There was a period in American history when the circus was the ruling form of entertainment in most cities. The traveling circus brought wonder and mystery to every stop on its path. While some people fondly remember the talented elephants, elaborate athletic feats, and roaring lions — we’ve always been more interested in the ‘sideshow’. The sideshow was also known as the ‘freak show’ and it featured some of the most fascinating human beings ever. From bearded ladies to ‘elephant men’ there was always something amazing to see. Listed below are 36 of America’s greatest circus sideshow freaks and performers. Some of these people will shock you but the story behind #2 will leave you speechless.
36. Myrtle Corbin – The Four Legged Girl
Myrtle was a regular girl born from Texas, well, if you ignored the fact that she had four legs. Corbin was born with two completely separate pelvises and a pair of smaller inner legs that she could not move. Corbin would join P.T. Barnum’s Circus and retire by age 18, completely rich.
35. Nicodemus The Indescribable
You may recognize this individual from the opening credits of the hit TV show American Horror Story. Nicodemus was born as John Doogs and he suffered from the affliction of truncated limbs. Despite his short stature and clear limbs liability, he was renowned for being incredibly strong and very talented in the realm of acrobats. There are rumors that he drowned in 1894 but no official records exist of his death.
34. The Two Headed Man
Some sideshow performers don’t need an introduction. This real image says all that you need to know.
33. Fanny Mills – The Ohio Bigfoot Lady
Nope, not that Bigfoot. Fanny Mills was born a sickly child who suffered from Lymphedema which caused intense swelling in her limbs. The affliction stayed to her lower half and eventually her legs and feet would grow so large that she would need size 30 shoes. Incredible.
32. Felix Wehlre – The Elastic Man
Wehrle became a famous sideshow attraction in the 19th Century thanks to his disease, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Due to a collagen deficiency Wehlre was able to move his skin as if it was elastic.
31. Chang – The Chinese Giant
The average height in China is smaller than that out West so that makes Chang Yu Sing even more riveting. Chang was known as The Chinese Giant during his heyday. He worked for P.T. Barnum and earned over $600 a week — a huge sum at the time. Chang was 7’9 when he quit growing.
30. Robert Huddleston – The Pony Boy
Huddleston suffered from genu recurvatum like Ella Harper. However, Huddleston had it worse — he could not stand straight and thus had to stay on all fours while traveling. Huddlestone lived until 1970 after a full life performing, restoring cars, and raising his favorite animals — rabbits.
29. Alice Doherty – Minnesota’s Wooly Girl
Little Alice Elizabeth Doherty suffered from hypertrichosis lanuginosa. This disease caused Doherty to be born with silky hair all over her face. She was quickly championed as an American Werewolf and she began performing at the age of two.
28. Oddity Fat and the Skinny Man
This delightful duo was at their zenith of popularity in the early ’90s. The big draw for these two was their comedic timing while they put on ‘boxing matches’ against one another. Nobody ever really got knocked out and the audience would end up crooning with laughter at their exploits.
27. Schlitzie – Last of the Aztecs
If you are a fan of classic cinema then you might recognize this man. Schlitze Surtees, also known as Simon Metz, was a ‘pinheaded’ sideshow performer. He appeared in the 1932 film Freaks and that is where most people recognize him. Schlitzie was afflicted with microcephaly which caused his bizarre size and mental handicap.
26. Mike – The Beheaded Chicken
Our first animal! Mike was a chicken whose head had been lopped off in an accident. The chicken would somehow live for another 18 months, quickly becoming a popular freak show attraction. Talk about freaky!
25. Chang and Eng – The Siamese Twins
Chang and Eng Bunker were Siamese Twins who were born in 1811 in Thailand. The brothers ended up in North Carolina where they would find love and fame. In order for the brothers to be married they would alternate days and weeks living with each of their wives.
24. Joseph Merrick – The Elephant Man
Merrick’s story has been extensively studied in both writing and on film for years. Merrick wasn’t born looking like this and it wasn’t until he was 3 years old that he started to change — manifesting odd bumps all over his body. Merrick was treated like a monster until he joined the circus as an exhibit — where he was treated well and paid handsomely.
23. Minnie Woolsey – Koo Koo the Bird Girl
Woolsey suffered from Seckel Syndrome which left her bald and mostly blind as well as mentally handicapped. Woolsey was withdrawn from an asylum in order to perform in the circus.
22. Frank Lentini – The Three Legged Man
Lentini was born in Sicily back in 1881 with an additional, nearly full sized, third leg. Wait, there’s more! On Lentini’s third leg, attached at the knee, was a fourth foot. Lentini learned to embrace his disability and thus became a well respected sideshow performer.
21. Wang The Human Unicorn
While Wang never performed in a circus we would be remiss if he were not included on this list. this photo was captured in Manchuria, China and it showcases a 12 inch horn extending out the back of a man’s head. The photo now resides in Robert Ripley’s Odditorium.
20. Ella Harper – The Camel Girl
Ella suffered from genu recurvatum which allowed her to bend her knees forward. Ella performed until she turned 16 years old when she decided to retire and go back to school.
19. Stephan Bibrowski – The Lion Faced Man
Bibrowski was born in 1891 in Poland but he would find his fame as a sideshow in Germany. Bibrowski suffered from the ‘werewolf Syndrome’ and he used it to attain great fame as a performer. He was notably intelligent having learned five languages.
