Framing the Freak: Disability as Entertainment in the Nineteenth Century

Alexandra Foulds is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow where she completed her undergraduate degree in English literature and an Mlitt in Victorian literature. Her thesis is on the relationship between monstrosity and disability in late-nineteenth-century Gothic fiction.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson states that ‘The history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display’[1] with ‘The earliest record of disabled people [being] of their exhibition as prodigies, monsters, omens from the gods, and indexes of the natural or divine world’.[2] The nineteenth century was a period that witnessed a distinct rise in popularity for such forms of entertainment, as well as a proliferation of modes available. One of these was the freak show, which was at its most popular between 1840 and 1940. After Claire’s exploration of performance and disability in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady, I want to carry across these themes into a discussion of Victorian freak shows.

A format that had existed in travelling fairs and circuses since the 1600s, freak shows are often considered to have been transformed into a successful business enterprise by P. T. Barnum, who understood the role deception and marketing had to play in such exhibitions. Barnum realised that being a freak was primarily to do with performance, or as Robert Bogdan comments ‘“Freak” is a frame of mind, a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people’.[3] The freak was framed, using photographs, advertising, pamphlets, sets, and clothing, all of which foregrounded difference. Packaging was a key part of the freak’s performance. Freak show managers and showmen, like Barnum, would emphasise the dangers the freak posed to ideas of order and categorisation, using stage names that called into question the boundaries between animal and human, between male and female, and between white and black, such as ‘the dog-faced boy’, ‘the bearded lady’ and the ‘white negro’. The stage became an interpretative space with the freak’s body becoming a canvas onto which rejected cultural characteristics could be projected and merged together. It is precisely this process in which as many forms of bodily differences as possible become united in the freak’s body which critics such as Garland-Thomson and Leslie Fiedler argue creates a freak from a disabled body. Fiedler writes, ‘Only the true Freak challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal and human, large and small, self and other, and consequently between reality and illusion, experience and fantasy, fact and myth’.[4]

At the heart of readings of the Victorian freak show are theories of vision. These freak shows, it is argued, balanced older and more modern ways of looking at the disabled body. As Garland-Thomson writes ‘the freak show manifested tension between older modes that read particularity as a mark of empowering distinction and a newer mode that flattened differences to achieve equality’.[5] Within the character of the freak the figures of the monster as awe-inspiring object of wonder and the disabled individual, thought to be abnormal and therefore substandard, combine. This is reflected in what Robert Bogdan describes as the two typical modes for representing freaks, which he names ‘the exotic’ mode and ‘the aggrandizing’[6] mode. ‘In the exotic mode’, he asserts, ‘the emphasis was on how different, and, in most cases, inferior the person on exhibit was’,[7] whereas in the ‘aggrandized mode the presentation emphasised how, with the exception of the particular physical, mental, or behavioral condition, the freak was an upstanding, high-status person with talents of a conventional and socially prestigious nature’.[8] In this latter mode, the freak would often perform tasks ‘that one might assume could not be done by a person with that particular disability’.[9] A man without arms might drink tea with his feet, or ‘a man without legs […] might walk and perform acrobatic feats using his arms’.[10] For freaks presented in this mode, showmen would often emphasise the fact that they were ‘physically attractive and perfectly formed in every way, and, in no way distasteful so as to offend the audience’.[11] Aside from the anomaly that was their reason for being exhibited, they were often presented as being ‘physically normal, or even superior’.[12] Freaks, then, as Marlene Tromp writes, could ‘provoke[…] both identification and disavowal’.[13]  Through these two modes, the freak could be used both to destabilise an audience’s concepts of normalcy, by questioning their reliance on beliefs about normal bodily function, and to uphold them by equating difference with deviance and therefore with inferiority.

Key to the freak show format was its amalgamation of spectacular and scientific, specifically medical, ways of looking at the body. As Bogdan argues, ‘The use of the word museum in the title of many freak shows attests to the association of this form of entertainment with natural science, as does the practice of calling freak show lecturers “professor” or “doctor”’.[14] This relationship between science and freak shows is further reflected in a distinction that Bogdan notes developed between ‘two types of exhibits’.[15] Noting that freak shows included performers with physical abnormalities, people of different races presented as savages, self-made freaks, novelty acts, and I might add hoax specimens, such as Barnum’s the ‘Feejee mermaid’, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish, he argues that a sometimes blurred line was drawn between ‘so-called examples of new and unknown “races” and “lusus naturae” or nature’s jokes or mistakes’.[16] While the former consisted mainly of indigenous people brought back from the non-Western world by explorers and natural scientists, the latter was comprised of so called ‘monsters’, a medical term used to describe people with physical deformities. Such performers were of particular interest to physicians and specialists in the field of teratology, or the study of abnormalities of physiological development.

