Book the Shock Doc Show

Monday, December 24, 2007


Imagine living in a small, rural American midwest town where everyone knows each other and, for the most part, everyone looks the same. A show comes to town you see a banner for Frank Lentini, the three legged man. An outside talker shouts “Step right up. See Grace—the muleface girl. A woman so ugly she looks like a mule. You’ll see Percilla, the Monkey Girl. She has hair all over her body. Is she the missing link? You decide! Come inside and you’ll see Grady, the Lobster Boy. He has claws for hands! Is he from the deep blue sea? Come see Jeanie the half girl. She will dazzle you with her acrobatics, handstands and cartwheels—all without legs. See them all right here, alive and on the inside. For just one dollar.”

This is a break from the mundane for the public and a surefire money-making attraction for the tour!


Freaks, which are now known by the more pleasant term “human oddities”, were once the mainstay of the sideshow. In recent times, freakshows have become quite controversial. Some people feel that the exhibition of humans for money is exploitation. You may be surprised to learn that the controversy was “controversial” to everyone but the freaks. To them it was not exploitation but opportunity.

The American with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990. Until that time, public schools, housing, public transit and corporate employers had no mandate to accommodate those persons with disabilities. So in 1950 what was a man who was born without legs supposed to do to educate and support himself? How was he going to educate himself if the schools could not accommodate him? If he became educated, how would he get a job? If he was given a job how would he travel to work? Let’s take this a step further. Let us suppose that he wasn’t just a man with no legs, but a man who is covered in hair and looks, for all the world, like a werewolf. Who is going to hire him? What if it isn’t a man covered in hair but Siamese twin women? How are two Siamese twin women going to fulfill their American dream?

These people, like all other people, wanted to be married, have a home, a car, children, a dog and enough money on which they could retire. They didn’t want to be a burden on friends, family or society. So popular ‘freak’ thinking was why not make some money and charge people for doing the staring that they were already doing (for free)?

The sideshow offered human oddities a chance at making a decent living for themselves. Most freaks further supplemented their income by selling a pitchcard, bible or some item unique to their appearance (such as an extremely large oversized ring as in the case of a giant). The carnival offered freaks a chance at love: there were many marriages on the midway—arguably the most famous between Percilla Lauther Bejano, "The Monkey Girl and Emmitt Bejano, "The Alligator Skin Boy". (Together they toured as "The Strangest Married Couple in the World".)

The sideshow also offered freaks a chance to tell people what it was like to live a life as a person with a condition that most people would incorrectly assume was insurmountable. Take for instance Prince Randian, the living torso. In his act, he would show how he could roll a cigarette and light it with a match even though he had no limbs at all! Because he earned a living exhibiting himself, he also found love, married, fathered four children and retired to Paterson, New Jersey. (He was also said to have been a pretty good carpenter.)

One might argue that simply exhibiting people for money was equivalent to exploitation. Had these people been paid an unfair wage, kept in poor conditions, exhibited against their will or, in the case of the mentally retarded, without understanding their right not to participate, I am certain all would agree that this was exploitative. However, most human oddities made a reasonably good living—enough to retire and buy homes. In fact, Gibsontown aka “Gibtown” aka “Showtown, USA” in Florida was filled with retired freaks and showmen! And as far as status was concerned being a freak was to be at the top of the hierarchy. The working acts—people with learned talents (e.g. fire eaters, knife throwers, sword swallowers, etc.) were not the top stars. Their talents were learned—anyone could do them. There were made freaks—like tattooed men, Mortado, the Human Fountain, “hermaphrodites” (usually not real and just self-styled), etc. But true freaks, freaks who were born that way were cherished above all else. No where else in conventional society could these people be at the top of the social sphere. Without the sideshow Chang and Eng would simply not have been able to afford their homes, their wives and their brood of more than 20 children.

In 1972 the exhibition of people for money played itself out in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. The collective consciousness of the public had now been “educated” and there was new popular social awareness. People wanted the exhibition of human beings for money to be made illegal. Ward Hall’s show came under attack and an obscure 1921 Florida law that banned the exhibition of the ‘handicapped’ was cited. However, the question of how these people, whose primary and preferred method of obtaining a wage, would now provide for themselves was never answered by the social ignorati. Sealo (Stanislaus Berent aka Seal-o the Seal Boy, a man with Phocomelia, the defect associated with exposure to the drug thalidomide), Ward Hall and a band of performers sued the State of Florida. The law was eventually repealed to reflect the desires of the human oddity community.

So there you have it. The freaks united against the social “do-gooders” (as the freaks called them) and stood up for themselves. They took back their right to willfully exhibit themselves and charge people for gawking.

But time has marched on and medical technology has reduced the number of true freaks (and increased the number of made freaks—it seems everyone has a tattoo or piercing these days). More birth defects and diseases are prevented or treated than ever before. People without limbs now have prosthetics. Conjoined twins are separated. Women who have beards can take hormones. Furthermore, there are greater resources and opportunities for those with disabilities (also thanks to the ADA).

Despite advances in medical technology, as a physician, I still get to see a lot of very, very unusual medical conditions.* However, even though freaks have reclaimed their rights to put themselves up for exhibition, I still would never, ever dream of turning to one of my patients and saying “Man, you know you could make a lot of money with your problem. You should run away and join the carnival.” Joining the carnival no longer provides the many opportunities it once did, the carnivals have all but disappeared and conventional society now offers more opportunities, resources and advances.

However, if I ever stumbled upon a human oddity that was, by choice, putting himself up for display, I would respect that choice. I know where it comes from. So, the next time you go to a sideshow, if there are any freaks there, don’t turn away in “enlightened disgust”. Keep in mind that for a hundred years this was a freak’s only opportunity at living a “normal” life and achieving what we all want: love, money, respect and happiness.

*I did have one patient who I will never forget—Clarence. He had undergone and operation called a colostomy. His intestine was now sewn to the side of his abdomen. Unlike many other who have undergone this procedure, Clarance found that by manipulating his abdomen, he could make some of his intestine protrude outside of his body. It was absolutely disgusting.

Because he had no other means of supporting himself, often would go on the New York City subway and display his “talent” until the frightened and repulsed passengers gave him a dollar. He was making money not by displaying his exhibit, but by putting it away! He was very enterprising.