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Sideshows Used To Showcase These Medical Anomalies

Sideshows in the past showcased medical anomalies as a way to captivate audiences and satisfy their curiosity. These exhibits featured individuals with rare conditions or physical… Alexander Gabriel - September 12, 2023

Sideshows in the past showcased medical anomalies as a way to captivate audiences and satisfy their curiosity. These exhibits featured individuals with rare conditions or physical differences, providing an opportunity for spectators to witness firsthand the uniqueness of the human body. People would gather in awe to observe these extraordinary individuals, often marveling at the mysterious and unusual aspects of their conditions. These sideshows aimed to educate and entertain simultaneously, shedding light on the diversity and complexity of the human experience while also fueling a fascination with the unknown. Today, we have much more compassion and understanding when it comes to medical anomalies. As a society, we have moved away from treating humans with medical conditions as sideshows. It’s time we take a look at some of the most amazing medical anomalies of the past.


Charles Sherwood Stratton, General Tom Thumb

Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known by his stage name General Tom Thumb, captivated audiences worldwide during the 19th century. Born a dwarf, Stratton’s diminutive stature became the centerpiece of his remarkable career under the guidance of showman P.T. Barnum. Human dwarfism is a medical condition. It is characterized by abnormally short stature due to genetic or medical factors that affect skeletal growth. Audiences marveled at his performances, which showcased his remarkable talents, wit, and charisma. From commanding attention on the stage to mingling with royalty and dignitaries, General Tom Thumb became an international sensation. He left an indelible mark on popular culture and entertainment history. Through his larger-than-life presence, Stratton challenged societal perceptions of disability and paved the way for a new era of celebrity and showmanship.

All That’s Interesting

Cholera Infected Intestines

In 1849, during a cholera outbreak, members of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia preserved and examined specimens of intestines from cholera patients. Finally, in 2013, researchers identified this strain. Cholera is a devastating bacterial infection caused by Vibrio cholerae, typically transmitted through contaminated water or food. It manifests with symptoms like profuse diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration, often leading to life-threatening consequences if left untreated. Cholera outbreaks are particularly concerning in areas with inadequate sanitation and clean water access, making it a global public health challenge. Preventative measures, including improved hygiene and access to clean drinking water, remain crucial in controlling the spread of this deadly disease.


Siamese Twins Chang and Eng Bunker

Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, born in Siam (now Thailand) in the early 19th century, were internationally renowned for their unique physical connection. Joined at the chest by a band of flesh, they toured the world as a captivating curiosity. The twins captivating audiences with their appearances in exhibitions and shows. Despite their extraordinary condition, the twins led active and independent lives. They even marrying and fathering a total of 21 children between them. Conjoined twins are a rare phenomenon where two individuals are born physically connected to each other at some point of their bodies. Depending on the extent of their shared anatomy, conjoined twins may face unique medical and social challenges, requiring specialized care and often captivating public fascination.

Brooklyn Public Library

Stephen Bibrowski, Lionel the Lion Faced Man

Stephan Bibrowski, famously known as Lionel the Lion-Faced Man, captured the curiosity of crowds with his remarkable appearance and captivating story. Born in Poland in 1890 with a rare condition called hypertrichosis, which covered his face and body in thick hair, Lionel overcame adversity to become a celebrated sideshow performer. Audiences marveled at his unique features, and he embraced his role, using his fame to break barriers and challenge societal norms around beauty and difference. Hypertrichosis affects an estimated 1 in every billion individuals, making it an exceptionally uncommon disorder. This condition can manifest as localized or generalized excessive hair growth on the face and body, often leading to unique physical appearances and medical challenges for those who experience it.

Verywell Health

Jarred Hands with Gout

Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s 19th-century collection includes human hands that exhibit the effects of a condition called gout, which afflicted Mütter himself in later life. Gout is a type of arthritis characterized by sudden, severe attacks of pain, swelling, redness, and tenderness in the joints, often affecting the big toe. It occurs due to the buildup of uric acid crystals in the affected joints, leading to inflammation and intense discomfort. Gout is more common in men than in women, and its risk factors include a family history of the condition, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption, and diets high in purine-rich foods.

