If you lived in the country or in a small town in 1900, visiting the circus would be something you remembered for the rest of your life. For most people, it was a once-in-a-lifetime treat. The physical strain and rough living conditions of a farm or a mining camp were part of a brutal life, along with worries about having clothes warm enough to withstand the winter and food enough to stay alive. Children had little opportunity to be children. They had to work to help their families survive.
Imagine then what experiencing the circus would be like for someone living that way, and how they must have felt when they heard the music and saw the bright, spangled costumes. The first American zoo opened in Philadelphia in 1874, but most people had never been to nor heard of such a place. Witnessing the strange and fantastic animals parading into town would have thoroughly amazed them.
The circus has declined in popularity in recent decades, for many reasons. There are more practical opportunities for people to learn about the world and see new things. Organizations like the Elephant Sanctuary and the Big Cat Rescue have shone a light on the horrors of animal abuse in circuses. Most circuses wouldn’t mistreat an animal, but the evil actions of a few stigmatized the industry. And, labeling a human being as a circus freak sounds cruel and dehumanizing. If you compare the definition of the word “freak” from a 1913 dictionary to the 2020 dictionary, you’ll see an exclusively negative moral judgment has been added.
The most popular circus of all time was P.T. Barnum & Bailey’s circus, known for its astonishing array of talent, animals, and curiosities.
Two performers in the Barnum & Bailey circus were the subject of a short article in the August 21, 1904 edition of the The St. Paul Globe (St. Paul, Minnesota). The thoughts of Charles Tripp, “the armless wonder” were captured, and buried deep in the Sunday paper on page 20. It is a fascinating look into the thoughts of someone who was labeled a circus freak–– labeled that way in the title of the article, as a matter of fact.
Charles Trippe’s partner was Eli Bowen. Charles had no arms and Eli had no legs, and they rode a tandem bicycle together, and called their act The Buffalo Express. A reporter from the Globe overheard a curious woman ask Trippe how performers spent their free time. The response Trippe gave made it clear that, however they were labeled, circus performers viewed themselves as professional entertainers who were proud to bring a little lightness to the hard lives of so many people.
“We have many ways of enjoying life,” Trippe told her. “Even sitting up here on a platform to be stared at has its compensations.”
Seeing the incredulous looks of those listening to him, Trippe added, “Just think what a wonderful opportunity we have for studying human nature. Every kind and condition of men and women pass before us. When we look down, we see courtesy and kindness, rudeness, selfishness, hate, and love. All the peculiarities of human nature pass before us. What could be more interesting to the observing man or woman— and I assure you there are many of us— than to run the gamut of human passions as depicted in their faces?”
“But what about when you aren’t on exhibition?” the woman persisted. “What then?”
Trippe considered and said, “We have our means of personal enjoyment. Of course, it depends upon the individual, just as it does in the unprofessional world. The human prodigy has the same feelings, the same sentiments, the same sense of pleasure in pleasurable things as the rest of humanity does.”
Trippe understood, though, that this wasn’t the type of answer the woman wanted. He acknowledged that he and the others had to stay aloof, because of the nature of what they did for a living. “If we become too common in the eyes of the public, we would undoubtedly lose our value.” Trippe seemed intent on humanizing the performers to his listeners, and attempted to convey there was much more to each performer than just being a Circus Freak. “Miss May, the giantess, for instance, is an expert needlewoman. Lionel, the lion-faced boy, has a great eye for beauty in nature.” Lionel had created some beautiful pictures, he added. “He is learning to paint in watercolor and that keeps him pretty busy.”
“The Korean twins are learning photography. I am myself an enthusiastic amateur photographer and I am teaching them the mysteries of the camera,” he explained. (It’s unclear why the Korean twins were part of the circus unless they had an act or were conjoined.)
“The midgets enjoy themselves during off hours. They get along better than some of the other prodigies.” There were five of them, Trippe explained, and they were from Hungary. Mr. Bailey had discovered them in Vienna in a little midget theater. “Their great objection to come to this country was their unfamiliarity with the English language. This summer find them busy at the English dictionaries. Now I notice they spend all their spare time studying on the peculiarities of American speech and before the season is over, they will be able to converse fluently without an interpreter.”
He smiled as he spoke of a young woman named Anna, who was just 26 inches tall, and made all her own gowns. He thought she would soon marry one of the midgets.
I admire Mr. Trippe for his insight into human nature and his ability to gently change the minds of his listeners. He refused to feel small, no matter how others might treat him.
I’m including a few of pictures of the performers here to honor them.
Image credits: Some images are screenshots from a YouTube video that featured side show acts, some are from the PBS American Century, and some are from the Library of Congress (LOC). LOC resources include their ID numbers.
Several performers had a disorder called acromegaly, which results from excess growth hormone. The onset is middle age. The initial symptom is typically enlargement of the hands and feet, followed by enlargement of the forehead, jaw, and nose, thicker skin, and a deepening of the voice.
Maurice Tillet, known as the French Angel. Symptoms of acromegaly began to appear in Tillet at age 12. By age 20, Tillet was transformed. He became a wrestler in 1937 and wrestled until his death in 1952.
Isaac W. Sprague was called The Human Skeleton. He had an unusual condition, which caused him to continually lose weight, despite a healthy diet. Sprague died at age 46, weighing just 46 pounds.
Francesco Lentini was born in 1889, with a parasitic twin . He had three legs, four feet, and two sets of genitals.
Ella Harper was born in 1879. She had a rare condition called congenital genu recurvatum, which caused her knees to be bent backwards, and made it more comfortable for Ella to walk on all fours.
Daisy and Violet were conjoined twins who had already achieved stardom in Europe, before coming to America.
There were also people who traveled with the circus because of their ability to perform stunts . The famous escape artist Harry Houdini had performed for circus audiences, while Max Schreyer performed daredevil bicycle stunts!
Finally, there were the performers who could interact with animals in a way that would ordinarily be deadly. Snake charmers were always the most fascinating and the highest paid of these performers.