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Shock and Awe 

Finding beauty in the circus sideshow

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In the 1970s, when I was just a kid, my father took me to the county fair every year to see the sideshow. We didn’t ride the roller coasters, nor did we play games at the midway or get pink cotton candy. We went straight to the freaks.

I remember standing on a stool to get a better glimpse of “the fattest man in the world” through a glass window. His 1000-pound body was sprawled sideways on an enormous round bed. His gaze was fixed on “Welcome Back, Kotter” on television. The outer edges of his tummy appeared singed, as if they had been burned. I looked up at my father for answers to questions I couldn’t quite articulate. What is going on? Why are we looking at him? Is that going to happen to me?

My father just stared, too. We walked home hand in hand, downcast. I wished the Fat Man could come live with us. He might be happier, and I might get to watch more television if he was lying around our house.

Ever since then, human curiosities have left me, well, curious. And a recent visit to the Shelburne Museum’s “Circus Day in America” show stirred my passions anew for the unique individuals whom P.T. Barnum advertised as “truthful, moral and instructive.” Today, we’re not likely to run across such abnormalities as four-legged girls, but profound physical deformities certainly still exist, and I am freakishly drawn to them. I can’t explain this predilection, except by saying that I find those who suffer genetic mutations also have something so many others lack: backbone.

I sometimes watch “My Shocking Story” on the Discovery Channel and am moved by tales of people such as the “Octopus Man,” who decided to keep the parasitic twin protruding from his stomach instead of agreeing to separation. Rudy Santos supported his entire extended family in the ’70s and ’80s by showing the arms and legs at his midsection, but he has lived in poverty and seclusion ever since sideshow acts went out of fashion. And even though the “twin” might eventually kill him — by putting extra strain on his aging internal organs — Rudy had only one thing to say to the medical team before returning intact to his rural Filipino home: “He’s my brother.”

The plight of Octopus Man does not make me feel better about my own life. Rather, it makes me want to be a better person.

Famed freak photographer Diane Arbus said her subjects made her “feel a mixture of shame and awe.” She further elucidated that most people “go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

While most of us live in fear, freaks must dwell in courage. I recently read a book called Double Take whose author, Kevin Michael Connolly, was born without legs. He traveled around the world taking photos of people staring at him on his skateboard. This gutsy young guy collected 33,000 images of what people look like the minute they spot him. Everyone pictured looks pretty “freaked out.”

When the sideshow was in its heyday at the turn of the last century, people poured out of their homes to see the “Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena” that were advertised around town for weeks before the arrival of the circus. The hyperbole, vernacular and artistry of those posters were as wondrous as the sideshow itself. By the time the circus parade showed up, all the residents were ready to leave behind their drab existence for a glimpse of something greater — or smaller, hairier or fatter — than themselves.

“Circus Day in America” includes a spectacular array of original sideshow posters and prints. According to the exhibit’s curator, Kory Rogers, these lusus naturae, or freaks of nature, were a very serious business. The sideshow, named for its location next to the main tent, was one of the most popular and profitable forms of American entertainment between 1870 and 1910.

“At great expense, talent scouts searched the farthest reaches of the Earth to find the most outrageous oddities, paying the otherwise unemployable performers some of the highest salaries in show business at the time,” explains Rogers.

One of the most twisted tales to come out of the early freakshow era, he says, is the heartwrenching story of “Millie-Christine: The Two-Headed Nightingale,” whose portrait and poster are included in the Shelburne exhibit. Millie-Christine were fully formed twins joined at the sacrum — not one girl with two heads, as advertised. When asked about their togetherness versus individuality, the single ladies reportedly said, “We have but one heart, one feeling in common, one desire, one purpose.”

Far more complicated was their history: Millie and Christine were born into slavery, then kidnapped for their market value, only to be returned to their original owners, who turned around and sold them again. Not that it’s any consolation, but they were paid well for their woes. At the zenith of their “career,” explains Rogers, “Millie-Christine earned $25,000 for their engagement with the Batcheller & Doris Great Inter-Ocean Museum, Menagerie and Circus.”

Sideshow audiences were as much of two minds as Millie-Christine about what they saw. Yes, freaks distracted folks from their own troubles. Yet they also inspired admiration.

When 2-foot-tall Tom Thumb — the biggest attraction at Barnum’s American Museum in New York and hugely popular on the European circuit — married Lilliputian Queen Mercy Lavinia Warren in 1863, the wedding generated international enthusiasm. The guest list exceeded 2000 people. President Lincoln — who himself was giantlike, perhaps due to a genetic condition called Marfan syndrome — and his wife were unable to attend the ceremony but later hosted the couple at the White House.

One hundred years later, people were having second thoughts about sideshows. Eventually, displaying human curiosities for fun and profit was considered inhumane. Some states banned sideshows altogether. Vermont decided to charge steeply for the privilege of freak promotion. The profit margin slipped dramatically by the 1980s, when people basically stopped showing up for the sideshow. When the curtain came down for good, surviving freaks retired to Gibsontown, Fla., and collected unemployment.

I miss their presence — reminders of the tremendous courage it takes to be an independent force in the universe.

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