Freak Show Photos From The Sideshows Of The Past

In the past, a circus or traveling carnival without a sideshow was almost unthinkable. If this sideshow was a freak show, it made it a highly lucrative way to attract the crowds. What you see here are old freak show photos of a time long gone. 

Freak shows began with a rising popularity in 16th century England. Together with artistic performances, like sword swallowers and fire spitters, they entertained crowds in taverns and fairgrounds. But it was not until the 19th century America and England that freak shows were commercialized.

Society in the 19th century still viewed it absolutely acceptable for people to stare at others who were born different from themselves. Even more so if the difference consisted of being born with a deformity. They were called a freak of nature, thus the name freak show. P.T. Barnum recognized the opportunity to fill his pockets and created the biggest freak show of all. He used the crowd’s natural curiosity to make millions.

Freak Show Photos

“When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show.

When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.”                                                                                                        – George Carlin

The thumbling

Charles Sherwood Stratton appeared in Barnum’s touring act under the name Tom Thumb. This picture was taken at his marriage ceremony in 1863. Charles died at the young age of 45.

Freak show photos Tom Thumb
Matthew Brady/wikipediacommons

The Bird Girl

Some freak show photos picture people who were born with both physical and mental disabilities. Minnie Woolsey is one of them. She appeared as “Koo-Koo the Bird Girl” at a Coney Island sideshow until her death. Seckel syndrome kept her from growing any teeth or hair and caused her mental retardation.

Koo Koo
Wikimedia Commons

Owl Man

Many freak show photos show disabled people from the Coney Island Freak Show. Martin Laurello appeared there as the “Human Owl”, because he was able to turn his neck a full 180 degrees.


Fake face

While there are actual mutations where individuals grow two faces, Pasqual Pinon is not one of them. He had a large tumor growing out of the top of his head. To make it more “freaky”, he decorated it with a face that was made out of wax. Then he toured the United States as the “Two-Headed Mexican.”

Two headed
Wikimedia Commons

Singing twins

The conjoined twins, Millie and Christine McCoy, were born into slavery.  Later they were sold and forced to entertain the freak show crowds. After they managed to free themselves, they joined the circus as a singing novelty act and traveled the world for 30 years.

Siamese twins
Wikimedia Commons

Lobster Boy

Grady Stiles Jr. was born with hands that only consisted of a thumb and conjoined fingers. It is a genetic birth defect that affected many of Grady’s other family members as well.  He appeared as the “Lobster Boy”. People today are more familiar with his condition through the Horror show “American Horror Stories. A show that was also inspired by real killers. Grady was an alcoholic who ended up murdering his daughter’s fiance.

Lobster boy
Paul Balanchuk/Flickr

Pin heads

Most often, when freak show photos show siblings they are conjoined twins. This is not the case with the Jaramillo sisters. Although Natalia was seven years older than Aurora their manager/owner, Jack Brown, exhibited them as twins. Probably because their genetic defect caused the girls from Albuquerque, New Mexico to look alike. It is not completely clear how they first got into show business.

Charles Eisenmann/Syracuse University Library

Living skeleton

Since the age of twelve, Isaac Sprague was losing weight. Nobody can say for sure as of why this happened. He appeared as the “Living Human Skeleton,” and ended up dying at an early age due to his continued loss of weight.

Human skeleton
Wikimedia Commons

Needles and pins

Mirin Dajo was famous for being able to stick and stab his body with any sharp objects without injuring himself. Weirdly enough, he died from swallowing a needle.

Mirin Dajo
Phil Coppens/Wikimedia Commons

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