During the late 19th and early 20th century, sideshows were all the rage. People, most born with severe physical birth defects, came from around the globe to perform in sideshow companies—notably Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. While some performers entered sideshow through abilities such as fire eating, sword swallowing or trapeze, the ones who went down in history shocked the world with their unusual bodies and health conditions. Sideshow welcomed all kinds and many performers entered the industry as children, either because they were given up by their parents or used by their family as a human paycheck. We’ve gathered up 20 of the most famous sideshow performers in history, take a look at these remarkable human beings and let us know your thoughts on this story in the comments section on social media.
Grady Stiles—Lobster Boy
Grady Stiles was born in 1937 and had a genetic deformity called ectrodactyly, which causes the fingers and toes to fuse together in the womb. Stiles was brought into the sideshow at the age of seven and had a successful career touring the world. Later in his life, he got caught up in crime and murdered his daughter’s fiancé on the eve of their wedding. “American Horror Story: Freak Show” took inspiration from Stiles, for Evan Peter’s character Jimmy Darling.
Schlitzie was born in 1901 and had a genetic deformity called microcephaly, which prevents the brain from developing fully and results in a smaller than normal head. Schlitzie toured with many popular circuses, including Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey. In 1932 he was cast in “Freaks,” and in 2018, his legacy inspired the character Bertram in “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
Chang and Eng Bunker—Siamese Twins
Born in 1811, conjoined twins Chang and End Bunker became the most famous human oddities of the 19th century. Native to Siam (now known as Thailand), they coined the term “Siamese Twins,” which has become synonymous with conjoined twins. After touring the world, the twins retired to North Carolina in 1839, marrying sisters and fathering a whopping 21 children.
Ella Harper—Camel Girl
Born in 1870, Ella Harper had a rare genetic condition called congenital genu recurvatum. Because of her condition, Harper preferred walking on all fours and during her career, she received $200 a week. By today’s dollar, that would be approximately $5,485 a week!
General Tom Thumb—Little Person
Born Charles Sherwood Stratton in 1838, General Tom Thumb rose to become one of the most famous little people in sideshow history. He gained his recognition working under sideshow pioneer P.T. Barnum, who adopted him as a child and taught him how to sing, mime and imitate celebrities. In 2017, he was portrayed by New Zealand actor Sam Humphrey in the film “The Greatest Showman.”
Myrtle Corbin—Four Legged Woman
Born in 1868, Myrtle Corbin had a genetic condition known as dipygus, which caused her to be born with four legs. She entered the sideshow at age 13 and following her career, inspired a number of phony four legged performers. She had five children during her lifetime and during her first pregnancy, doctors realized that she also had two reproductive systems.
Stephan Bibrowski—Lionel the Lion-Faced Man
Born in 1890, Stephan Bibrowski likely had a genetic condition called hypertrochosis—which causes abnormal hair growth all over the body. When he was born, he had one inch of hair covering his body and his mother gave him up to an impresario at the age of four, who took him on tours throughout Europe. During his career, the hair on his face was eight inches long and four inches everywhere else. The only places he didn’t have hair were the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet.
Isaac W. Sprague—Human Skeleton
Born in 1841, Isaac W. Sprague grew up a very normal child until he turned 12 when he lost an excessive amount of weight due to extreme progressive muscular atrophy. He entered the sideshow scene in 1885 and was hired by P.T. Barnham. Just before his death, he stood at 5-foot-6 and weighed just 43 pounds.
Jack Earle—World’s Tallest Man
Born in 1906, Jack Earle had acromegalic gigantism, which caused him to grow shocking 8-ft-6, making him one of the tallest people in the world at that time. He toured with Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey for 14 years, later retiring to become a salesman for the Roma Wine Company. His biggest claim to fame happened after his death, when he was mentioned in Tom Wait’s single “Get Behind the Mule” in 1999.
Frank Lentini—The Three Legged Wonder
Born in 1889, Frank Lentini had parasitic twin, which caused a full third leg to extend from his right hip. The third leg had a small foot growing out of the knee and the parasitic twin also gave him a second set of genitals. Lentini toured with Ringling Bros, Barnum and Bailey and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show during his lifetime. He went on to get married and had four children, living to be 77-years-old.
Annie Jones—Bearded Lady
Born in 1865, Annie Jones had a genetic condition called hirsutism, which causes excessive hair growth in both men and women. Jones reportedly had a mustache and sideburns at age five, going on to grow a beard later in her career. She began being exhibited with Barnum and Bailey at just nine-months old and during her career, actively worked to abolish the word freak.
James Morris—Rubber Man
Born in 1859, James Morris had a genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome—which causes the skin to be extremely elastic. He could stretch his skin up to 18 inches in length and toured with Barnum and Bailey during his lifetime. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is much more common than many people might think and many notable celebrities live with it, including actress Lena Dunham, drag queen Yvie Oddly, actress Jameela Jamil, singer Sia and Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier.
Joseph Merrick—Elephant Man
Born in 1862, Joseph Merrick began developing abnormally as a child, growing thick, lumpy and rough growths all over his body. He was given away by his parents as a child and began touring with showman Sam Torr in 1884, earning the nickname Elephant Man. In 1980, his life was depicted in David Lynch’s film “The Elephant Man,” and earned an impressive eight Academy Award nominations.
Daisy and Violet Hilton—Siamese Twins
Born in 1908, Daisy and Violet Hilton were conjoined twins who did their first national tour of Britain at age 3. They were both skilled entertainers, with Daisy playing violin and Violet saxophone. In 1997, the Broadway musical “Side Show” premiered, which was loosely based on the sisters’ lives.
Born in 1911, Johnny Eck had a truncated torso from sacral agenesis and had small, unusable and underdeveloped legs. In addition to peforming with Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey, Eck was featured in “Freaks” and played a bird creature called “Gooney the Bird” in three “Tarzan” movies from 1932-1941. A film about Eck is currently in the process of being made, with “Edward Scissorhands” screenwriter Caroline Thompson crafting the script and Leonardo DiCaprio acting as an executive producer.
Koo Koo—Bird Girl
Born in 1880, Minnie Woolsey had a rare congenital disorder called seckel syndrome—which caused her short stature, small head and bird-like features. She also appeared in 1932’s “Freaks” and throughout her sideshow career, was known as Minnie Ha Ha, Stork and Bird. She performed in Coney Island into her 80s, until she died in 1960. She was also mentioned in a Tom Waits’ song, “Lucky Day (Overture)” in 1993.
Prince Randian—Human Torso
Born in 1871, Prince Randian had tetra-amedlia syndrome, which is characterized by the absence of all four limbs. Prince Randian appeared in 1932’s “Freaks” and one of his most famous tricks was rolling and lighting cigarettes with his lips. He performed with Barnum and Bailey and in Coney Island, staying in sideshow until his death in 1934 at 63-years-old.
Born in 1906 as Aloisia Wagner, Wagner became known to the world as performer Violetta. Violetta was also born with tetra-amelia syndrome. She performed as a singer and human oddity at Coney Island’s Dreamland, and with the Ringling Bros, Barnum and Bailey and Mighty Haag Circus. Violetta was married during her lifetime, wearing a gold wedding band on a chain around her neck.