The Library of Congress

Colonel Routh Goshen, The Arabian Giant

Colonel Routh Goshen, famously known as the Arabian Giant, entranced global audiences with his towering height and exceptional presence. With a stature exceeding 8 feet, he stood as a living representation of human uniqueness and became a source of intrigue during the late 19th century. His remarkable persona, frequently displayed in sideshows and exhibitions, sparked wonder and discussions about the boundaries of human growth and the marvels of the natural world. Gigantism is a rare medical condition characterized by excessive growth and an abnormal increase in height, often caused by the overproduction of growth hormone during childhood or adolescence. Individuals with gigantism can experience physical and health challenges due to their larger-than-average stature.


Models of Late Stage Syphilis

Wax models from the 1800s served as a significant medical teaching tool, vividly depicting the devastating effects of late-stage syphilis on human flesh. The one pictured here is much less severe than many others. Syphilis is a “social” infection caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It can progress through multiple stages and, if left untreated, can lead to severe health complications. In its early stages, syphilis often presents with painless sores or ulcers, but if the infection progresses, it can affect various organs, including the heart and brain. Effective treatment with antibiotics like penicillin is available and can cure syphilis, underscoring the importance of early diagnosis and medical intervention in preventing its potentially devastating consequences. Public health measures, safe sexual practices, and regular screenings remain essential in combating the spread of this sexually transmitted disease.

All That’s Interesting

“Giraffe” Necked Woman

Bertram Mills’ sideshow prominently featured Burmese women adorned with neck rings, offering audiences a striking glimpse into the culture and tradition surrounding these ornamental coils. The spectacle amazed onlookers as they marveled at the elongated necks created by the meticulously stacked rings. In Myanmar’s Kayah area, there exists a tradition where women wear brass rings around their necks, creating the illusion of elongated necks. This centuries-old practice holds cultural significance, often symbolizing beauty and status within the local community.

All That’s Interesting

Chronic Constipation

This full, human large intestine from 1892 might give museum-goers pause, but it contains stuffing, not old waste. Instead, it represents a case of congenital aganglionic megacolon, a condition commonly referred to as chronic constipation, which ultimately led to the demise of the afflicted individual known as the “Balloon Man.” Chronic constipation, if left untreated, can have severe health consequences. Prolonged and untreated constipation can lead to impacted bowels, causing intense pain and discomfort. Furthermore, it can result in the formation of fecal impactions, which may require medical intervention to remove and can lead to serious complications such as bowel perforation or infection. In extreme cases, chronic constipation can even be life-threatening if it triggers complications.


Anna Haining Swan Bates

Anna Haining Swan Bates, a Canadian circus performer, achieved global recognition for her extraordinary height and exceptional skills. Standing at a remarkable height of over 7 feet 11 inches, she became a sensation in the late 19th century entertainment circuit. She displayed her unique talents in a variety of exhibitions and shows. Beyond her impressive stature, Anna’s performances showcased her grace and magnetism. She engaged audiences and challenging traditional concepts of beauty and capability. While never officially diagnosed, later investigations revealed that Anna Bates was born with gigantism, a condition resulting from a tumor in the pituitary gland that releases excessive growth hormones, leading to rapid growth. Those affected by gigantism experience accelerated growth and often have a notably shortened lifespan.

Daily Mail

Daisy and Violet Hilton

Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins born in England in 1908, garnered international attention for their extraordinary lives. Joined at the hips and buttocks, they embarked on a career as vaudeville performers. Here, they showcased their exceptional singing and dancing talents. Despite their physical connection, the Hilton sisters displayed remarkable individuality and resilience. They navigated both the entertainment industry and societal challenges, and later advocated for their rights and independence. As their fame grew, Daisy and Violet Hilton faced legal battles against exploitative management. They eventually gained their freedom, highlighting their determination to control their own lives. Their unique journey sheds light on the complexities faced by conjoined twins. Both as mesmerizing performers and also as individuals with their own aspirations and agency.

The Inquirer

Models of Diseased Eyes

The Mutter Museum’s eye wall showcases various eye ailments in a compelling and educational manner. Visitors can explore a range of eye conditions, each meticulously preserved to provide a firsthand look at the impact of diseases on this crucial sensory organ. This exhibit not only serves as a valuable resource for medical education but also raises awareness about the importance of eye health, offering a unique opportunity for the public to gain insights into the intricacies of eye disorders and the importance of vision care. Those who work at the museum notice that everyone who views the display can’t help but scratch at their eyes subconsciously.



