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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others (History)

by Daniel P. Mannix 

Publisher: Juno Books, revised 2nd edition (February, 2000)

Paperback, 124 pages

“If you regard yourself as a normal, healthy-minded person, almost certainly the very idea of a freak is repugnant to you. Although you probably wouldn’t go as far as Hitler did and suggest they be killed in gas chambers, still you might very well feel they be shut up in institutions where no one could see them. After all, think of effect of seeing a freak could have on a child. Yet children are raised on stories of dwarfs, giants, and fairies (all of whom have counterparts and probably their origins in human freaks). It is also true that children, far from feeling an instinctive horror of freaks, are delighted with them.”
This is a banned book from the 1970s. It was first published in a small edition format then withdrawn by the publisher and destroyed, after only being out a month. Thus was done under pressure from blue-nosed authoritarian types sticking their noses up about the subject matter. It was out of print for twenty years, until RE-search press, a publisher who specializes in such subject matters, turned out a new edition in 1990.
The author is a long time is a former sword-swallower and fire-eater turned journalist who mostly wrote books on historical events, but is probably best known for The Fox and the Hound which was adapted into the Disney film. Another major contributor, one that the actual author interviewed for his opinion, was Anton La Vey, a long time circus performer and lion tamer who infamously created The Church of Satan and wrote the equally infamous Satanic Bible.

This book is a wonderful collection of material on various sideshow freak events from the lost days of carnivals and circuses. As the author rightly points out, back in the day, a good freak would be the highlight of a show and could pay the running costs of everything by themselves. Before they were shut down by do-gooders in Congress, the sideshow was the best way for a person deemed a “freak” to make a living. Many made fortunes well beyond what they would have made as normal people. Now because of “caring people” who just wanted to help, their livelihoods were destroyed.
I’ve always detested the word freaks, I prefer the one used by Robert Ripley (of Ripley's Believe It or Not fame), that of human oddities. There are a few other terms which may trigger people in this sensitive age, but back in the 70s, the carnival scene wasn’t a font of education or cultural sensitivity- Believe it or not!

The book is divided into chapters based on the various types of oddity: Dwarves and midgets (the difference between the two is that dwarves have short arms and legs, while their trunks and head are normal sized, and midgets are proportionally short all over); giants; those with extra limbs or parasite twins (usually one of the best attractions); hermaphrodites (strangely the author says female impersonators with some fake prosthetics were better than actual hermaphrodites, as they knew how to make a show out of it); fat people; human skeletons; rubber-skinned people; people born without arms or legs; the wild man act- this is broken into several parts- one being the pinheads or microcephalus, like the famous Schlitze-  people who have an overabundance of hair covering their whole body like a wookie- and straight up fake acts of men growling. The author rejects all of the old stories of children being found wild and raised by various animals. He states that in all such cases it usually comes down to the child have some sort of mental retardation and being abandoned by its parents. And on and on and on, there are many many unique acts- far too many to mention here.

The last chapter deals with man-made oddities, people who deliberately turned themselves into a sideshow attraction to make money. Examples include Omi the Great, a tattooed man- while these were common, Omi had zebra stripes tattoos all over him. Block heads, people who pounded nails into their heads to lay on beds of razors. Koo Koo the Bird Girl, whom Anton la Vey claimed was a normal woman, who just dressed weird and made odd bird noises. It ends with Mortado- The Crucified Man, who had holes drilled into his hands and feet. He would place blood capsules in the holes and then be crucified, or hit in a chair and have water hoses run up through them, become a human water fountain.
The book is filled with pictures, some disturbing, some fascinating, and lots of commentary from the author and La Vey about historical people deemed to be freaks and the life of an attraction in the modern (modern for 1974) sideshow. Mentioned quite often is Gibsonton which was formed and has unique zoning laws for carnies and sideshow folk. It boasts the only post office with a desk sized just for little people.
For more readings, try books by Rex Hurst. 

Cover from the original banned printing. 

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