History or Hoax : Freakshows

History or Hoax :  Freakshows

Carolline Dew, Messenger Reporter, Columnist & Social Media Manager

Freakshows are a popular theme for horror houses, and television shows. Many people, however, fail to realize that freakshows were an actual thing that happened. I’ll go ahead and say that these were not a hoax – they were history. Freakshows were cruel ways of making money by exploiting people who were not considered normal. People with physical deformities were notorious for being featured in these freak shows. Some of these deformities included extra limbs, dwarfism, microcephaly, and other deformities.  One of the most famous collectors of oddities is P.T Barnum. Even today, he lives on through the controversial Barnum and Bailey circus. Barnum would search for ‘freaks of nature’ and convince them to travel with him for his freakshow.


One of the more famous freakshow ‘exhibits’ was a boy by the name of Grady Stiles. Grady Stiles was also known as the ‘Lobster Boy’. His hands were fused in a way that made it look like he had lobster claws. This was due to a deformity that ran in his family, known as ‘ectrodactyly’. The first in Grady Stiles’s family to display symptoms of the deformity was William Stiles, in 1805. He was followed by many family members, and some of them even joined into a sideshow attraction, aka, a Freakshow. When Grady was born and they realized that he had the deformity as well, they got him into the sideshow at a young age.


Dwarfism is not a super uncommon disorder. The extent to which Charles Stratton displayed dwarfism was not common. Charles Stratton, better known by his stage name “General Tom Thumb”, stopped growing when he was six months old. When Stratton was four years old, townspeople set him up to meet the famous Freakshow exhibitor, P.T Barnum. When Barnum met Stratton, he offered 3$ a week to exhibit him. His parents quickly accepted, 3$ a week being quite a bit of money at the time (1840’s). The media and public were not concerned with whether or not little Charles was being exploited.


“Schlitzie”, a famous ‘pinhead’ sideshow performer, was born with microcephaly, a condition in which the brain does not fully develop in utero, this giving the child a smaller than average head. In many of these cases, the affected child dies. Schlitzie did not. Schlitzie’s true identity is still debatable, but the most popular theory is that he was born as Simon Metz on September 10, 1901 in the Bronx. Schlitzie was exhibited as an entirely different species from humans, and called ‘the last of the Aztecs’. For much of his career, Schlitzie was made to look like a female, clad in dresses and such. Schlitzie continued to entertain crowds until his death in 1971.


Freakshows were not a great gig, and it’s probably best that they’re no longer around. To exploit people with feelings and turn their oddities into a ‘freakshow’ is not the most considerate. The fact that these existed is astounding to me, yet morbidly interesting. You can see many classic and famous freakshow preformers in the classic film “Freaks”. I definitely recommend watching it. Keep an open mind as you do, though – keep in mind what the people in this movie were going through.