It’s been many years since mainstream circuses had sideshow acts—and for good reason. As it became increasingly socially unacceptable to showcase people with physical deformities as “freaks,” these performers gradually faded into obscurity. But their influence is undeniable. And you just may encounter some of their descendents at the Strangling Brothers Salt Lake City haunted house near you this fall.
The Elephant Man: Joseph Merrick
Merrick has become almost as famous in death as he was during his lifetime, thanks to a movie about his life and Michael Jackson’s supposed interest in owning his bones. Merrick’s affliction, which English doctors of the late 19th century were unable to pinpoint, caused tumors and other growths all over his body. Photos show one of his hands several times the size of the other, and his head ballooned in size due to the uncontrollable tumors. Merrick became a genuine celebrity, gaining fans and friends as famous as British royalty.
Siamese Twins: Chang and Eng Bunker
Nowadays, twins who are born joined to each other are known as conjoined twins. However, many people still refer to these kinds of siblings as Siamese twins. This name came from the famous Bunker brothers, Chang and Eng, who moved from their native Siam (now known as Thailand) to the United States in the 1800s, becoming sources of wonder for people in Utah and around the country. Today, separating them would be relatively simple, because they shared almost no vital organs. But the brothers remained joined at the chest for their entire lives, until their deaths on the same day.
The Pinhead: Schlitzie
Schlitzie was one of the inspirations for the Zippy the Pinhead comic. Born with a condition called microcephaly, Schlitzie’s head and brain were undersized, and he only grew to about four feet tall. Schiltzie appeared in the famous movie “Freaks,” the infamous 1932 film, and had some dialogue—though it made little sense due to Schlitzie’s developmental disability.
The Three-Legged Man: Frank Lentini
Frank Lentini had an incompletely formed conjoined twin attached to his body when he was born. Thus he had three legs and was often billed as “The Three-Legged Wonder.” Lentini had trouble finding conventional work, due to his unorthodox appearance, and eventually caught on with several different circuses and sideshows. He had a career lasting decades; eventually he married and fathered four children, and lived to the ripe age of 85.
One of the earliest and most successful sideshow performers was Tom Thumb. Given his stage name by impresario P.T. Barnum, Tom Thumb—born Charles Stratton—stopped growing when he reached six months of age. He had intermediate growth spurts, but he never got taller than about 40 inches in his lifetime.
Stratton was very successful from his time working with Barnum, and even came to Barnum’s financial rescue. The men ultimately became business partners. Stratton even met Abraham Lincoln at the White House (reputed to be a haunted place itself) after his wedding to another little person, Lavinia Warren, became front-page news all around the country.
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