Today of course it would appear sordid and basically crude to put people with any number of deformities or diseases on purblind display, it would be simple exploitative.
And yet during the Victorian era the imagery and practices of the freak show shocked Victorian sensibilities and sparked controversy about both the boundaries of physical normalcy and morality in entertainment.
But the trade had been around for centuries before the Victorians with all manner of physical oddities displayed in the circus or fairs and by the nineteenth century such shows were enormously popular.
Some ‘performers’ were happy to be involved finding that the protection of the stage enabled them to live, work and thrive in a world that would of seen there quick demise or imprisonment and apparently some the most successful performers were earning up to £20 a week, a very good salary by today’s standards.
If you have not seen it then I would recommend you watch ‘The Elephant Man’. The film follows Joseph Carey Merrick an English man with severe deformities who was exhibited as a Victorian oddity calledd the Elephant Man.
He became well known in London society after he went to live at the London Hospital to be studied.
His skin appeared thick and lumpy, he developed an enlargement of his lips, and a bony lump grew on his forehead. One of his arms and both feet became enlarged and at some point during his childhood he fell and damaged his hip, resulting in permanent lameness. Merrick left school at 12 was rejected by his family and in late 1879 just aged 17 ended up Leicester Union workhouse.
In 1884, Merrick well appear of his appearance contacted a showman named Sam Torr and proposed that Torr should exhibit him. Torr agreed and toured the East Midlands, then Merrick travelled to London to be exhibited in one of the notorious penny gaff shops on Whitechapel Road.
He then headed to Belgium and was sadly robbed by his road manager and abandoned in Brussels. He eventually made his way back to London; unable to communicate, he was found by the police to have Frederick Treves’ card on him. Treves came and took Merrick back to the London Hospital. Although his condition was incurable, Merrick was allowed to stay at the hospital for the remainder of his life.
It’s a deeply sad film I found but well worth a watch.