Nadja Durbach, “On the Emergence of the Freak Show in Britain”


This entry dates the emergence of the freak show as a key form of Victorian leisure to the 1840s. It demonstrates that these exhibitions of physical difference served as spaces for negotiations amongst doctors, scientists, anthropologists, and a mass consumer public about how to distinguish “normal” and “abnormal” bodies and about the cultural meanings attached to these classifications. These shows thus helped to educate the public about their place in the hierarchy of classes, races, civilizations, and nations that was so crucial to the nineteenth-century worldview.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the term “freak of nature,” meaning an “abnormally developed individual of any species,” to the year 1847. That very same year, the periodical Punch identified a growing popular demand for living curiosities. Under the heading “The Deformito-Mania,” Punch bemoaned the public’s “prevailing taste for deformity, which seems to grow by what it feeds upon” (90). “Poor MADAME TUSSAUD [sic], with her map iconChamber of Horrors,” it declared, “is quite thrown into the shade by the number of real enormities and deformities that are now to be seen, as the showmen say ‘Alive, alive!’” (90).

(Punch 13 [September 4, 1847]:90)
Punch was specifically commenting on the opening of a new exhibition at the map iconEgyptian Hall in Piccadilly, a venue known for its displays of natural curiosities of all types. But in the 1840s, there were countless other permanent exhibition venues and temporary show-shops across the United Kingdom where an eager public could view and interact with a variety of different kinds of extraordinary human beings.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, the rapid growth of the middle class and the gradual institutionalization of the Saturday half-holiday meant that more people had time and money for leisure activities.  This led to a demand for inexpensive entertainments and spurred the rise of music halls, theatres, circuses, seaside resorts, aquariums, zoos, pleasure gardens, and popular museums (Altick; Bailey; Cunningham; Assael; Toulmin). While home to their unique forms of entertainment, these venues also featured freak performers.  But freaks were not merely an urban phenomenon.  They also visited towns and villages across the United Kingdom with traveling showmen who attended the annual wakes and fairs that remained popular throughout much of the nineteenth century (Reid). Freak shows were thus able to draw in a much broader public than many other Victorian commercial entertainments that catered exclusively to metropolitan consumers.

Exhibitions of human oddities were more widely accessible than other pastimes, not only because they were peripatetic but also because they were inexpensive to attend, at times costing as little as a penny.  Many acts offered cut-rate admission for the working classes on certain days of the week or times of the day in order to attract the widest audience possible while still assuring their middle- and upper-class clientele that they would not have to rub shoulders with the riff-raff. Not only did freak shows appeal to individuals widely dispersed across the economic spectrum, but unlike many other leisure activities, they also marketed their acts to both men and women. By providing private viewing rooms “for ladies only,” freak show entrepreneurs created safe spaces within the potentially dangerous city centers for middle-class women to relax and enjoy the spectacle without fear of unwanted attention. By offering half-price tickets for children, freak show managers also suggested to women that this was respectable, family entertainment.  Freak shows were thus one of few kinds of Victorian entertainment that explicitly catered to, and succeeded in attracting, an extremely broad audience that cut across lines of class, gender, age, and region.  These spectacles thus had the power and opportunity to communicate to diverse publics and to participate in the formation of public opinion about the meanings attached to bodily difference (Tromp; Durbach).

The scholarship on Victorian exhibitions has tended to position freaks as part of the history of people with disabilities, and thus has focused on particular forms of bodily aberrance (Thomson; Bogdan).  Even scholars who have drawn attention to the connections between “ethnological show business” and other spectacles of deformity have nevertheless generally treated displays of non-western peoples as a separate category of performance (Lindfors; Bancel et al.). But impresarios and audiences alike did not always distinguish between individuals who were exhibiting unusual congenital abnormalities and performers who were in fact quite ordinary examples of cultural or racial difference. In the decade that coined the term “freak of nature,” the show-going public could see a wide variety of human curiosities, including a giantess, several different troupes of San “Bushmen,” Master Esau Battae (who was covered in rainbow-colored hair), “the Wild Man of the Prairies,” a “fat lady,” the famous dwarf Tom Thumb, a three-legged child with a “bipenis,” a bearded lady, an Abyssinian Princess with “vermillion eyes and snow-white hair,” a “white negro,” a porcupine-boy, a two-headed baby, and a troupe of “Native Canadian North American Indians.” This diversity of human anomalies was made possible by new developments in transportation and by the expansion of empire. With the emergence of railways and steamships in the 1830s and 1840s, Europeans were much more mobile, as long-distance travel became a regular phenomenon in service of both tourism and the maintenance of imperial ventures overseas. Freak shows flourished in this environment because they were no longer dependent upon random local anomalous births.  Instead they could draw upon a larger pool of performers who increasingly came from the Americas, Asia, Oceania, Africa and other outposts of an ever-expanding British empire.

