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02 June 2024 ( 406 views )

40 Captivating Vintage Photos Of Circus Performers From Around The World

Looking at historical photos is quite fascinating. Such images not only capture what life was like in earlier times but also show how drastically different things are now.

Whether it’s fashion trends or urban landscapes, each vintage scene highlights the evolution of human civilization.

Today, we’ve gathered fascinating snapshots of circus performers from the subreddit “r/Damnthatsinteresting“. Many of us know about entertainers like acrobats and clowns, but these photos of retro artists share a glimpse into the world of old circuses.

#1 “Madam Gustika”, Of An Ethiopian Tribe Where Stretched Lips Were A Cultural Norm, Became A Circus Attraction In New York. She Is Shown Smoking A Pipe During A Show In New York, April 12, 1930

Image credits: GaGator43

When people hear the word circus, they think of a spectacle filled with gravity-defying stunts, animals performing tricks, and colorful clowns. Back in the day, there was another act that was prominently part of these marquees.

Many traveling circuses in the 1800s and 1900s featured sideshows or freak shows. People with biological rarities were showcased in such events. Referred to as “freaks of nature” in popular culture, they had physical deformities such as excessive hair growth, additional limbs, unique tattoos, and missing body parts.

#2 Prince Randian, Also Known As The Living Torso, Was A Performer In American Sideshows In The 1930s. Born In British Guyana In 1871, Randian Was Known As The “Human Caterpillar” For His Ability To Crawl On His Belly

Image credits: botcraft_net

#3 A Circus Strongwomen Balances A Piano And A Pianist On Her Chest, 1920s

Image credits: Seahawks1991

People saw these oddities as a way to make a quick buck as spectators would flock to see these humans with mutations. Sadly, they were treated as objects of interest and entertainment, shifting the stigmas held by people into curiosity. These carnival sideshows required a separate entry fee from the main circus.

In 1881, P.T. Barnum, known for his promotion of sensational attractions and hoaxes, joined hands with James Bailey to create the Barnum & Bailey Circus, often dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth”. The biggest sideshow was part of their circus as one of the chief attractions.

#4 George Moore (The Living Skeleton) vs. Fred Howe (The Fat Man), Two Circus Performers, 1897

Image credits: Seahawks1991

#5 Johnny Eck, Actor & Freak Show Performer Who Was Born Without The Lower Half Of His Torso, Posing With His Brother Robert In 1922

Image credits: WildDog3000

#6 Ella Harper Was Born With A Rare Condition That Caused Her Knees To Bend Backward. She Had To Walk On All Fours, Earning Her The Nickname “Camel Girl.” She Made A Fortune With A Weekly Wage Of $200 In 1886

Image credits: curioustic

The Barnum and Bailey performers appeared in the center of a large tent, while a ‘lecturer’ walked around describing the unique characteristics of each person. As bizarre as this sounds, their popular entertainers included ‘Jo-Jo the Human Sky Terrier, whose long hair made him look like a dog’, Annie Jones, the Bearded Lady, among many others.

In the late 1800s, while touring in London, a group of 40 or so of these performers rightfully staged a labor strike. They demanded that the management of the Barnum and Bailey circus shouldn’t use the term freak for their show’s promotional items.

#7 In The 1910s, There Was An Austrian-American Circus Act Featuring Katie Sandwina, A Remarkable Strongwoman. One Of Her Notable Feats Was Lifting Her Husband Overhead

Image credits: silvercatbob

#8 Maud Wagner The First Professional Female Tattoo Artist, In 1904. (She Also Worked As A Tattooed Lady For The Circus)

Image credits: PerspectiveHuman3800

#9 Francesco “Frank” Lentini (May 18, 1889 − September 21, 1966) Was A Sicilian-American Sideshow Performer. Born With A Parasitic Twin, Lentini Had Three Legs, Four Feet, And Two Sets Of Genitals

Image credits: kalalalalkekeke

#10 Krao Farini (1876 – 16 April 1926) Was An American Sideshow Performer, Who Was Born With Hypertrichosis And Took Part In 19th-Century Exhibition Tours In North America And Europe. (403×599)

Image credits: c0ralvenom88

#11 1899, Two African-American Brothers With Albinism Were Forcibly Exploited As Performers In A Circus. In 1927 They Returned To Roanoke And George Recognized Their Mother, And Screamed, “Willie, She Is Not Dead”!

