Records and Facts

The Way We Were, In Depth Look at Dime Museums

Fred’s First Night 2012 (99) by Campbelltown City Council, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic LicensePhoto by  Campbelltown City Council


Also Known as Freak Shows

During the 19th century the United States was hurting for entertainment, and the things that intrigued people the most were things of the unknown.  I believe it’s only human nature to find interest in the unknown and bizarre.  Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around what your eyes are seeing.  Although some unusual things are mere cases of some sort of medical affliction, human nature is still to be fascinated by them.

Also known as Dime Museums, the early Americas were riddled with them, carnies looking to make a buck off of the unfortunate.  But for a mere dime, visitors would be allowed to step into a different world far beyond the reaches of their imagination.  These Dime Museums were full of midgets, giants, bearded ladies, snake people and many other amazing sights that you couldn’t find anywhere else.

These places were major attractions and sought by all.  They were orchestrated in a huge display fashion with all the bells and whistles.  They were advertised in the public streets by live music and flyers not to mention the loud yelling in the streets advertising what wonders lie in wait.

When and Where

New York, USA was home to the very first Dime Museum opened in 1841.  The show was opened by the legend P.T. Barnum.  It was known as “Barnum’s American Museum of Curios”. Not only were human oddities his forte, but he showed many stuffed  exhibits such as mummies, creatures pickled in jars and of course the famous Feejee Mermaid.  The Feejee Mermaid was actually a monkey’s head sewn onto the body of a fish!

Barnum’s museum contained a constant changing collection of sideshow exhibits and educational displays. It consisted of 600,000 curiosities in 1849 and reached a staggering 850,000 by 1865.  The museum was unfortunately consumed by fire in 1865.  Not for certain, but it leads me to wonder if this was an attack from activists of their time, or possible religious groups that did not agree with the nature of these exhibits.

In 1867 George Bunnell opened his world of wonders also in New York, USA.  He had

many interesting attractions like the world’s tallest couple, the great midges Admiral Dot and Major Atom.  Also two brothers from Ohio that performed acts of strength, named the Wild Men of Borneo.

Even into the 20th century these places were popping up.  Hubert’s Museum opened in Time Square, also in New York, this was during the 1920’s.  Their acts consisted of Lady Estelline the sword swallower, the elephant skin girl, Susie and Zip the Pinhead.  Hubert’s Museum was also home to Albert-Alberta who was the Half-Man Half-Woman and Martha the Armless Wonder.

Who Were They

Monkey Girl and Alligator Boy, known by their real names of Percilla Lauther and Emmitt Bejano were two large attractions that actually met and fell in love during the 1930’s sideshow circuit.  Percilla was born in 1911 and was from Puerto Rico.  She suffered from a condition called hypertrichosis which causes excess hair on the body and she had two rows of teeth.  Emmitt was afflicted with rough calluses on his skin and was unable to sweat.  He had to immerse himself in ice water in order to cool off, thus gaining the show name Alligator Boy.  After being exhausted of the sideshow lifestyle, they both retired in Florida until Emmitt’s death in 1995 and Percilla passed in 2001.

Commonly known as The Snow Twins, or Zip and Pip, Jennie Lee and Elvira Snow suffered from microcephaly.  This is a condition in which the skull is abnormally small.  This also gave them the name of Pinheads.  Again a legitimate medical condition that was turned bizarre by the curiosity of people’s imagination.

Then we have Martha the Armless Wonder.  She was a member of Hubert’s Museum acts in the 1920’s.  She was actually born with no arms and had very short legs coming out from her hips.  Her act was to eat, write and type using only her feet.

These are all legitimate medical conditions these people suffered from, but somewhere down the line it was found money could be made off them.  Today things are a much different story and the conditions are no longer looked at as marvels.  It’s saddening how the mockery and the treatment of these people during that time was so cruel and sometimes unusual.  But many of them actually joined the sideshows as a means of income.  Some of them made a pretty decent living, and I suppose if they were ok with it, then it’s good the opportunity was there for them during such hard economic times.  But isn’t it just amazing how times have changed and how far entertainment has come in little over 100 years.

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