The trade in human disability has been around for centuries with physical curiosities displayed in circuses or travelling fairs. But in the nineteenth century such shows were enormously popular with permanent venues being formed such as those at London's Eygptian Hall, or P T Barnum's American Museum in New York. The Victorians really did love to have a good gawp at a freak show act, and though we may now view such entertainment as sordid and exploitative, some perfomers were happy to be involved finding that the protection of the ‘stage’ enabled them to live, work and thrive in a world that could otherwise prove to be hostile. Indeed, in the late 1890’s some of the most successful exhibits were earning up to £20 a week – the equivalent of over £1000 today.
Any production depended on the skill of the showman whose job it was to pull in the crowds and who would have had the gift of the gab, raising the audience's expectations with his titillating introductions - and ensuring they paid the entrance fee. Printed advertisements also played an important part in the process, luring in any interested parties, though more often than not such curious souls would be faced with an anti-climax.
The poster of a mermaid, 'half beautiful woman, half fish' might translate to the taxidermist's art of the ugly stuffed head of a monkey fixed onto the body of a fish. A good example is the Feejee Mermaid which you can see in a previous post.
But there were some acts so famous, they needed little promotion. Chang and Eng were the Siamese twins linked at the chest by a thick band of skin and, unlike some more severe cases of co-joining, the VV wonders if, today, the twins could have been surgically parted with little danger of loss of life.