Josephine-Joseph, a renowned circus sideshow performer, held audiences in awe with their incredible talent for seamlessly transitioning between two distinct personas. This extraordinary person embodied both male and female identities, skillfully navigating the challenges of a world that often struggled to understand their fluidity. Josephine-Joseph claimed to be intersex, or as it was known during their time, a” true hermaphrodite”. Intersex is a term that refers to individuals born with a combination of physical, genetic, or hormonal characteristics that do not fit typical definitions of male or female. These variations can affect a person’s reproductive or sexual anatomy, leading to a wide spectrum of intersex traits.


Joseph Merrick, Elephant Man

Joseph Merrick, born on 5th August 1862, suffered from severe deformities. Initially exhibited as “the Elephant Man,” he later found refuge at the London Hospital and gained recognition in London society. Raised in Leicester, he exhibited signs of abnormal growth before the age of five. In 1884, Merrick proposed to showman Sam Torr that he could be exhibited, leading to his stage debut as “the Elephant Man.” He later joined Sam Roper’s circus for a European tour but was robbed and abandoned in Belgium, eventually returning to the London Hospital. Treves, visiting him daily, became a close friend, and Merrick received visits from London society members, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Though officially listed as asphyxia, Treves, who conducted the postmortem, concluded that Merrick had died from a dislocated neck.

Mutter Museum

Madame Dimanche and Her Horn

In the early 19th century, Parisian widow Madame Dimanche had a wax model created depicting a mysteriously appearing human horn, known as a cornu cutaneum, which had grown on her body for six years before being successfully removed. These horn-like protrusions are composed of keratin, the same protein found in hair and nails, and can vary in size and appearance. Although typically benign, these horns can be a cause for concern as they may signal underlying skin conditions or skin cancer in some cases. Medical attention is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment.


“Pinheads”, Microcephaly on Display

The circus attraction of “pin heads” featured individuals with microcephaly, a condition characterized by an unusually small head and brain. The term “pin head” originated from the idea that their heads resembled the size of a sewing pin. “The Life of Schlitzie,” a biography recounting the experiences of the sideshow performer known as a “pinhead,” provides a poignant insight into the world of circus sideshows during the early 20th century. Schlitzie, whose real name was Simon Metz, captivated audiences with his unique appearance due to microcephaly. The book sheds light on his life, highlighting the challenges he faced, as well as the empathy and understanding he ultimately elicited from those who came to know him.

All That’s Interesting


In the 19th century, the mother of these twins experienced hydramnios, a condition in which one fetus exerts pressure on the other. Following the successful birth of a healthy boy, medical examination of the placenta revealed a tiny, compressed second fetus. This unusual phenomenon provides valuable insights into fetal development. Statistics indicate that hydramnios occurs in approximately 1-2% of pregnancies and is often associated with complications requiring medical attention and monitoring. Hydramnios involves an excessive accumulation of amniotic fluid and can lead to various complications, such as preterm labor and maternal discomfort. Management of hydramnios typically includes close monitoring, with treatment ranging from amnioreduction to addressing underlying causes like gestational diabetes or fetal abnormalities, to ensure a healthy pregnancy outcome.

All That’s Interesting

Madame Devere, the Bearded Lady

Born in Brooksville, Kentucky in 1842, Madam Devere, also known as Jane Devere, Madam Krepps, and the Kentucky Wonder, made her mark as a sideshow attraction. She was born on May 21, 1858, and passed away on June 19. In 1884, she achieved a record-setting beard length of 14 inches, a feat that remains unmatched to this day, earning her the moniker “The Kentucky Wonder.” Devere was a prominent figure in sideshows, working for Sells Brothers and featured as “a bearded lady.” Her journey also included a marriage to sideshow manager J. W. Devere.


Mignon, the Penguin Girl

Born around 1910, Ruth Berry became a prominent attraction in the years spanning from 1930 to 1965. She bore the rare condition of phocomelia in all four limbs, with her fingers fused together, creating the distinctive appearance of flippers. Professionally, she adopted the stage name “Mignon,” a French term meaning “cute.” Phocomelia is a rare congenital condition characterized by underdeveloped or absent limbs, often resulting in the hands or feet being attached directly to the body. This condition is typically caused by exposure to certain drugs or toxins during pregnancy, such as thalidomide.


