Let Your Freak Flag Fly: Constructing Health and Reinforcing American Exceptionalism through the Display of Othered Bodies

Ellen Schneider is a student at Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA. She is studying history and education, and hopes to become a middle school social studies teacher. In her free time, Ellen can usually be found going to estate sales, thinking about architecture, and asking people on the street if she can pet their dogs.

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, freak shows provided Americans with two of the things they loved most—a gruesome spectacle and reassurance of their own superiority. For nearly a century, the United States supported countless roadside tents and rooms off of dark alleys filled with bearded ladies, lobster boys, giants, missing links, and conjoined twins. Sometimes the people on display actually had a medical condition that made them the subject of public interest; sometimes they were able-bodied people advertised and displayed in ways that made people think they were freaks. Either way, the mystery, spectacle, and shock factor of what might be behind the curtain or closed door was sure to draw a crowd.

The scholarship surrounding freak shows is as varied as the bodies in question. Scholars of English literature, film analysis, disability studies, and cultural history have all contributed to the argument that freak shows were intertwined with the American middle class’s desire to reaffirm their own healthy, white superiority by viewing othered bodies. In scholarly analysis of freak shows, the spectacle is often allowed to trump the medical, but the arguments that arise concerning authority, health, and reactions to abnormal bodies are the same ones that come up in studies of American medical history. In reality, the medical and the spectacle could not be separated under a sideshow tent. Freak shows and the medical establishment were linked by their shared interest in the body, and their narratives are intertwined in often surprising ways. Freak shows should occupy a place in the discipline of medical history. They have the potential to reveal a great deal about what people saw as healthy and normal, and how that fit into the development of distinctly American medical institutions.

In addition to the fact that both freak shows and medical practice are deeply concerned with issues of constructing normalcy and policing bodies, there is a definite historical and linguistic overlap between the two. The stories of medicine and freak shows merge in the life of Dr. Thomas Mütter, a pioneer of plastic surgery and collector of medical oddities who was once called “the P. T. Barnum of the surgery room.”[1] He was a flamboyant character, but gained great respect in the medical field for bringing plastic surgery from Paris to the United States, which gave the medical field something it had never had before—the ability to fix “monsters,” the term used to describe people with a visible deformity so severe that it marked them as overwhelmingly “other.”[2] Mütter not only performed surgeries that deprived sideshows of their freaks; he displayed quite a few medical oddities himself. However, as a doctor, he was able to portray it to the public as an educational endeavor and an effort to bring his specimens dignity.[3] Regardless of his intentions, the bodies in his collection still ended up on display, where they still remain, long after most conventional freak shows were shut down.

Even when “monsters” were viewed by a medical professional, the terminology was the same as it would be at a freak show. As Lisa A. Kochanek explains, “the gap between scientific and popular sight [was] worryingly small.”[4] For example, Juan Battista dos Santos, a nineteenth century Portuguese man, was described in a medical journal as possessing an extra leg and a “double monstrosity”—two fully formed and functional penises. The study begins with thoroughly clinical terminology and analysis, until the article diverts unexpectedly into the man’s own stories of his sexual exploits paired with illustrations of him clothed fashionably from the waist up, but with his pants around his ankles.[5] Dos Santos would have been a raging hit on the freak show circuit, but instead ended up in a physician’s office, where he was reduced to the spectacle of his deformity and presented for the public in the same sensationalized way he would have been in a sideshow. In the study and display of deformed bodies, it was often difficult to distinguish between the medical man and the sideshow proprietor.

In 1863, P. T. Barnum, who made no claims to be anything but a showman, made a fortune by exhibiting Joice Heth, an African American woman who he claimed was 161 years old and had been young George Washington’s nurse. A public autopsy conducted upon her death revealed that Barnum’s exhibition had, to no modern reader’s surprise, been a sham.[6] Nevertheless, it reveals a great deal about nineteenth century notions of race, American identity, and medical authority. According to Benjamin Reiss, a scholar who, like most people who study freak shows, wears many scholarly hats, people visited Heth’s exhibit “to gaze on—even to touch—her marvelously decrepit body. Joice Heth was advertised as weighing only forty-six pounds; she was blind and toothless and had deeply wrinkled skin; she was paralyzed in one arm and both legs.”[7] Barnum did not just display Heth as a “natural and national curiosity;” people’s interest in her was, in part, medical. When a surgeon performed a public autopsy on Heth, the medical sphere merged with Barnum’s theater of spectacle and fantasy. There is a natural link between the display of Heth and historical studies of the relationship between African Americans and the medical establishment, which treated them more like freaks than patients because their bodies, which, by virtue of being non-white, were abnormal.

