American Horror Story: Freak Show has rekindled an American interest in the old tradition of freak shows. Some of us have been there all along. I’ve been pissed off most of my life that I missed out on seeing the last of America’s traveling sideshows. I’ve always felt like it was a train I missed by seconds. The truth is that I missed the heyday of the sideshow by decades. They started to fade away during the 1940s, when America decided it was rude to stare at people who were different. The appearance of television sets in most American homes finished their demise. Nobody had to leave home to be entertained.
American Horror Story: Freak Show gives a nod to sideshows past with their cast of characters. I’d like to introduce you to the old stars who inspired the creators of the show.
Even Peters plays Jimmy Darling, a young man with hands like lobster claws. The most famous Lobster Boy was Grady Stiles. Grady came from a long line of lobster people. He was famous and well-liked, but his family claimed he was an abusive drunk. His wife paid a carnival geek to shoot him in the head in 1992.
Sarah Paulson plays the two-headed girl, Bette and Dot. While Sarah’s characters are conjoined by trickery, the most famous female Siamese twins were Daisy and Violet Hilton. Their parents sold them to a sideshow when they were children, but they eventually became famous vaudeville performers, playing instruments and singing. When sideshows were no longer in fashion, the twins were lured to Charlotte, NC to be an attraction for the re-release of the infamous Tod Browning film, FREAKS. The promoter didn’t pay them, and they ended up stranded, working in a local Kroger grocery story, checking and bagging groceries until they died of Hong Kong flu in 1969.
The girls who most resemble Bette and Dot are Abby and Brittany Hensel. These girls have never performed in sideshows and lead normal lives.
Ben Woolf’s Meep The Geek was murdered in jail last week. His character was a nod to the performer Koko The Bird Girl. She pretended to be a bird. She was in the movie Freaks. Like Meep, she was weird.
There are several pinheads on the show. People with microcephalus often performed in old sideshows. They often had diminished capacity and were quite childlike. The most famous pinhead was Schlitzi. He loved performing with his friends.
Jyoti Amge is the world’s smallest living woman. Lucia Zarate was another tiny sideshow star. She died of exposure when the train she was riding stalled in a snow storm in 1890.
Mat Fraser as Paul The Illustrated Seal is famous now, but Sealo was the original Seal Boy, performing in many sideshows and at Coney Island.
Rose Siggens is Legless Suzy on American Horror Story. Like Mat, she isn’t a special effect. The most famous half girl to grace the sideshow was Jeanie Tomaini. She and her giant husband, Al, were founding members of the Gibtown sideshow community in Florida.
It’s nice to see a renewed interest in the sideshow. Thanks to people who didn’t let it die, like James Taylor of SHOCKED AND AMAZED, stories of the sideshow endured. The Coney Island Circus Sideshow is alive and well, as is the Venice Beach Freakshow. Times may change, but the freak show doesn’t.
Be sure to check out my ebooks! ZOMBIES TAKE MANHATTAN! features two stories with a bearded lady. PICKERS AND PICKLED PUNKS takes a look at yard sales and what you may find there…including a two-headed girl.