FREAK SHOW: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit by Robert Bogdan

FREAK SHOW: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit

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Sturdy scholarly study of a fringe topic long taboo in polite society. At first, Bogdan admits, he felt shame when asked about his study (a shame related to the revulsion many readers will feel), but he adds that ""I feel quite comfortable with my subject now."" He also points out that for the ""exhibits"" themselves, being a freak meant fame and fortune as well as degradation. His absorbing study covers novelty acts (sword-swallowers and the like); ""made freaks"" (such as the tattooed lady); ""gaffed freaks"" (fakes, such as ""Siamese twins"" who disjoined every night); and born freaks--the authentic legless and armless ""wonders,"" microcephalics, Siamese twins, dwarves, and giants who populated American carnivals from 1840 to 1940. Who can we thank for this bizarre bit of American showmanship? None other than P.T. Barnum, whose finest hour was staging the triumphal wedding of ""General"" Tom Thumb and the equally diminutive Lavinia Bump at Manhattan's Grace Church during the Civil War. Other freaks discussed in depth include the Hilton Sisters, celebrities in the 20's who ended up as checkout girls at a Charlotte supermarket; William Henry Johnson, also known as ""Zip"" or ""What Is It?"" and the model for the Zippy the Pinhead comic strip; and dwarf brothers from New York paraded around as ""The Wild Men of Borneo."" Bogdan also unearths rare information about Serpent Queens, Bearded Ladies, Circassian Beauties, South Pacific Cannibals, and a number of other curiosities filling the ""Odditoriums"" of an American hungry for novelty and naive enough to swallow what hucksters happily delivered. Seventy-nine incredible halftone photographs enrich the scholarship here. Unpleasant but impressive.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1988
ISBN: 0226063127
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press