Image credits: Homunculus_316

#12 After The Death Of Her Husband, Mary Ann Bevan Decided To Enter A Contest And Won “Ugliest Woman In The World” & Was Hired By A Circus. She Endured The Ridicule Of Others To Give Her Kids A Better Life

Image credits: husker3in4

They held meetings to decide on a new name and even shared a strongly worded resolution: “That we, a majority of the living human curiosities at the Barnum and Bailey Show, emphatically protest against the application of the word ‘freak’ to us, and severely condemn its general assignment to those who, for their benefit or otherwise, were created differently from the human family as the latter exist today, and that, in the opinion of many, some of us are really the development of a higher type and are superior persons, inasmuch some of us are gifted with extraordinary attributes not apparent in ordinary beings.”

#13 The Man With A Parasitic Twin Growing Out Of His Torso: The Life Of Circus Performer Jean Libbera

Image credits: 2_Blue

#14 World’s Fattest Man In 1890 Was Large Enough To Be Considered A “Freak Show” In The Circus

Image credits: wakeup2019

#15 Circus Performer Jimmy Armstrong Having A Smoke Break. 1958

Image credits: Altruistic_Jicama604

The news of this revolt created a media frenzy across Britain. Articles were published on the ‘final awakening of personal pride in abnormal species of the human race’. A campaign was started to find a new name for them. Many suggestions like Anomalies, Peculiar People, Uniques or Unusuals were sent in from around the country.

#16 “World’s Largest Woman And Smallest Man”, July 1922. Nellie Blanche Lane, 642 Lbs., And Clarence Chesterfield Howerton, 2 Ft. 4 Inches Tall, One Of The Munchkins In ‘Wizard Of Oz’ (Who Was 9 Years Old)

Image credits: GaGator43

#17 1920’s Circus Clown. Tim Burton Would Freak

Image credits:

#18 Lucia Zarate, The Shortest Woman In History, Died Of Hypothermia When Her Circus Train Became Stranded In Snow In The Sierra Nevada Mountains In 1890

Image credits: Silly_Assassin

The word ‘Prodigies’, which was suggested by Canon Albert Wilberforce of Westminster Abbey, was accepted after receiving 21 votes. Eleven people voted for the name Human Marvels and there was one vote each for the other 10 names. The Prodigies were happy with the new name and life returned to normal.

#19 Martin Couney Saved Over 7,000 Premature Babies By Exhibiting Them In Incubators In His Coney Island Sideshow. By 1943, Nearly Ever Hospital In America Had One Of His Incubators – And He Wasnt Even A Doctor!

Image credits: husker3in4

#20 The Hilton Sisters: Violet (Left) & Daisy (Right). Conjoined Twins And Entertainers, Born In England During The Early 1900’s

Image credits:

#21 Photo Of Joseph Merrick (The Elephant Man) Circa 1889

Image credits: steelers3814

However, despite receiving monetary benefits, these sideshows created some moral dilemmas for the performers. Many of them were manipulated and forced into the industry. Quite often, their backstories and conditions were exaggerated by the managers. They made them seem like outcasts just to draw in larger crowds.

#22 Adrian And Fedor Jeftichew. At 16, Fedor Joined P.t. Barnum’s Circus As Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy

Image credits: omnificunderachiever

#23 Circus Freak Shows Used To Include Exotic Dancers

They were called Circassian Beauties
They'd backcomb their hair to look more "exotic" & give an elaborate backstory about how they're former dancing girls from the haram of a wealthy sultan. That way the show would be plausibility "educational" enough to get around legal loopholes regarding nudity.

