'A promising young historian with a taste for the exotic.' Stephen Fry
A radical new history of the Victorian age: meet the forgotten and extraordinary freak performers whose talents and disabilities helped define an era.
On 23 March, 1844, General Tom Thumb, at 25 inches tall, entered the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace and bowed low to Queen Victoria. On both sides of the Atlantic, this meeting marked a tipping point in the nineteenth century – the age of the freak was born.
Bewitching all levels of society, it was a world of astonishing spectacle – of dwarfs, giants, bearded ladies, Siamese twins and swaggering showmen – and one that has since inspired countless novels, films and musicals. But the real stories (human dramas that so often eclipsed the fantasy presented on the stage), of the performing men, women and children, have been forgotten or marginalized in the histories of the very people who exploited them.
In this richly evocative account, Dr John Woolf uses a wealth of recently discovered material to bring to life the sometimes tragic, sometimes triumphant, always extraordinary stories of people who used their (dis)abilities and difference to become some of the first international celebrities. And through their lives we discover afresh some of the great transformations of the age: the birth of showbusiness, of celebrity, of advertising, of ‘alternative facts’; while also exploring the tensions between the power of fame, the impact of exploitation and our fascination with ‘otherness’.
Historian Woolf's lively debut asserts that the height of the West's 19th-century study of disease and public health reforms was also the "heyday of the freak show." The European aristocracy's long-standing interest in people with rare conditions was, Woolf notes, a kind of live Cabinet of Curiosities, and the Victorian fixation on categorization fed into audiences' mixed disgust and fascination over acts featuring "freaks." He paints portraits of the bigger stars, including Siamese twins Chang and Eng; humbug master P.T. Barnum and his exploitation of Joice Heth, the supposedly 161-year-old former slave of George Washington; and the diminutive Charles Stratton (aka "General Tom Thumb"), who became the toast of European high society after being feted by Queen Victoria in 1844. Business took a tumble in the late 1800s and early 1900s with increased competition (sports, movies, vaudeville); and eventually, social Darwinists "turned freak performers into a national menace." Woolf balances his colorful, detailed storytelling with sharp-eyed cultural unpacking, such as discussing how the traveling freak shows were exploitative and demeaning but also provided income and social networks for outsiders with limited employment opportunities. This rich, resonant cultural history takes a solid look at the oft-explosive intersections of commerce, wonder, ethnicity, and morality.