants; the cutout proves the trustworthiness of their claims.

In 1915, another pair of foreign-born conjoined twins would land on American soil. Daisy and Violet Hilton, born in England, had been sold as babies by their mother to a pub proprietor. Some of their earliest memories were of fingers tracing their connection, as their adopted mother would let pubgoers touch the twins for an extra few pounds. After failed tours of Europe and Australia, Daisy and Violet found success in the American freak show, but not before an image overhaul. Originally billed abroad as bastard children of royalty, their caretaker was advised that the story wouldn’t fly with blue-collar Americans, so the girls were rebranded “The San Antonio Twins.” Like Chang and Eng, their pitch cards usually focus on their opulent dress and elegance or their musical ability rather than the connection between their bodies, allowing audiences to insert a sense of glamour and dignity into the act of gaping at children.

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But while images of the foreign twins attempted to prove their apple-pie American-ness, George and Willie Muse—Black albino twins billed as Eko and Iko—were two native sons forced to sell themselves as savages to promote their act. By some accounts, the brothers were stolen from the fields where they worked by a carnival proprietor; others say that their mother, Mary, may have “rented” them to the circus with the understanding that the family would get a cut of the profits and her boys would be returned. Neither of those things happened. In pitch cards, the brothers are billed as “Sheep-Headed Cannibals from Ecuador” or bloodthirsty “Zulu” warriors. In a segregated America, where slaves had been free only a few decades, white audiences didn’t want their Black sideshow acts “All-American.” They wanted to fear Black male bodies, and the pitch cards gave them the safe terror they craved, along with a means of masking racism as curiosity about other cultures. Willie once told relatives, “They may have been laughing at us, but backstage, we were laughing at them because they were paying to see us.”

Ten-in-one performers walked a fine line between showmanship and ridicule, and pitch cards were often meant to entertain and titillate. “Fat Ladies” gave themselves jovial names like “Baby Ruth,” “Jolly Irene,” or “Dolly Dimples,” meant to indicate fun-loving, sporting personalities. In short, the kind of women who wouldn’t mind questions about how their husbands found their vaginas, which reportedly came almost daily. Their pitch cards were a mix of sexual, medical, and oddly childlike imagery, with measurements and weight featured prominently alongside sexpot images of women in baby doll dresses.

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Image taken at the Vermont State Fair in 1941 by Jack Delano. Farm Security Administration image via the Library of Congress.

Celesta Geyer, also known as Dolly Dimples or Jolly Dolly, was billed as “the world’s most beautiful fat woman.” She ended up becoming a sideshow performer when she herself visited the ten-in-one only to find that she was fifty pounds heavier than the current performer. The fat ladies in travelling carnivals were hard to classify as either “natural” or “self-made” freaks. As such, they were often subject to more verbal harassment and sexualized comments. But a good businesswoman knew to capitalize on the mix of prejudice and desire that compelled men to hurl insults at fat bodies.

Inspired by the slyly sexy acts of women like Dolly Dimples, former Coney Island performer and actress Helen Melon (whose pitch line was, “She’s so big and fat that it takes four men to hug her and a box car to lug her!”) was no stranger to the abuse reserved for fat ladies of the carnival circuit, even fifty years after its heyday:

I’ve heard it all before…“Oh my God look at her.” “Yo, there’s a girl for you, Leroy”… “Baboom, baboom, baboom.” “Thar she blows!” “She should be ashamed of herself.” Or my mother-in-law’s favorite, “I just worry about your health, dear.” I’ve heard it all.

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Jolly Dolly ended up profiting from both the desire mixed with repulsion she encountered as a travelling performer and from shammed concern over fat women’s health. After a major heart attack at 50, Celesta would adopt a diet that consisted solely of baby food and lose 443 pounds in just a year, earning herself in a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. She then published a part-memoir, part-diet book that relied heavily on images of her formerly fat body and status as a “reformed freak.”

Image taken at the Vermont State Fair in 1941 by Jack Delano. Farm Security Administration image via the Library of Congress.

Nowhere did heteronormative biases reveal themselves more than in pitch cards by “half and half” acts, usually claiming to be true medical “hermaphrodites.” While the loose morality that often surrounded the freak show allowed bystanders to gape and yell profanity at the human bodies on display, conventional morality drew the line at graphic displays of genitalia. It’s hard to know how many half and half acts were genuine and how many were just people who had dressed one half of their bodies in masculine clothing and the other in feminine. The pitch cards, however, give an interesting look at the era’s notions of conventional masculinity and femininity. Josephine Joseph, one of the era’s most famous half and half acts, appears three times in her pitch card: the first dressed in a suit and tie with a clean-shaven, short-haired right profile, a left profile in which she looks more like a Gibson girl, with a loose pile of gathered curls, and a third time wrapped in a drapey garment that just covers her left breast while leaving the other, well-muscled half of her chest bare. The photograph is obviously more about audience desire than medical discovery, yet audiences purchasing the pitch card could easily convince themselves that they were spending their money on a cultural and medical artifact, rather than a series of sensual—and gender-fucked—images.

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If the freak show was born of fire, then it died in the flickering glow of television, as audiences began to seek their voyeuristic kicks in the privacy of their own living rooms. Alone at home, no one has to pretend they’re watching American Horror Story because they’re curious about medical marvels. However, pitch cards that used to go for a dime now sell for hundreds of dollars. A 1909 sepia print of baby May-Joe, the “Three Legged He She,” complete with a few paragraphs on the back billing the infant as “the greatest freak of nature since the Siamese twins,” costs nearly $200, a clear indicator that, as long as these cards exist, we’ll always be more than willing to take a look.

Emily Alford is a Brooklyn-based writer who recently completed her first novel and is working on a memoir about everything she watched on TV all the times she almost died. Twitter: @AlfordAlice.