Freak Lore

The Lion Tamer

The Lion Tamer has been around as long as there have been circuses. George Wombwell is considered by most to be the father of Lion Taming for entertainment purposes. His Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie toured from the late 1700’s until the mid 1800’s. Lion taming is essentially the training of lions for entertainment purposes, particularly in circuses. The term is also often used for the training and display of other big cats such as tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and cougars. While trained to perform certain actions or “tricks”, the animals never become truly “tamed”, hence, lion taming is a dangerous occupation due to the obvious risks of toying with powerful instinctive carnivores.

The Pickled Punk

Pickled Punks are the preserving and displaying of stillbirths usually in a clear jar of embalming fluids. The practice is centuries old. King Frederick III of Denmark had a personal collection of punks numbering in the thousands. Ulisse Aldrovandi, an Italian naturalist, had a collection consisting of eighteen thousand various specimens. Pickled punks became most popular during the golden age of sideshows and experienced a huge revival in the 1950s and 1960s. Several sideshows featured extensive punk displays – some authentic and others faked or gaffed. During the 1970’s, laws began to restrict the display of human remains. Laws from state to state often varied adding to the confusion. Though still technically legal in several states, the Pickled Punk sideshow is now all but preserved in the history books.

The Juggler

Juggling has been around since ancient times, though the history of juggling in circuses dates to 1768 when Philip Astley opened the modern circus. During this time jugglers were employed to perform with clowns and horse acts. Jugglers have been a part of circuses worldwide ever since. Over the decades the juggler has become a favorite sideshow performer with increasingly creepy or outrageous acts.

Juggling flaming torches, running chainsaws, and other dangerous combinations while blindfolded and on stilts are not uncommon in modern sideshows.

Tattooed Lady

The Tattooed Lady is a general term used to describe the first “self-made freaks” in circus sideshows. A precursor to modern body mutilation acts, these “freaks” enjoyed more freedom and financial independence than other women of the day. During the Victorian era these ladies were allowed to show much more skin than would be normally considered acceptable. By the fact that the body was the canvas, these women literally and figuratively exposed themselves to male onlookers and as such were tremendously popular sideshow acts. By today’s standards the Tattooed Lady sideshow would barely receive any attention and as such is an all but obsolete act.

Bearded Lady

The Bearded Lady was, and to some extent still is, a popular sideshow act. Usually caused by hormonal imbalances resulting in excess androgen or rare genetic disorders, bearded ladies were rare and sought after in early circus sideshows.  When a true “bearded lady” was unavailable, many circuses gaffed the act by applying a fake beard over a voluptuous woman creating for the male audience a bit of a strange dichotomy – beautiful female body with a manlike beard!

Three Legged Man

Francesco Lentini was so liked and respected that his fellow performers simply referred to him as “The King”. During his 40 year career, Francesco worked for every major circus as “The Three Legged Man”. Technically he was born with the leg and working genitals of a twin brother who was fused to his spine. Though each of his three legs was different length, Francesco was able to do many normal activities like dance, kick a soccer ball, and even ice skate. The extreme rareness of his condition makes it a virtual certainty that Francesco will be the only “Three Legged Man”. He died in 1966 at the age of 78.

Human Cannonball

In 1877, performing as “Zazel”, 14 year old Rossa Richter became an instant celebrity from being launched by a spring style cannon at the Royal Aquarium in London. Human Cannonball acts have been a circus staple ever since. Early cannons used rubber bands or spring style platforms to launch the performer. Modern acts usually employ compressed air cylinders. Gunpowder is only used as a visual and audible effect. The world record human cannonball flight stands at 193ft set by David Smith Jr. in 2011 reaching a height of 76 feet and traveling at 74mph!

Feejee Mermaid

The Feejee Mermaid made its arrive in June 1842 when Moses Kimball leased the “Mermaid” to P.T.Barnum for $12.50 per week. Though many people believed Barnum’s claim, the Feejee mermaid was a clever hoax comprising of the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a fish, covered in papier-mâché. Hoax or not, the Feejee Mermaid was a smash success and inspired any number of knock off mermaid sideshows, including elaborate projections of “mermaids” into fish bowls giving the illusion of a live miniature mermaid. Though the original exhibit was lost in a fire in 1860, the replacement exhibit seems to belong to Harvard University, though several others also lay claim to “the original” Feejee Mermaid.