We may not like to admit it, but we are fascinated by the physical anomalies that were once paraded around by circuses—people to which the term freak is almost always applied. The Eels and Phish have songs that play on the idea of the “Dog-Faced Boy.” (Neutral Milk Hotel trumps them by singing about a “Two-Headed Boy.”) Meanwhile, the Hives and Screaming Females have songs dealing with the “Bearded Lady.” Tod Browning’s Freaks stands as one of the finest movies made in 1932, and not many books published in 1989 have dated any better than Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead is one of the most enduring figures to emerge from the underground comics explosion of the 1960s and early 1970s.
It’s difficult to think of the actual freak shows that proliferated in circuses around the turn of the 20th century and not suppose that it was all an arena for some vicious exploitation. But those assumptions may not be as well founded as you might think: The bulk of reports that we have from that era appear to indicate that headlining “freaks” were well compensated and also treated collegially by their coworkers, which makes sense when you realize that they were often the strongest audience draws the circus had to offer.
One of the most reliable of “freak” tropes is that of the Bearded Lady. The notion of a female with a noticeable beard goes back as far as the 14th century, most notably in the figure of Wilgefortis, who existed as a variation on the crucified Christ.
Annie Jones was born in Virginia in the summer after the close of the Civil War. Afflicted with no small degree of hirsutism (or some other genetic condition), she worked for P.T. Barnum’s traveling exhibition almost from the crib. As the nation’s most prominent Bearded Lady, Jones was a vocal spokesperson for the country’s “freaks,” a word she detested and fought hard to expunge from the circus trade.
When Jones was still a small child, there was a curious episode in which she was essentially kidnapped by man named Wicks who a “phrenologist”—that is, someone who believes that character traits can be gleaned by investigations into a person’s skull—who claimed that the child was his. Right out of a 19th-century melodrama, at the trial to adjudicate the matter, Jones ran into her mother’s arms, settling the matter once and for all.
Jones was also an accomplished musician. In 1902, she died of tuberculosis at the age of 37.
The affliction that caused Fedor Jeftichew to become a celebrity known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy is called hypertrichosis (sometimes called “werewolf syndrome”); the condition, which causes an abnormal amount of hair to grow all over the body, is apparently genetic, as his father shared the condition. Jeftichew was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1868, and became a part of Barnum’s troupe in as a teenager in 1884. One of Barnum’s nicknames for Jeftichew was “the human-skye terrier” because of the tendency of that breed to have straight long hair covering the eyes.
From whole cloth Barnum created a phantastical backstory for Jeftichew, now known as Jo-Jo. The idea was that a hunter from Kostroma in the heartland of Russia tracked Jeftichew and his father to their “cave” and captured them “after a desperate conflict.” Barnum spared no detail in describing Adrian as a savage who was beyond any kind of civilizing effects. (In reality Jeftichew spoke three languages fluently.) Barnum would tell audiences that when Jeftichew was upset, he was given to barking and growling; knowing where his interests lay, Jeftichew would then proceed to do just that for the gaping audience.
Jeftichew passed away of pneumonia in 1904 in Greece.
h/t: All That Is Interesting
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Color photographs of Circus performers 1940-50