I have always been interested in freaks — because I am one myself, not in a spectacular way, but different enough from other people to stand out in a crowd. When I was eleven, I was six feet tall. If you happen to be five feet six and wear lifts, this may not seem to be a curse to you, but it was to me. I remember when I was in my late teens I drove Mother to a dancing class to pick up my little sister, who was ten years younger than I. In the class was a great oaf of a kid, head and shoulders taller than the others and as ungainly as an ox with a broken leg. Watching him trying to dance with the little girls, falling over chairs and generally making a nuisance of himself, I asked Mother, "Why don't they put him in a class with children his own age?" Mother gave me a curious look and remarked, "He's the same age as the other children here. That's what you looked like as a child." I've had a fellow feeling for freaks ever since.
I realize that I should not use the word "freak". In these days of euphemisms, freaks are now called "strange people". This is a pity because there are lots of strange people in the world, but only a comparatively few freaks. Also, I don't know of any word that expresses the concept of a dramatic physical deviation from the ordinary as well as "freak". So I'll use it. At least, it is better than the medical term, which is "monster".
If you regard yourself as a normal, healthy-minded person, almost certainly the very idea of a freak is repugnant to you. Although you probably wouldn't go as far as Hitler did and suggest they be killed in gas chambers, still you might very well feel they should be shut up in institutions where no one could see them. After all, think of the effect that seeing a freak could have on a child. Yet children are raised on stories of dwarfs, giants and fairies (all of whom have counterparts and probably their origins in human freaks). It is also true that children, far from feeling an instinctive horror of freaks, are delighted with them. But this is unimportant. It's the principle of the thing.
Dreamland Sideshow Freaks in front of bannerline showing entire company and featuring Mortado, the human fountain — he had holes in his feet and hands that water could be pumped through. This photo was taken in 1931 and features the Fat Lady, Skinny Man, Eko and Iko and many others.
Photo of unknown hunchback midget taken about 1890.
It is fortunate our ancestors did not take the modern, civilized attitude, for freaks have changed the course of history and greatly contributed to our knowledge of humanity. Bertholde, a hunchbacked dwarf, was probably the best prime minister the Lombards ever had. Jeffrey, a midget, was used as a secret agent by Charles I of England and distinguished himself for having more brains than most secret agents. Bahalul, a court dwarf of Haroun-al Rashid, was famous for his quick wit and resourcefulness. Triboulet, whose head came to a point and wore half an orange peel for a cap, was court jester to Francis I of France and inspired Victor Hugo's famous play Le Roi s'amuse and Verdi's immortal Rigoletto. Edward the Confessor, one of the greatest English monarchs, was an albino with snow white hair and red eyes. The Emperor Maximilian, who worked his way up from the ranks to the highest position a Roman could attain, was a giant standing between eight and nine feet high. Charles Lockhart, a dwarf who stood forty-two inches high, was three times state treasurer of Texas. I do not even mention such expert showmen as Charles S. Stratton ("General Tom Thumb"), who traveled extensively and acquired a comfortable fortune as did Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, Percilla and Emmett (the monkey-girl and alligator-skinned man) and Al Tomaini (a giant) and his wife Jeanie (a half woman), who ran their own sideshow and retired to Florida on the proceeds. During the last war, midgets made an important contribution as airplane mechanics, for they were the only people small enough to get inside turrets. It would seem to me that all these freaks were happier and more useful than they would be locked up in institutions.
Charles Lockhart, who stood 42 inches, served three terms as Texas State Treasurer.