It was common, therefore, for “exotic” performers like the “Native Canadian North American Indians” to appear in the same venues as, or even share the stage with, giants or two-headed babies. Many acts were in fact simultaneously congenitally anomalous and racially “other,” such as “the white negro,” who was most likely an albino African-American. By conflating bodies that were anomalous in relation to the human species and those that merely diverged from the white British “norm,” these spectacles suggested that racial difference was not merely a natural variation in the human species, but a freakish bodily deformation. Freak shows further underscored this point by drawing the public’s attention to perceived, and often exaggerated, physical and cultural differences among racial “types.” In the process they established for audiences across the class spectrum, and in all parts of the nation, the inherent superiority of the British imperial ruling race, and thus justified the maintenance of empire.

Displays of “human oddities” of all varieties were thus part of the colonial project of collecting, classifying, exhibiting, and hierarchically ordering both the natural world in general, and humankind in particular (Qureshi; Ritvo; Bennett).  They functioned as important spaces for negotiations over the class, gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual meanings of “normal” and “abnormal” bodies. But the idea that there was a “norm” against which all of humankind could be measured was also, significantly, a product of the 1840s. The word “normal,” denoting conforming to the common type, only emerged in the English language around 1840; its derivatives, “norm,” “normality,” and “normalcy” followed shortly afterwards (Davis). This concept of “the norm” emerged in Britain in relationship to the relatively new science of statistics, which provided a mathematical, and thus “factual,” basis for determining what could be classed as typical, and thus natural, and what should be considered aberrant (Poovey). The widespread fascination with bodily anomalies that, as Punch shrewdly noted, seemed to have intensified around the 1840s was therefore a response not only to the expansion of the leisure market, but to contemporaneous changes in scientific understandings of the corporeal norm.

As medicine began to professionalize in the middle of the nineteenth century, and thus to standardize and in the process monopolize understandings of health and disease, it increasingly sought to distinguish between normal and pathological bodies. To do so it needed specimens. Freak performers thus often provided a nascent medical profession with its raw material. It is no coincidence that in the 1880s “the Elephant Man’s” manager rented a show-shop right across the street from the map iconLondon Hospital, where he could be sure to attract not only curious passers-by, but the medical staff of one of the nation’s leading teaching and research hospitals (Howell and Ford). Similarly, the Ethnological Society, founded in 1843, and later the Anthropological Society—which broke away from the former group twenty years later—frequently engaged with the exhibition of nonwestern peoples.  Members of these prestigious organizations examined foreign performers, both at their shows and at their Societies’ headquarters, debated their origins and authenticity, and wrote extensively about how these acts contributed to knowledge about “the races of mankind”(Qureshi). Like the medical profession, the emerging field of Anthropology was thus heavily invested in the freak show and attempted not to close them down, but rather to exploit these exhibitions for their own purposes. Freak shows were therefore not antithetical to science, but rather important sites for professional debates over the significance of physical difference.

To dismiss freak shows as either merely prurient or entirely exploitative thus oversimplifies what were in fact complex performances that addressed critical questions about difference. Freak shows were selling much more than merely a cheap peek at a monstrous body. In fact, they helped to educate the public about their place in the hierarchy of classes, races, civilizations, and nations that was so crucial to the nineteenth-century worldview. These displays bridged the divide between lay and professional understandings of human physical variation, stimulating debate amongst doctors, scientists, anthropologists, and a mass consumer public about how to distinguish male from female, human from animal, civilized from savage, modern from ancient, evolved from primitive, the races from each other, and by implication, governed from governing. For throughout the nineteenth century, expert knowledge about the natural world and its relationship to the social structure continued to be produced in a dynamic relationship to popular discourses (Ritvo). Freak shows were thus significant spaces for cultural negotiations over what it meant to be normal, and thus by implication what it meant in fact to be British, at a moment in which Britain was constructing itself as a modern, imperial, and thus model, nation.

Nadja Durbach is Associate Professor of History at the University of Utah. She holds a BA from the University of British Columbia and a PhD from the Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England and Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture and is currently working on a book about beef-eating and British national identity in the nineteenth century.


published September 2011

Durbach, Nadja. “On the Emergence of the Freak Show in Britain.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


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