The term circus freak is a tough one to discern. Deemed barbaric and exploitive by modern terms, it was actually the preferred expression…by the “freaks” themselves during the long 100 year heyday of the American traveling circuses and sideshows. These were individuals who made a living (in most cases) the only way they could…by exhibiting their unusual attributes…even playing up their abnormalities to fearful crowds. By most accounts I’ve read, many of the intelligent ones were treated well. In fact some were revered in the highest regard; they were well paid, lived as extravagantly as Hollywood celebrities of their day, traveled the world and made acquaintances with royalty and the social elite. They found love, often with other freaks from the traveling shows, but it wasn’t uncommon to marry normal patrons who frequented the shows. Freaks with limited mental capabilities, however, didn’t fare as well as their smarter counterparts. Some had compassionate handlers but most were deemed less than human and were subject to physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.
In the heyday of the traveling circus there were several kinds of freaks and most of which I tried to portray in this painting…your biological freaks…were born with (or later acquired) physical abnormalities they couldn’t do anything about. These were your giants, dwarfs, fully or partially conjoined twins, your lobster boys and bearded ladies.
Another category are your self made freaks…often with an unwavering desire to be a part of the circus life, folks would cover themselves in tattoos or piercing and play up an exotic or monstrous persona. Often ticket sales dictated something more compelling than a clever name and tattooed flesh so frequently these folks also gained “acquired” skills like sword swallowing, acrobatics or fire juggling.
Another category are your exotic freaks. An individual would qualify into this theme simply by being of a faraway land or culture different from what was deemed as modern or civilized. Tribesmen from Africa, South America, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, The Philippines and the Polynesian islands were often exhibited as head hunters, cannibals, witch doctors, voodoo priests, and savages whether or not they actually engaged in these practices in their homelands. The most extreme and controversial case of this was an African Pygmy tribesman named Ota Benga who was exhibited in a cage in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo from 1903-1906. He was dressed in animal print loincloths, had apes as companions and was encouraged to act wild whenever patrons drew near. He was played up as “The Missing Link”, bridging the gap between apes and man.
A type of freak I chose not to portray in this painting but are still important to note were the carnival geeks. The term geek nowadays describes a nerdy type or someone extremely interested in a particular brainy subject but in the original meaning, these were considered the lowest of the low; they were not permitted to socialize with other carnival folk. These were vagrant drunks or drug addicts, often picked up when the carnival came to town and left there as the show departed. Its known that addicts of the worst order will usually do anything for their next fix…even act like a maniac in a cage, sling their own urine and excrement around, fight each other and most notably…bite the heads off chickens. This was undoubtedly the most exploitive facet of the traveling freak show but it was well proven that people would pay good money to see people in such a depraved state.
Not really freaks but an equally important part of the traveling show was the pickled punks and other curios. These were often malformed fetuses and animals preserved in jars. Usually they were fakes created to instill awe…most notably the fearsome Fiji Mermaid.
I did this painting with no intent to exploit but only to learn more about our strange world and history. Purposefully I wanted an eerie, yet whimsical representation of the traveling freak show but with a respectful, uplifting, celebratory message. Here we have a freak show owned and operated by Dr. Z…a freak himself (see if you can spot him in the detail pics). In spite of my good intentions, I did meet with what I figured to be weird karma as I was doing the research for this piece. I approached a lady at the town library with an extensive list of books…all of them with “freak show” and “circus freaks” in their titles. As I handed her the list, she looked up from her computer and I saw that she had a severely disfigured face and malformed hands. My gut instinct was to retract the list and maybe approach someone else (or leave and nix this project altogether!) but she seemed unfazed with my list of questionable reading material. She called her associate on another floor, read off the list of books (much to my embarrassment), smiled happily and told me her co-worker was gathering the books now and I should take the stairs or the elevator to find him. I thanked her, then followed her instructions to retrieve my books. It turns out her associate was a severe hunchback, nearly bent in half with his affliction but he happily located and gathered my books for me. Both did an excellent job at their work but had me leaving there with an uneasy feeling of guilt.
In 1984 an “uppity Madison Avenue woman with lofty connections and who has never been to a freak show”…(every book I read made it a point to mention that)…lobbied her connections in congress to pass a law that would deem it illegal to exploit, exhibit or make money off of any type of physical abnormality. Already waning out of popularity, the freak show was deemed illegal with both freaks and patrons alike subject to arrest. Freaks were suddenly at a loss. Even “self-made” heavily tattooed or pierced individuals were at a loss for work. Some had lost considerable incomes, large homes, all of their possessions and the sense of belonging, love and community that the circus life once provided. In some cases, without the means to purchase the expensive medications they required, some have even died or endured the loss of spouses or children. Currently some folks with severe abnormalities are institutionalized, living a solitary life or at best eking a living on welfare or disability.
Whether deemed exploitive or a place for the different among us to find fame, love and a sense of community and belonging, the traveling freak show was an undeniable part of American…and world history. Incidentally, I’ve logged more hours on this painting (about 66) than any other. I hope you enjoy it and if you’ve made it this far…thanks for reading.