The Young American
Freak Shows
According to Wikipedia, the term Freak Show  is used to explain ”an exhibition of biological rarities, referred to as ‘freaks of nature.’  Typical features would be physically unusual humans, such as those uncommonly large or small, those with both male and female secondary sexual characteristics, people with other extraordinary diseases and conditions, and performances that are expected to be shocking to the viewers. Heavily tattooed or pierced people have sometimes been seen in freak shows, as have attention-getting physical performers such as fire-eating and sword-swallowing acts.” Freak Shows became popular pastimes in England in the mid-16th century when deformities began to be treated as objects of interest and entertainment, and the crowds flocked to see them exhibited. As well as crazy exhibitions, Freak Shows were popular in the taverns and fairgrounds where the freaks were often combined with talent displays. During the late 19th century and the early 20th century Freak Shows were at their height of popularity. Although not all abnormalities were real, some being alleged, the exploitation for profit was seen as an accepted part of American culture. The attractiveness of Freak Shows led to the spread of the shows that were commonly seen at amusement parks, circuses, dime museums and vaudeville. The amusement park industry flourished in the United States by the expanding middle class who benefited from short working weeks and a larger income. There was also a shift in American culture which influenced people to see leisure activities as a necessary and benefiting equivalent to working. The showmen and promoters exhibited all types of freaks. People that looked non-western and had a disability were often exhibited as unknown races and cultures. These “unknown” races and disabled whites were advertised as being undiscovered humans to attract viewers. Those who were armless, legless, or limbless were also in the exotic mode as animal-people such as “The Snake Man”, and “The Seal Man”. The Freak Shows were promoted via printed advertisements, pamphlets and brightly painted banners. The images below show some examples of these banners and it can be seen that there were a number of common elements between them – such as the use of the word “ALIVE” within a circle. It is understandable how Guy Peellaert produced his Diamond Dogs image with these things in mind. In 1932, the film director Tod Browning made a film called “Freaks” in which the eponymous characters were played by people who worked as carnival sideshow performers and had real deformities. The original version was considered too shocking to be released and no longer exists. Browning’s career never recovered from it and “Freaks” has been described as standing alone in a subgenre of one. The plot is simple. A beautiful trapeze artist marries a dwarf for his money then plots his murder with her lover, the circus strong man. The subsequent action is both horrifying & strangely satisfying. Various scenes - the Freaks' Banquet, the chase through the storm - are among the most bizarre ever filmed. During the early part of the twentieth century the idea of exposing people with physical and mental differences for profit and amusement was starting to dwindle. In its prime, Freak Shows had been quite an attraction but by 1940 they began to lose audiences with creditable people turning their backs on the show.  In the nineteenth-century science supported and legitimised the growth of Freak Shows, however during the twentieth- century, science began to threaten them by medicalising human abnormalities leading to the end of the exhibits mystery. The “dogs” in Peellaert’s painting were based upon Alzoria Lewis and Johanna Dickens who were billed as “The World’s Strangest Family” within the Cavalcade Variety Show in Coney Island, New York from 1930s - 1950s. Alzoria, the Turtle Girl" was born in 1912, the only child in a family of nine afflicted with her peculiar condition. She made a career for herself exhibiting at Coney Island under a variety of unflattering names including "Walrus Girl" and "Pig Woman". Her arms, stunted and without recognisable elbows, ended in small hands with six stubby, boneless fingers apiece. She had six toes on one foot, and only one toe on the other. Johanna Dickens was a younger woman with similar limb deformities and she was known as “The Bear Girl.”  She would be billed as either Alzoria's sister or her cousin. More information can be found at