The Bigtopia Barnumstormers consist of acts that toured with various circuses in the United States and in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th Century. The players represent biological sports who display a variety of physical deformations. These so-called "freaks" were frequently relegated to supporting themselves by appearing in circus sideshows.
The dictionary indicates that the word freak first made its appearance in the mid 16th century. Today there are a number of definitions. As a noun it denotes something or someone that is markedly unusual or abnormal such as a person with a physical oddity. In that same vein the word "freak" is used to describe someone who is sexually deviant or a person who uses an illicit drug, such as the freaks of the 1960s, the so-called hippies. If you are a stamp collector the word describes an atypical postage stamp with a unique defect.
John and Alice Durant in their 1957 book, Pictorial History of the American Circus have written "the public display of human abnormality in its various forms, however grotesque, has always fascinated rather than repelled the majority of people."
The success of the circus sideshow attests to this observation. People were willing to pay to view human oddities. What is the basis of this fascination?
Phineas Taylor Barnum understood the mechanism. The so-called "Shakespeare of advertising" knew that people would pay to see the unusual. In the summer of 1842 he put on display in his new museum the "Feejee Mermaid". This exhibition consisted of a dead monkey's head and torso in a fish's body. Barnum learned that people would pay a lot of money to see it. Real or scam, it didn't seem to matter. On the strength of these types of curiosities, Barnum's museum made a profit of nearly $3,000 in its first year.
Marvelous Human Curiosities. Freaks of Nature. Monstrosities. These were the features that attracted the masses to Barnum's American Museum in New York and to his circus sideshows. Was Barnum an entertainer, an exploiter, humbug or humanitarian? Who can say?
When we look at these freaks, is it compassion or something else we feel?