18. Isaac Sprague – The Living Skeleton
Sprague was completely normal until he reached 12 years old when suddenly he couldn’t keep any weight on. Sprague joined P.T. Barnum as ‘The Original Thin Man’. He died at the age of 46, weighing just 43 pounds.
17. General Tom Thumb
Otherwise known as Charles Stratton. Tom Thumb was a member of the famous P.T. Barnum circus and he was famous for one simple fact: he had quit growing when he was only six months old. By the age of 18 Stratton had reached 2 feet and 9 inches tall. He would die at the age of 45 from a stroke.
16. Annie Jones – The Bearded Lady
By the age of five little Annie Jones had a full on mustache with some glorious sideburns. She was kidnapped as a child by a scientist who wanted to study her before she escaped to join the circus.
15. Mignon – The Penguin Lady
The disease phocomelia typically manifests in the form of stunted limbs and fused fingers and toes. Mignon was born in 1910 suffering from phocomelia but she didn’t let it hold her back. Mignon became a prized sideshow performer renowned for her unique appearance and her skill with the marimba, an African instrument. mignon would later marry fellow performer — Hoppy the Frog Boy.
14. Prince Randian – The Living Torso
Born in the British Guiana, Prince Randian suffered from Tetra-amelia Syndrome which results in the absence of limbs upon birth. According to reports, Prince Randian was brought from Guyana to America by P.T. Barnum himself.
13. Sam Alexander – The Two Faced Man
Mr. Alexander was injured in a gasoline explosion in his ’20s while performing at the Shubert Theater. As a result doctors had to remove most of the lower half of his face.
12. Eli Bowen – The Legless Wonder
Mr. Bowen turned his phocomelia disease into a lucrative career. Phocomelia is a genetic disease which results in ‘seal like’ limbs. Bowen lived to be 79 years old.
11. Mirin Dajo – The Invulnerable Man
Mirin Dajo was a world renowned sideshow feature due to his incredible ability to impale himself with a sword without injury. Doctors never figured out how he accomplished his feat though they tried very hard.
10. Rasmus Nielsen – Tattooed Wonderman
Rasmus Neilsen is a Denmark native who worked a blacksmith before turning into a sideshow entertainer. Nielsen was well known for his extensive body modifications.
9. Samuel Parks – Hopp, The Fearless Frog Boy
Parks suffered from osteogenisis imperfecta which resulted in a host of painfully brittle bones. As a result of his constantly breaking bones Park ended up being afflicted with a dwarfism that turned him into ‘The Frog Boy’.
8. Kittie Smith – The Armless Dynamo
Smith hadn’t been born without her arms. She had them essentially destroyed by her abusive, alcohol driven father. Her father was never convicted and Smith would end up in foster care until she found her way to the circus.
7. Leonard Trask – The Wonderful Invalid
Trask was thrown from a horse in his early 20’s and it was this incident which caused his neck deformation. His draw in the circus world was due in large part to his fantastically awful luck. Trask had suffered more near fatal incidents than the rest of the people on our list combined.
6. Willie and George Muse – Men From Mars
Albinoism is a curious thing. The Muse brothers were born in the 1890’s before they were kidnapped in 1899 by bounty hunters. Being African American albinos, the Muse brothers were considered extremely rare and extremely lucrative. George died in 1971 while Willie lived until 2001, dying at 108 years old.
5. Pauline Musters – The Little Princess
Here we see Pauline Musters standing all of 1 foot and 11 inches in height. Musters made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for having been the shortest fully grown woman of all time. Musters was born in 1876 and her size immediately made her the center of attention. Pauline became a professional, touring all through Europe with her dance routine.
4. Perumal Sami – The Other Happy Hindoo
Perumal Sami was from Madras, India back in 1888 and he became partially famous in the Ringling Bros for his parasitic twin. Sami toured all through Europe for the bulk of his career and he refused to touch ‘American food’, insisting on having his own cooks prepare Indian food. He retired in 1915 and there are no records following the man after.
3. Edouard Beaupre – The Willow Bunch Giant
Eduoard was one of 20 children though he was easily the most famous of the bunch. By 17 years of age Edouard was over 7 feet tall. Beaupre died of a pulmonary hemorrhage at 23 years old. He was over 8 feet tall when he died.
2. Grady Stiles – The Lobster Boy
Grady Stiles – a sixth generation ectrodactyly. What is an ectrodactyly? Well, this is a particular genetic disease where your hands and feet end up fusing into the claw shapes you see in this image. Stiles life went sharply downhill after his performing days as he turned into an alcoholic who killed his daughter’s soon to be husband in a fit of rage. He got out of a prison sentence because no prison could handle his disability. He was shot and killed in 1992 by another sideshow performer.
1. Susi – The Elephant Girl
Susi was born in 1909 in Berlin and she suffered early on from ichthyosis. This disease caused her skin to crack, turn grey, and begin to physically emulate that of an elephant — thus garnering her name. Susi suffered physical pain due to her disease and she was constantly bullied. Susi would end up coming to the United States in 1927 to serve as part of a troupe, eventually working for the Ringling Brothers.