Curiosities…Freaks on Parade

I came upon this term while thumbing through a book on P.T. Barnum, the infamous showman and circus owner  images (1810-1891).

Why infamous as opposed to just famous?  He made his vast fortune on the misfortunes of others.

He was the owner of Barnum’s American Live Museum (located on Broadway and Ann Street in downtown Manhattan),  300px-Barnum's_American_Museum-photo_1858 a mere covert cover for a circus sideshow.  Inside were...CURIOSITIES.  Those born with some abnormality piquing the public’s interest, or curiosity if you will, at a price.

Siamese Twins, The Bearded Lady, images-3  Jo-Jo the Dog faced Boy.images-4 But his most renowned discovery were two dwarves he named, General Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton 1838-1883), 110px-Charles_Sherwood_Stratton_-_dagurreotype_circa_1848 and his wife, Lavinia Warren (Lavinia Warren Bump  220px-Lavinia_Warren_-_Brady-Handy 1841-1919).

Back then it was permissible to call them midgets, where now they’d respectfully be referred to as Little People.  In their case, Mr. Mrs. Thumb along with Barnum, made a small fortune, no pun intended, but that wasn’t the case for most of his employees.

Imagine sitting in a little cubicle while you were stared at like a freak, hence the term freak show, images-1 your job description being to withstand humiliation all day long.

It’s no wonder, karmically, Barnum’s American Museum burnt down twice, last time in 1868, along with two of his early circus sights, one on Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport, Connecticut, another in Brooklyn.  Even his beloved palatial home called Iranistan, burned to the ground in 1857.  240px-Iranistan,_Residence_of_P.T._Barnum,_1848

The gods were clearly not happy with Phineas Taylor Barnum.

Originally from Bridgeport before migrating to Fairfield, I as a kid, knew lots about him, buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in a tomb he designed himself.   barnum-grave Modest, wasn’t he.

I remember a school trip visiting his grave along with his little star, Tom Thumb interred nearby. images-8  Of course no one intimated Barnum was a creep making us all think how grand he was for siring such a well-known circus, a place, to this day, I can’t go to because of all the animals trained to entertain.  You have to ask yourself, what did they have to do to that elephant who can elegantly cross his legs and sit on a stool?  Frankly, I don’t want to know.

Which brings me to Barnum at his cruelest.  Topsy the elephant, in 1903, the star of Coney Island’s Luna Park until she was so abused, began retaliating.  After a drunk man fed her a lit cigarette, she killed him.  The decision was made, Topsy needed to be put down.  Didn’t matter it was in self-defense and though back then, there was some type of ASPCA, it was nothing like today where we’d fight like hell for her rights, like any mistreated female.

Barnum suggested to Topsy’s owners, why not a public hanging?

Thomas Edition weighed in by saying, hey, I have a better idea…let’s electrocute her instead, to show just how great my electricity truly is, a suggestion appealing to all who figured, hey we’ll sell tickets, which they did to a packed house of a hundred or so spectators.  As her trainer wept, Topsy inhumanly lost her life.

I can’t, for all our sake, post pictures.

Makes you wish you were the one lighting the torch on Barnum’s treasured home that now reverently has a street named after it not far from The Barnum Museum, its star bequeathing an endowment towards its birth.

Despite detesting Barnum’s heartlessness, dollars meaning more than humanity, I find him fascinating to read about.  He makes Donald Trump look like loose change.

I will leave you with one story that, despite everything, always makes me smile.  In 1883, soon after The Brooklyn Bridge was completed, images-1 people were afraid to walk across due to a rumor it wouldn’t hold.  So Barnum, once again seizing an opportunity, assembled all his elephants, trunks linked, walking them across the bridge to show its strength.  Jumbo, Barnum’s biggest star in the lead, responded to the crowd’s applause by festively flapping his ears…so as the story goes, after that day, no one was afraid to walk across the bridge ever again.

History, for better or worse, has to grab you, even if it’s only by your heartstrings.

“Every crowd has a silver lining”  P.T. Barnum   images-6


About Susannah Bianchi

I'm just a girl who likes to write slightly on slant. I've had a career in fashion, dabbled in film and to be honest, I don't like talking about myself. Now my posts are another matter so I will let them speak for themselves. My eBooks, A New York Diary, Model Behavior: Friends For Life and Notes From A Working Cat can be found on Thanks.
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32 Responses to Curiosities…Freaks on Parade

  1. I think a lot of people like Barnum get white-washed by history and people forget the bad things. I’ve read the story of poor Topsy before. I’d like to believe we’re beyond that type of barbarity by now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. micklively says:

    Looking at history through modern spectacles will often disappoint. In any event, Barnum was catering for public taste. If no-one had paid the admission fee, the curiosities would presumably have been begging and abused on the streets? The opportunities for employment were severely limited. So I’m not saying Barnum was good, just a man of his time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. History is fascinating, and sadly…sometimes tragic.


  4. skinnyuz2b says:

    Wow, thanks for all the info, Susannah. I never heard the bridge story either. I love the reference to Trump!


  5. Elle Knowles says:

    Interesting bit of history Susannah. I have never heard the Topsy story. So sad. I guess we have all learned from our mistakes and the mistakes of others…~Elle


  6. I don’t go to circuses. Never have. Even as a child there was something so wrong about them. I cruised past the Topsy story because I can’t do anything about it and I didn’t want to start my day with tear stains on my face. I always thought Barnum was just a jerk making money off of anything. It didn’t have to be noble or good. It was better if it wasn’t.


  7. Patricia says:

    I think we all have a potential monster in us. Some manage to rid themselves of it, most tame it and many let it run wild and enjoy the ride. Humans still have a lot to learn.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Once again you provide me with a history lesson that grabs my attention. I recently watched the American Horror series titled “Freak Show.” It shined a light on many different aspects of being different in the world. In the show Jessica Lange sings a Lana Del Rey song “Gods & Monsters” which brings Patricia’s comment to life.


    • I heard that was really great. The Barnum piece wasn’t widely read, and those who did read were thrown by the Topsy story. I tried being gentle, but it did happen and history as you know, isn’t always kind. They should have electrocuted Hitler.


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