Krao Farini

Krao Farini, born in 1876, was an American sideshow performer afflicted with hypertrichosis. During the late 19th century, she embarked on exhibition tours across North America and Europe. Sadly, she fell under the guardianship of William Leonard Hunt, also known as Guillermo Antonio Farini. Hunt exploited her distinctive appearance for financial gain. Throughout her life, Krao Farini was falsely promoted as a primitive human, and she was often advertised as the missing link bridging humans and apes. During her final years, she lived in Brooklyn. When venturing out in public but not participating in exhibitions, she habitually wore a veil. Tragically, she succumbed to influenza on April 16, 1926, in Manhattan. In her wishes, she specified that her body be cremated, a choice made to prevent posthumous scrutiny.

Akademi Portal

Pauline Musters, aka “Princess Pauline”

Pauline Musters, a Dutch woman born in 1878 with dwarfism, embarked on a career as a sideshow attraction at just two years old, touring fun fairs and bringing unexpected wealth to her family. Due to her condition, Musters stood at a mere 1 ft 9.5 in tall and weighed only 4 lb 5 oz by age nine, ultimately achieving a measured size of 1 ft 11.2 in and setting a record as the shortest adult person, although her measurements were surrounded by conflicting data and likely exaggerations. Today, Pauline Musters is recognized as the fourth shortest documented person in history.


Sealo the Seal Man

Stanislaus Berent, born on November 24, 1901, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was an American performer known as Sealo the Seal Boy. He became famous for his seal-like arms, a result of the congenital condition phocomelia. His career started when he was discovered as a newspaper seller and continued for thirty-five years, including performances at Coney Island’s freak show and the World Circus Sideshow in 1941. Despite his physical challenges, he demonstrated impressive abilities, such as sawing crates in half and sculpting clay figurines. He retired in 1976, moving to Showmen’s Retirement Village in Gibsonton, Florida, but returned to Pittsburgh as his health declined. He spent his final days in a Catholic hospital and passed away in 1980.


Silas Whaley, The Man Without a Stomach

Silas Whaley, a sideshow performer known for his unique act, would deliberately suck in his stomach to create the illusion of having no abdominal area. Outside his tent, posters boldly proclaimed, ‘The Man Without a Stomach! Believe it or not!’ A LIFE magazine image captured the fascination of onlookers as they marveled at Whaley’s concave belly, each one eager to catch a glimpse of this extraordinary sight. This ability wasn’t due to any deformity or special talent. Many people are able to suck in their stomachs in such extreme ways. While it looks unusual, it is not an indication of anything dangerous.

All That’s Interesting

Cases of Elephantiasis

African-American sideshow circus entertainer Sylvia Portis, famously known as Sylvia the Elephant Girl, gained widespread attention due to her unique condition that exhibited signs of elephantiasis. Elephantiasis is a parasitic disease caused by mosquito-borne filarial worms that block the lymphatic system, resulting in severe swelling of body parts, commonly the legs and genitalia. This condition can lead to disfigurement, immense pain, and a significantly reduced quality of life for those affected. Elephantiasis affects over 120 million people worldwide, predominantly in tropical and subtropical regions, making it a significant global health concern.


Conjoined Specimens

The stillborn conjoined twins specimen at the Mutter Museum represents a unique and somber piece of medical history. These twins were born with a rare condition that caused them to be conjoined, sharing vital organs and body parts. Their existence serves as a poignant reminder of the complex and sometimes heartbreaking nature of medical anomalies. Visitors to the museum can view this specimen and reflect on the challenges faced by individuals with such conditions, fostering a deeper understanding of human diversity and the importance of medical research in addressing rare congenital disorders.

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:,Hypertrichosis%20is%20defined%20as%20excessive%20hair%20growth%20anywhere%20on%20the,%5D%5B2%5D%5B3%5D,excessive%20height%20and%20other%20complications.,male%E2%80%9D%20or%20%E2%80%9Cfemale%E2%80%9D.,in%20a%20smaller%20head%20size.,the%20Caribbean%20and%20South%20America.,be%20severe%20and%20life-threatening.,toe%20or%20a%20lower%20limb.,have%20different%20signs%20and%20symptoms.\,It%20is%20also%20called%20polyhydramnios.