Image credits: Masked_Daisy

#24 Former Circus Performer Jakob Nacken (7,3”) Was The Tallest German Soldier Of Wwll, Here He Is Chatting With British Corporal Bob Roberts (5,3”) After Surrendering To Him Near Calais, France In 1944

Image credits: Crowitiz

With time, the popularity of such shows dwindled as more and more people questioned the obvious ethical and moral issues of making money off people’s physical adversity. Later, medical advancements provided explanations and diagnoses for different conditions, causing sideshows to lose that element of mystery.

However, the public’s perception has changed and such immoral and unethical acts aren’t acceptable in modern times. Social norms have shifted and activists are fighting to end such injustices. What are your thoughts on this? Have you heard about circus sideshows before?

#25 Thomas Wadhouse Was An English Circus Performer Who Lived In The 18th Century. He Was Most Famously Known For Having The World’s Longest Nose, Which Measured 7.8 Inches (20 Cm) Long

Image credits: Vijeesh7

#26 Unzie Circassian Circa 1900. He Looked Like A Total Rockstar!

Image credits: LUX5454

#27 Chang And Eng Bunker Were A Pair Of Conjoined Twins Born In Siam (Now Thailand) In 1811. They Found Work As Freak Show Performers Across The World, And Both Got Married And Had Children In America. Chang And Eng Popularized The Term “Siamese Twins”

Image credits:

#28 P.t. Barnum With Charles Sherwood Stratton, Whom He Billed As General Tom Thumb, Circa 1850. Stratton Was The Most Popular Entertainer Of His Day, Socializing With Abraham Lincoln And Queen Victoria

Image credits: L0st_in_the_Stars

#29 Showman P.t. Barnum’s “Figi (Fiji) Cannibals”, Bought By Barnum In 1870 To Be An Attraction In His Circus

Image credits: BruhEmperor

#30 Julia Pastrama, Or ‘The Ugliest Women In The World’ Had Her Body Stuffed Against Her Wishes After Death Along With That Of Her Stillborn Son By Her Own Husband So He Could Keep Making Money Off Her

Image credits: [deleted]

#31 Stephan Bibrowski, Who Had Gorgeous Blonde Hair That Covered His Entire Body From Head To Toe, Was Born In Bielsk, Poland In 1890

Image credits: apple-_-boi

#32 Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (1789 – 29 December 1815) Was The Most Famous Of At Least Two Khoikhoi Women Who Were Exhibited As Sideshow Attractions In 19th Century Europe Under The Name Hottentot Venus

Image credits: [deleted]

#33 Annie Jones, A Bearded Woman Who Toured With P.t. Barnum As A Circus Attraction

Image credits: LoptThor

#34 James Morris, “The Rubber Man”, Had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (Eds) And Could Stretch His Own Skin Up To 46 Centimeters (18 In) From His Body Without Any Pain. 1880’s

Image credits: GaGator43

#35 Conjoined Twins Rosa And Josepha Blažek With Rosa’s Son, Franz [1910]

Image credits: Quistwood

#36 Millie And Christine Mckoy Were African-American Pygopagus Conjoined Twins. They Traveled Throughout The World Performing Song And Dance Shows

They Went By The Stage Names "The United African Twins"[1]: 125 "The Carolina Twins", "The Two-Headed Nightingale" And "The Eighth Wonder Of The World".

Image credits: SerlondeSavigny

#37 The “Wild Men Of Borneo” Were Underdeveloped Twins That Were Actually Sold To Circus By Their Own Mother – 1874 (More Info In The Comments)

Image credits: pumpkinmum

#38 Til About Alice Elizabeth Doherty Who Is The Only Known Person To Have Suffered From Hypertrichosis (Werewolf Syndrome) In The Us. She Was Exhibited As A Sideshow Attraction By Her Parents

Image credits: Kirkebyen

#39 Isaac W. Sprague (May 21, 1841 – January 5, 1887) Was An Entertainer And Sideshow Performer, Billed As The Living Human Skeleton

Image credits: justice15x

#40 Charles B. Tripp And Eli Bowen Riding A Tandem, 1890s.

Image credits: dannydutch1

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