Reiss explains that conversations about the Joice Heth exhibit paint a picture of white antebellum Americans “as they struggled to make sense of the interlocking issues of racial identification and modernization, and looked for symbolic resolution to those struggles in popular culture and the emerging mass media.”[8] David Wall corroborates this interpretation of Barnum’s shows, arguing that “these narratives of freakery allowed the playing out of racial and social difference as part of the very process that saw those differences ever more rigidly invoked.”[9] These scholars situate the use of Joice Heth as a way to define American whiteness in a social narrative, but a medical analysis would be just as useful. Sharla Fett’s study of black healthcare in antebellum America revealed that, in the 1830s, “African American patients in urban hospitals became objects of display in lecture halls, hospital rounds, and surgical demonstrations.”[10] Although a showman put Heth on display in a tent and doctors displayed these nameless patients in operating theaters, the narratives are not that different. In both cases, the white men in power disregarded concerns about preserving dignity and decency, which dominated medical conversations about early public anatomical demonstrations. This reveals that only white bodies were perceived as deserving of that kind of careful handling and respectful presentation. Barnum’s tent and doctors’ operating theaters served as comparable arenas for scientific discussions of race, health, and ability, and should be studied together accordingly.

Studies of freak shows often use the notion of the grotesque body as a cultural phenomenon, but they could also benefit from the use of historical discussions of the different medical definitions of “healthy” as it applied to black and white bodies. In antebellum America, barbarous doctors like J. Marion Sims experimented with procedures on poor or enslaved black women that society did not permit him to try on white women, operating under the assumption that they did not feel pain or shame in the same way that white women did .[11] Additionally, at this point in time, health for enslaved black people was defined in terms of “soundness,” which referred to their ability to work, bear children, and be controlled by their masters in a way that made them profitable purchases.[12] The medical establishment’s impulses and assumptions about black bodies that constructed health in this way, which was very different than their comparable notions about white bodies, also shaped the display of black women in freak shows.

Joice Heth, who was gawked at for her longevity and service to the nation, was a compelling example of soundness gone to seed. Many other black bodies displayed in the freak show context were considered through a lens similar to that through which Dr. Sims viewed his patients, as hypersexual and undeserving of the dignity and privacy allotted to white bodies by Victorian values. Popular displays included “Hottentot” women (as Dutch colonists dubbed them), who drew great crowds with their large buttocks and extended labia.[13] Linda Frost presets a paradox-filled study of Barnum’s Cirassian Beauties, legendarily beautiful girls supposedly brought to his stage from “primitive” and decidedly non-white Turkey. They presented physical characteristics of both white and African women; they were light-skinned, but wore their hair in large afros and often had African features. The Cirassian Beauties were presented as acceptable objects of desire, clad in the dresses of wealthy western women, but displayed in a public, hypersexual, indisputably othered context.[14] Frost argues that “the Circassian Beauty blended elements of white Victorian True Womanhood with traits of the enslaved African American woman in one curiosity…”[15] but does not reach a convincing conclusion as to what that meant. Medical historians should join this discussion, thus situating the Circassian Beauties in a different narrative, which should provide answers for Frost’s unanswered questions.

In the century following P. T. Barnum’s rise to fame, the lines between medical and spectacle blurred in the display of abnormal bodies. Barnum’s freaks drew great crowds to the operating theater while Dr. Mütter’s specimens were put on display for the public in a museum. These displays were wildly popular because of the showmanship associated with them, as well as the unconscious American desire to reinforce white superiority by viewing bodies constructed as abnormal and deficient. The construction of non-white and disabled bodies as inferior, as well as questions of authority, the definition of health, and issues of preserving dignity all appear with equal frequency in works of medical history and the scholarship associated with freak shows. Due to this overlap in both analytical themes and historical content, the study of freak shows could greatly benefit from the addition of medical historians’ perspectives.


[1] Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz, Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Take of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine (New York: Gotham Books, 2014), 198.
[2] Ibid., 21.
[3] Ibid., 282.
[4] Lisa A. Kochanek, “Reframing the Freak: From Sideshow to Science,” Victorian Periodicals Review 30, no. 3 (1997): 227.
[5] Ibid., 238.
[6] Benjamin Reiss, “P. T. Barnum, Joice Heth and Antebellum Spectacles of Race,” American Quarterly 51, no. 1 (1999): 78.
[7] Ibid., 80.
[8] Ibid., 79.
[9] David Wall, “‘A Chaos of Sin and Folly’: Art, Culture, and Carnival in Antebellum America,” Journal of American Studies 42, no. 3 (2008): 528.
[10] Sharla M. Fett, Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 153.
[11] Ibid., 151.
[12] Ibid., 21.
[13] Jack Hunter, Freak Babylon: an Illustrated History of Tetralogy and Freakshows (London: Glitter Books, 2005), 94.
[14] Linda Frost, Never One Nation: Freaks, Savages, and Whiteness in U. S. Popular Culture, 1850-1877 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 68.
[15] Ibid., 66.

Further Reading:

Aptowicz, Cristin O’Keefe. Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine

Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit

Stephens, Elizabeth. Anatomy as Spectacle: Public Exhibitions of the Body From 1700 to the Present