Freak shows were a popular form of entertainment in the Victorian period, rising in popularity alongside - and sometimes as part of - the music hall and theatre. Dwarves and contortionists (like Esmerelda's Human Eel) were a common feature of the variety performance and circus, whilst freak shows went one step further by displaying human bodies as entertainment in themselves, without asking their exhibits to perform or interact with their audiences. In a society with little exposure to disability or different ethnicities, anyone who did not conform to the common appearance could be considered a 'freak' and exhibits included the very fat, the very thin, the tall and the short, conjoined twins, people with different coloured skin or with physical deformities. Bearded ladies were a popular feature, although not every act was necessarily genuine; 'Hairy Mary from Borneo', for example, was in fact a monkey. One show, featured in the Illustrated London News in 1851, was in fact of a child dwarf known as 'the Fairy Queen' - perhaps an inspiration for the Wiltshire Wonder's story on page 65.
Living conditions for exhibits were not always as dreadful as those in Madame Schreck's establishment. In the late 1890s, freak shows provided decently paid work for individuals who may have struggled to find employment in other walks of life. Some of the most successful of them could earn up to £20 per week; the equivalent of over £1000 today. The success of a show often depended as much on its frontman and advertising as on its actual content, and posters illustrated their exhibits as still more fantastical, grotesque or titillating than the reality. Many shows travelled from town to town in covered wagons with their exhibits enclosed inside, drawing in new crowds at each venue.
One of the key success stories in the development of the freak show was 'General Tom Thumb', born Charles Sherwood Stratton, a dwarf who appeared in PT Barnum's circus. Barnum (1810-1891), whose name lives on in the 'Ringling Brothers' and 'Barnum and Bailey' circuses, was a pioneer of the circus in the 19th century, discovering acts like singer Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale'. His career began as the owner of a travelling freak show and museum of human curiosities. His life is celebrated in the musical Barnum!
Born with maternal and paternal grandmothers who were identical twins, Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) was born as a normal sized baby but stopped growing at the age of six months and reached only 3'4" (102cm) as an adult. He was discovered by Barnum, a distant relative, who taught him to sing and dance and launched his career to great acclaim when he was just five years old. He married another dwarf, Lavinia Warren, in 1883 and died a wealthy man with over 10,000 mourners at his funeral.
A less happy story was that of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), known as 'The Elephant Man'. From birth Merrick began developing abnormally large skin growths on his head and hands, and a childhood fall left him lame. He was rejected by his parents and entered the workhouse aged 17 as his deformities prevented him from finding employment. By 1884 he found it difficult to speak due to the growth on his lips, and voluntarily left the workhouse to join a travelling freak show. He was later based in the back of a London shop run by Tom Norman, sometimes called the 'English Barnum', who drew audiences in using posters and sales patter. The act was only moderately successful, perhaps because Merrick's appearance was too hideous to attract any but the most hardened visitors. At the same time, public attitudes to freak shows were changing and they were increasingly recognised as a challenge to public decency. Norman's shop was closed down in 1885 and Merrick returned to the travelling fair in Europe. His new manager eventually robbed him of his savings and he was left to make his own way, destitute, back to London where he was taken in by Frederick Treves, a surgeon at the London Hospital, who had examined him during his previous stay in the capital. His life improved in his final years as Treves befriended him and introduced him to 'normal life' with trips to his own house and to the countryside, and visitors including the then Princess of Wales, Princess Alexandra.
Although the public began questioning the propriety of freak shows in the late 19th century, displays of human novelties continued in some form until the 1970s when proper structures came into place to support disabled children and their families, at least in Britain and the USA. Fevvers joins Madame Schreck's establishment in the 1890s, when concerns about the shows were starting to grow; the poor conditions of the exhibits' employment, the necessity of bribing Kensington Police and the sexual root of many visitors' interests, may have been exacerbated by the marginalisation of the freak show in light of public disapproval.
Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) also contains a sexually ambiguous character named Albertina, and sees the protagonist enjoying sexual relations with a young girl, Mary Anne, whilst she is in a prolonged sleep.