P.T. Barnum was a businessman and an owner of one of the most famous circuses of all time. He seemed to love show business, at least if his portrayal in The Greatest Showman was any indication. Although, as it turns out that movie got a lot about him and his show wrong. So, why not take the time here to inform yourself on the truth about P.T. Barnum’s famous circus and sideshow acts.
The Man Himself
While Barnum ran one of the most famous circuses of all time, it’s worth noting what the man himself was like. He had several small businesses before his circus, including a newspaper. He was also a politician, serving on the Connecticut legislature in 1865. It wasn’t until he was 60 that he began his work on the circus. He’s often credited with the quote “There’s a sucker born every minute”. And here’s some of the acts he put on that proved him right.
The Circassian Beauty
“Circassian Beauties” were a stereotype of women native to the Circassia region. They were supposedly more beautiful and elegant than women from any other part of the world. Barnum knew about this, and decided to do up a woman to look like the supposed “Beauty” everyone was gawking over. It’s believed that the first woman to put on this act for Barnum was Zalumma Agra. Eventually, interest in the Circassian Beauty faded and the woman had to learn other circus tricks instead.
Conjoined twins are a rare phenomena. They’re also known as Siamese twins because of this pair used in a Barnum sideshow. Their names were Chang and Eng Bunker. They traveled through the US and Europe by themselves to make money off of their condition. The crowds they drew made them quite the pretty penny. When they were almost 50, they signed on with Barnum and earned a small fortune.
The Four-Legged Woman
Josephine Corbin was a teenager from Tennessee, born with an interesting body plan. She had two pelvises and four legs. Two of her legs were on the outer part, with two smaller, vestigial ones inside her main thighs. Her original title was the Four-Legged Girl from Texas before she was hired by Barnum. She was paid $450 a week, which is the equivalent of $13,000 in today’s money.
The Human Torso
While Corbin was born with too many limbs, the man who would be known as Prince Randian was born with too few. The condition is known as tetra-amelia syndrome and it means you’re born with no arms or legs. Having no limbs, he was brought from his home in the Caribbean to the US to be a part of Barnum’s show as the Human Torso. He was a part of the act for 45 years until the day he died.
European colonization heavily affected African communities. And their more unique appearances ended up drawing in large crowds to get a look at them. Barnum in particular displayed a a group of women from the Congo. For aesthetic purposes, they would stretch out their lips. They were marketed as a “Tribe of Genuine Ubangi Savages”. Shows like this are considered highly insensitive and racist by today’s standards.
The Missing Link
William Henry Johnson was one of Barnum’s most controversial acts. He was from a poor, African American family and was believed to suffer from a condition called microephaly. This caused his head to taper at the top. And when he was a kid he was sold off to the circus. Barnum displayed him in a cage and advertised him as the “missing link” between humans and apes.
The Chinese Giant
Sometimes, people are just as impressed to see a man of immense stature as they are to see a person with a strange body plan. Chang Yu Sing was already eight feet tall by the time he was a teenager. He traveled through Europe, and even met with the British Royal Family in attempts to make money. He wasn’t just tall, but was a musician and poet as well. Barnum ended up paying him an equivalent of $16,000 a week to have him perform for him.
The Giantess Of Nova Scotia
Chang Yu Sing was the giant, and Anna Swan was the giantess. By age 17 she was seven feet and five inches tall. She signed up to be a part of Barnum’s American Museum, but wasn’t there for very long. A fire in the museum almost killed her, so she moved back to Canada, her homeland, and became an actress. She later married an equally tall man and moved to London.
The Living Skeleton
Isaac Sprague was the first of a line of skinny men. Well, they weren’t just skinny. They were so skinny they were referred to as living skeletons. He was scouted as a teenager by Barnum, who paid him an equivalent of $1,400 a week to perform on the road with him. They worked together for more than ten years.
The Greek Albanian
The oddest thing about George Constentenus was that he was a foreigner. He was labeled the Greek Albanian, but he wasn’t even Greek. He did claim he was at least, saying that he was a descendent of a noble Greek man who had been kidnapped by Chinese Tartars. Then then proceeded to tattoo him against his will. Although, it was all just for the show.