In all reason, I would have to admit that some freaks are so revolting that they should not be allowed in public and would be better off dead. One such monster lived around 600 B.C. and was the slave of a Greek nobleman named Iadmon who lived on Samos. This unfortunate was a hunchback described as having "an enormous head with slit eyes, a long, misshapen countenance, a large mouth and bowed legs". A servant girl meeting him asked in horror, "Are you a baboon?" Because he was cut off from humanity by his revolting appearance, this monster made friends with animals. He told numerous short tales with animal heroes illustrating the weaknesses of people. His stories were so biting and his looks so disgusting that he was finally killed by a mob. His name was Aesop. Another even more hopeless case was a young girl born a blind deafmute. She was given to such outbreaks of fury that it was almost impossible to control her. Instead of taking the sensible course of shutting her up in an institution, her parents and a devoted nurse worked with her constantly. As a result, Helen Keller was able to revolutionize the treatment of the handicapped. During the three years I worked as a sword-swallower and fire-eater in a carnival sideshow, I lived and performed with freaks. A good freak would top every outfit on the midway, even the nude posing girls, and it's mighty hard to beat sex as an attraction. Perhaps none of the people in the crowds were normal, but they seemed to regard freaks with the honest interest of kids watching a friend who can wriggle his ears. After the show, a lot of them would cluster around a freak to ask him about his deformity and the freak would answer with the same simple frankness. Refined individuals have asked me with fascinated disgust, "How can those poor creatures bring themselves to be exhibited?" To understand that, you've got to know how freaks think. Many freaks have had cruelly unhappy childhoods. Except in a few cases, freakishness is not inherited, so freaks have normal parents. Papa is chain-smoking cigarettes outside the maternity ward when the doctor comes out and gravely tells him that his wife has given birth to a freak. Junior is never going to play on his old football team or go fishing with him . . . because junior has two heads. Parents almost invariably react to this news in one of two ways: they develop a violent hatred for the child or they refuse to admit the deformity exists. Both reactions are tough on the little freak. I once worked with a freak who was billed as the "Pig-faced Boy". He was one of the best-natured persons I've ever known. A hunchbacked dwarf, the boy's face came almost to a point and vaguely suggested an animal's snout. His parents stubbornly refused to acknowledge the boy's deformity and kept insisting that he'd grow out of it. His earliest memory was of a little girl saying she'd rather leave school than sit next to him. The local kids amused themselves thinking up ways to torture him, and when he heard the dismissal bell ring, he'd begin to cry because he knew the gang would be waiting outside. The gang was always led by the pig-faced boy's brother, who wanted to show the rest of the kids that he despised the dwarf as much as they did. I realize this contradicts what I have said previously about children being naturally interested in freaks. Of course, everything depends on how the idea of freakishness is presented to them. Children, like adults, have a tendency to attack anything weaker and different than they are; if there is only one white kid in a black school, the black children will attack him, and if there is only one black child in a white school he will also be attacked because he is different. If the children had met Pig-face alone as individuals, they probably would have been curious about him; operating as a mob, they would attack him. Dogs behave the same way. An individual dog may be gentle and friendly, but as a member of a pack he is transformed into a vicious animal. As soon as he was old enough, Pig-face ran away and joined a carnival. He loved the carny life and made a very good living at it. Ironically, the brother who used to lead the gangs turned out to be a failure. After constantly borrowing money from the pig-faced boy, he finally asked the dwarf to let him act as the little fellow's agent. Pig-face agreed good-naturedly. The brother and his wife traveled with the show and always spoke of the dwarf contemptuously, although they were living off him. I once asked Pig-face why he let them get away with it. "Oh well, he's my brother," said the dwarf gently. "Naturally, you want to do anything you can for your own brother." To Pig-face, the carnival seemed like paradise. For the first time in his life, his strangeness had become an asset. He knew that the success of the ten-in-one (carny term for the sideshow) depended largely on him, and he felt a glow of self-respect. He was surrounded by people who admired and even envied him. He told us with amused pride that some ordinary dwarfs with another carny were trying to imitate his appearance by using grease paint and New Skin. "They still look like ordinary people," he told me proudly. "Not me — I really look like a pig!" A good freak is so important that usually the concessionaire won't allow him to appear in the pit with the ordinary acts. The freak lives in a section curtained off from the rest of the tent, and the crowd must pay an additional fee to see him, often much more than they paid to see the rest of the show. This way of handling a freak is called the "blow-off". Many showmen count on the pit acts to pay the running expenses of the ten-inone and the blow-off to provide the profit. Often the blow-off carries the whole concession and sometimes pays part of the operating expenses of the entire carnival.
Elephantiasis of the scrotum.
Even freaks who are mentally deficient (although very few are) can be much happier in show business than in institutions. I once worked with a family of pinheads (a condition known medically as microcephaly and characterized by a long, rather conical head with a little tuft of hair at the top). Microcephaly is the only type of freakishness that affects the brain, and most pinheads are imbeciles. With our show there were three pinheads, billed as Members of the Savage Nairobi Tribe from Darkest Africa, who used to play together as happily as children. The one named Sally was the star. When the time came for the talker to "turn the tip" (bring the crowd into the tent) he would always call Sally to the "bally platform" (an elevated platform outside the tent) for her come-on dance. Sally's dancing was uproariously amusing, and Sally enjoyed it as much as the crowd. After a minute or so, the talker would shout through his mike, "What you've seen out here ain't even a shinney, come in and watch Sally do the African shimmey." Sally then rushed inside followed by the delighted tip.
Years later, I met the talker again. He told me that because some conscientious individuals had complained to the police about exploitation, the little group had been broken up and sent to different institutions. "I finally managed to locate Sally," the talker told me. "She missed her friends and was miserably unhappy. She was sleeping on the floor, the food was terrible, and no one paid any attention to her. I asked if I could get her out by signing papers making myself legally responsible for her. The director told me, 'We don't want her here. She's restless and unhappy, and keeps trying to run away. Besides, we're so overcrowded we've got patients sleeping in the lobby and three to a bed — mentally disturbed patients who have to be institutionalized. Get her out any way you can.' So I signed the papers and got Sally. Now if she misbehaves herself, all I need do is say, 'Sally I'm going to send you back to the institution,' and she'll run off and hide."