No one is perfect. No two people are the same. In some way, whether we realize it or not, we all have something unique and bizarre about ourselves. My qualities belong to me and that’s what make me, me. Whereas your qualities, no matter how misunderstood, belongs to you and that’s what makes you, you. We all have a lil bit of a ‘freak’ in us.
For a long time in human history, however, the term ‘freak’ has been used in a disrespectful and demeaning way to describe people with abnormal features. Here is a list of 5, real-life people who were exhibited as circus freak attractions.
1. Laloo, The Happy Hindoo
Lalo was born in Oudh, India in 1874. When Lalo was born, along with him came a “parasitic twin brother“, which connected to his chest. This wasn’t a full twin, but consisted only of it’s arms, legs, and pelvic region – this included a penis (no testicles). Lalo’s “parasitic twin” was able to urinate and maintain an erection. In 1888 he was discovered by an Englishman and was taken to Europe for exhibit. Lalo protested that circus performers be referred to as “prodigies”, and not “freaks”. Lalo also toured the United States in 1891 with several sideshows including Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey. Lalo was paid well. He died in 1905 in a train wreck.
2. Martin Laurello, The Human Owl
Martin Joe Laurello (originally named Martin Emmerling) was born in Nuremberg, Germany in 1886. Martin had the ability to turn his head a full 180 degrees. He began to perform in Europe during his twenties. In 1921, he took his act to the United States. He performed with sideshows such as Ripley’s Believe It or Not and the Ringling Bros, and Barnum and Bailey. In addition to participating in his own sideshow, Martin trained dogs and cats to do acrobatics. It is alleged that he died in 1955 from a heart attack.
3. Ella Harper, The Camel Girl
Ella Harper was born in Hendersonville, Tennessee in 1870 (or 1873). She was born with a rare orthopedic condition which caused her knees to bend backwards. Her nickname “Camel Girl” was coined by the fact that Ella’s legs resembled the legs of a camel’s and she also preferred to walk on all fours. She performed with the W.H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus from 1884-1886. Ella was paid very well for her sideshows. She stopped her circus acts with the dream of going to school. Not too much is written about Ella Harper after that. It is alleged that she died in 1921 from colon cancer. There is a specific blogger who wanted to find out what happened to Ella after leaving the circus. This blogger did their own research and wrote an article about the results. The article is titled: Finding Ella (my search for the Camel Girl).
4. Alice Elizabeth Doherty, The Minnesota Woolly Girl
Alice Elizabeth Doherty was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1887. Alice was born with a condition called hypertrichosis – a condition where hair grows excessively on the body. There are several others in history who suffered from hypertrichosis, but unlike them all, Alice Doherty is the only American-born individual with the condition. In addition, unlike the previous sideshows I mentioned, Alice’s freakish condition was advertised and managed by her own family, and not a circus. The father of Alice saw his daughter as a way for the family to make money. She began exhibitions at the tender age of two and continued until 1915. Alice was put on display in “storefront exhibitions” with the goal of drawing in more customers for business owners. Alice continued to live in financial comfort and died peacefully in 1933.
5. Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, The Hottentot Venus
I purposely saved this one for last. The reason why I chose to list this one last is because out of the previous four I mentioned above, Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman’s story is the most UNSPOKEN. Sarah Baartman is a name that I feel every black person should know. If you haven’t heard about Sarah Baartman, then I’m not surprised. Sarah’s body was exploited, much like we exploit “big-booty hoes” and chicks with “fat asses” in music videos, movies, magazines, songs, and even advertisements.
Baartman’s case, however, was slightly worse overall.
Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman was born near the Gamtoos River, Eastern Cape, South Africa. Her true birth name is unknown. There isn’t an exact year of her birth, but it is believed to be around 1789. She belonged to a group of people called the Khoikhoi. The Dutch continued to expand into South Africa. In 1810, Sarah Baartman signed a contract given to her by an English Surgeon named William Dunlop and a entrepreneur named Hendrik Cesars, stating that she agreed to perform sideshows in England for a certain amount of years before being freed. It was claimed that Sarah was illiterate at that time. Baartman became well-known across Europe for her abnormally enlarged buttocks. She was eventually nicknamed Hottentot Venus. It was also claimed that her labia (vaginal lips) hung a few inches low and resembled the skin hanging from a turkey’s neck.
Baartman died in 1815 around the age 26. It is claimed she died from several causes, some being: an inflammatory disease, syphilis, smallpox, alcoholism, or even pneumonia. Upon her death, Baartman’s remains were dissected. Her body was made into a plaster cast. Her brain and labia were removed and placed into a jar. All, including her skeleton, were put on display at the Musee de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) in Paris.
Over 150 years later, Sarah’s remains were taken down from display in 1974. In 1994, the then President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, requested that France turn over Baartman’s remains to South Africa to be put to rest.
This request took 8 years to see fulfilled. Baartman’s body was finally laid to rest in South Africa in 2002.
Baartman’s story has different sides. Some say she participated in the circus by force, while others say she did so willingly. Some say she made good money, while others say she didn’t have enough, and that’s why she resorted to prostitution. Whatever the case may be, Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman was a real-life person.
For more information on Baartman and to see her plaster cast, click here.
Years ago, it was a common act to entertain one’s self using bizarre images of other people. However, as time went on, things changed. The term “freak” was slowly replaced with euphemisms such as “prodigy”, “oddity”, “strange” or even “unique”. In modern times it’s also considered rude to stare at people because of their physical differences.
Some freak show performers were forced into the circus, while others participated on their own free will. The freak shows helped circus performers make a living. They were able to support themselves financially, and some even became wealthy. All in all, whether we would like to admit it or not, freak shows still exist today – they just come in a different shades and forms.