The Tattooed Lady
While Constentenus was supposedly tattooed against his will, Nora Hildebrandt was a different story. She was the daughter or a German tattoo artist who honed his craft using his daughter as his canvas. She had 370 different tattoos on her body. She initially did lie, saying she had been captured by Native Americans and forcibly tattooed. However, she came clean. Not that anyone really cared, they just wanted to get a look at her.
The Bearded Lady
Josephine Boisdechene was the Bearded Lady of Geneva. Her parents were actually higher class people from Switzerland. They were worried about her health after she started growing excessive amounts of hair. She ended up being taken in a tour around Europe by her father, showing off her unique appearance as a side show. And she was a very successful one at that. Eventually, she moved to America with her husband, son, and father. And that’s where she met P.T. Barnum, becoming one of his most famous acts.
Jumbo The Elephant
Barnum was the first person to ever use an elephant as a part of a circus. He purchased Jumbo from the London Zoo, bringing him back to the US to do tricks. He became a widely popular attraction, even causing something called “Jumbomania”. Unfortunately, after years of performance, Jumbo was struck by a freight train during a performance.
While the death of Jumbo was unfortunate, Barnum’s circus was well-known for its animal abuse. It’s why animals in the circus are often abused, even today. He claimed elephants couldn’t feel pain, then would use that as an excuse to horribly mistreat them during transport and training. He also caught a group of beluga whales to display in his circus, but several of them died after only days as a result of poor living conditions.
The Feejee Mermaid
One of the oddities that Barnum kept in his collection, it was supposedly the skeleton of a mermaid from Fiji. While displayed in his museums, it’s believed it burned down with second museum. While people took as proof that mermaids were real and lived in Fiji, it was actually just a monkey glued to the tail of a large fish.
The Dog-Faced Boy
Fedor Jeftichew became the Dog-Faced Boy at just 16 years old. He was born with hypertrichosis, which made almost his entire face sprout long strands of hair. The backstory given to Fedor was that he was tracked and captured by a hunter. Barnum even claimed he was an uncivilized savage, with Fedor barking and growling to help sell the illusion.
The Lion-Faced Man
You can’t talk about the Dog-Faced Boy without talking about the Lion-Faced Man. Stephan Bibrowski was another person in Barnum’s shows that had hypertrichosis. His hair was even longer than Fedor’s, so it was claimed that he was part lion. The backstory for Stephan was that his father had been mauled by a lion while his mother was pregnant with him. How that would lead to someone being born with this much hair was not particularly clear.
General Tom Thumb And The Little Queen Of Beauty
Back then, Americans were shorter on average than they are now. However, dwarfism was still uncommon. Enter General Tom Thumb and the Little Queen of Beauty. Charles Stratton, who played Tom Thumb, stood at barely over two feet tall. And Lavinia Williams wasn’t any taller. The pair of them were individual attractions at Barnum’s circus, but things became even more sensational when they got married.
The Fat Lady And The Thin Man
Another pair of people in Barnum’s circus that got married were Hannah Perkins and John Battersby. The former was known as the Fat Lady and the latter was the Thin Man. Not only was Perkins over six feet tall, but she was 714 pounds. And Battersby only weighed a maximum of 52 pounds. They were often displayed together, but apparently they had good onstage chemistry because they were married after this. They even had a daughter, named Rachel. Unfortunately, Hannah had an accident while performing, which led to infected injuries. She died, and John followed her eight years later.
The Albino Family
People found albinism to be a strange oddity. So much so they wanted to pay to see it. Rudolph Lucasie was one such individual Barnum commonly displayed. He was one of the most famous of these albino acts, as his family were also albino. He was reportedly born in Madagascar and discovered by Barnum at another circus.
The 161-Year Old Woman
Studies suggest that the human body can’t live beyond 150 years. Well, back when Barnum was in business, people were more likely to believe a woman could be older than that. The story Barnum came up with was that she was the nursemaid to George Washington. They traveled and lied across the US for months. The woman would tell stories of George Washington’s childhood, making $1,500 a week ($48,000 today). Although, when she did die, an autopsy revealed that her age was closer to 80 than 161.