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A Freak Show at The Ringling

Halloween is just around the corner and the newest installment of its horror series American Horror Story is underway. This season, set here in Florida (of course), the show puts a creepy spin on a 1950’s-era Freak Show, complete with a crazed murderous clown.

“Freak shows” and sideshows have gained a reputation in popular culture as showcasing the strange and unusual.  American Horror Story: Freak Show features the usual cast of fictional sideshow characters: Siamese twins, a bearded lady, the Lobster-handed boy, and the Strongman – but who are the real figures in the world of human curiosity?

We wanted to take this opportunity to introduce you to our own cast of characters – some of the more unusual stars of the Ringling Archive’s collection.

Bearded Lady
Helena Antonia, Bearded Lady

As one of the oldest records of a human curiosity in our Archive, this print of the bearded lady Helena Antonia (dated 1576-1603) demonstrates the long history of a fascination with difference. Helena was a favorite member of the court of Margarita of Austria, who later became the Queen of Spain.

Dating at least to the 15th century, extraordinary people such as Helena exhibited themselves publically but independently. It was not until 1840 that the organized version of a sideshow that we know today came into existence.

The Merry Monopedes
Manning & Ducrow, The Merry Monopedes

This cabinet card displays the “merry monopedes” Louie DuCrow  and his partner, Manning, both of whom, in the last decades of the 19th century, performed with just one leg.  DuCrow had a high-flying, adventure seeking career as he traveled through the US, Caribbean, and South America performing trapeze acts with other small troupes of performers. Even when his leg was amputated at age 23, he continued performing. 

Though they were not strictly-speaking sideshow performers, DuCrow and Manning drew audiences who were curious to see these uniquely figured acrobats at work.

Chang the Chinese Giant and Che Mah ChangChe Mah

Chang the Chinese Giant and Che Mah

Much like DuCrow, many sideshow performers also had an international reputation.

A world-famous entertainer who exhibited himself in Europe, the US and Australia, Chang “The Chinese Giant” was born in Fu-chow, China in the 1840s. Though some exaggerated reports claim that he was an astounding 15 feet 3 inches tall, more reliable accounts testify that he stood 8 feet in height. He was also renowned as much for his gentility and intelligence (he spoke more than six languages) as he was his height. Chang is often portrayed with a dwarf companion named Che-Mah, who is also featured in this collection. Chang retired from his sideshow career and opened a tea house in Bournemouth, England, which he operated until his death in 1893

Charles B. Tripp,”The Armless Wonder” and Eli Bowen, “The Legless Wonder”

Not all sideshow performers were only regarded as horrifying “freaks”.

One duo known as much for their gentlemanly personas as their unusual anatomy are Charles Tripp and Eli Bowen. Tripp, who was born without arms, was well known first for performing ordinary daily tasks with his feet, then for his elegant penmanship, paper crafts, painting, and photography. Bowen was known as both “The Legless Wonder” and “The Handsomest Man in Showbiz” and was renowned as an acrobat and sideshow performer. Together, the pair operated a tandem bicycle, with Tripp peddling and Bowen steering.

Sutherland Sisters

The Seven Sutherland Sisters

Many sideshow acts were famous beyond just the context of circus and carnivals.

With a combined total of 36 ½ feet of hair between them, the Seven Sutherland Sisters were one of the most commercially successful sideshow acts of the late 19th century. Such was their fame that beyond their act in which they sang and displayed their long tresses, the family also peddled their own brand of hair products – a venture that made them millionaires.

“The Iron-Jawed Man”
Signor Lawanda, “The Iron-Jawed Man”

Sideshows did not only feature the curiously formed, but also the peculiarly skilled.

Hugh David Evans (b.1849-d.1934), known as Signor Lawanda, The Iron-Jawed Man, was a renowned strongman  with a knack for using his jaws to perform outrageous feats.  After becoming a performer at age 16, he was known for such acts as lifting a barrel full of water with four men atop it - a weight of over 1,000 pounds - with just his teeth. He also gained notoriety and the attention of P.T. Barnum when he became the first strongman to lift a horse – a weight of 1,400 pounds - with his jaws.