For the first half of the nineteenth century, medical discourses on the disabled body and freak show narratives had an interdependent relationship. Just as physicians turned to freak shows to find many of their specimens (Joseph Merrick, otherwise known as the Elephant Man, started off displayed as a freak before being exhibited in lecture halls by Dr Frederick Treves), so freak show managers turned to the scientific world to authenticate their acts and vouch for their scientific significance. Through mingling presumed opposites in one body, and foregrounding the act of interpretation as an inherent part of the freak show format, managers stimulated debates, among physicians and lay people alike, about the origins of deformity. Marketing their acts by presenting them as gaps in medical knowledge, they emphasised the inability of contemporary medical categories to contain such a figure. As such,  ‘the lexicon’ of the shows, as Bogdan notes, consisted of ‘a complex hodgepodge of medical terminology and show-world hype’.[17]

However, from the passing of the 1845 Lunacy Act Legislation, an act that appointed doctors as the only professionals able to diagnose mental illness, medicine became increasingly professionalized. Hence, it is from 1845 on that we can see ‘the start of the medical profession’s subsequent definition of all aspects of disability’.[18] The study of anatomy became a more serious matter and an objective gaze became of paramount importance. From this point on, the deformed body became pathologised, with the disabled being described as ‘sick’ or ‘diseased’ and thus requiring medical help. The spectacular and the scientific were increasingly constructed as opposite modes, with the former not considered to be objective. Trying to police the line between the two, the medical profession began to label freak shows as immoral. Bogdan, talking about an article published in the Scientific America Supplement in 1908, notes that the reasons the author gives for his attack on freak shows exemplifies this shift in attitudes. Here, ‘the author declared that the exhibits were ‘sick’ and to be pitied, that human oddities were not benign curiosities, they were pathological – diseased’.[19] The implication, Bogdan remarks, is clear. The deformed body was ‘no longer open to public speculation’.[20] Their roles were no longer ‘as public exhibits, but as patients of physicians, to be viewed on hospital rounds and in private offices’.[21] As such, the deformed body became a body requiring specialist interpretation.

This shift in attitude is reflected in the term ‘freak’ itself. Only associated with human anomaly from 1847, its development ‘as a new term for anatomically unusual forms of embodiment is’, according to Elizabeth Stephens, ‘representative of a new nineteenth-century tendency to explicitly encourage audiences to see those bodies through the lens of medical knowledge’.[22] In encouraging the public to view the deformed body anatomically, ‘as the proper object of a medical rather than a public gaze’, Stephens argues that the medical profession ‘render[ed] the spectacularisation of such bodies ethically problematic’.[23] As the medical profession developed, however, it needed to define itself against such common exhibitions and so the latter were increasingly presented both as providing misinformation and as potentially morally corrupting. The deformed body continued to be exhibited but its arena changed, relocating to the medical theatre, the medical lecture hall, and other clinical settings. What we would now describe as the disabled body, once a ‘theatrical persona’[24] and ‘public performer’,[25] assumed a new position of reduced visibility and accessibility, effectively marginalised and excluded through its association with a ‘private or professional sphere’.[26]


[1] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, ‘The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography, in Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, ed. by Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggeman, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2002), pp. 56–75 (p. 56).

[2] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, ‘The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography’, p. 56.

[3] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. xi.

[4] Leslie Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 24.

[5] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), p. 17.

[6] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 108.

[7] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 108.

[8] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 108.

[9] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 109.

[10] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 109.

[11] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 109.

[12] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 109.

[13] Marlene Tromp and Karyn Valerius, ‘Towards Situating the Victorian Freak’, in Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Britain, ed. by Marlene Tromp (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2008), pp. 1–18 (p. 9).

[14] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 107.

[15] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 6.

[16] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 6.

[17] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 3.

[18] Colin Barnes, ‘A Brief History of Discrimination and Disabled People’, in The Disability Studies Reader, ed. by Lennard J. Davis (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 20–32 (p. 25).

[19] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 64.

[20] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 64.

[21] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show, p. 64.

[22] Elizabeth Stephens, Anatomy as Spectacle: Public Exhibitions of the Body from 1700 to the Present (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011), p. 88.

[23] Elizabeth Stephens, Anatomy as Spectacle, p. 93.

[24] Elizabeth Stephens, Anatomy as Spectacle, p. 100.

[25] Elizabeth Stephens, Anatomy as Spectacle, p. 100.

[26] Elizabeth Stephens, Anatomy as Spectacle, p. 100.


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