This article was originally published in the Autumn 2013 issue of History News magazineYou can read the article in PDF format here: Stringer, Autumn 2013.

I began writing my dissertation for Middle Tennessee State University’s Public History Ph.D. program in 2012 with the idea that my research would culminate in a practical plan for museums and historic sites to go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to welcome visitors with all disabilities and abilities to have meaningful experiences. Throughout history there have been many populations that have been discriminated against or ignored by institutions and organizations of all types. The same is true of museums, and some might argue that those problems still exist today. Even with the ADA it seems that museums and historic organizations are still behind in reaching out to and welcoming people with disabilities.

As I researched the history of museums, it was clear that almost all began as institutes for the wealthy, educated elite classes. As dime museums became popular, they were opened to even the lowest classes, but as you will read below, the institutions did not seem to welcome visitors with dis­abilities except as exhibitions. Once these shows took to the road, they became sideshows or freakshows, often accom­panying circuses. The shows became inextricably tied to the term “exhibition” and in some cases, even museum.

My research on freakshows as exhibitions helps to inform museums on this somewhat sordid past, and can offer con­text for those institutions that are trying to go beyond as­sumed limitations to become true community centers for all members of society.


Dime Museums and Freakshows

From the popular Coney Island amusement area in New York City to traveling circuses and sideshows, exhibits that featured people with physical differences were some of the most prevalent attractions of the nineteenth and early twenti­eth centuries. Dime museums and national exhibitions up to the mid-twentieth century often featured humans who were considered “different” for the public to view and experience. The exhibition of people in these shows was sometimes vol­untary, but most often were acts of desperation from people the mass culture considered to be “freaks.” The place of those individuals with disabilities is an important piece of the past that informs present displays and exhibits, mu­seum policies, and popular attitudes. Even today, modern sideshows are available to the public in various forums. To understand the impact that the past had on the present, it is important to first understand what a freakshow is or was, and what defines a “freak.”



New York and Cincinnati: Strobridge & Co. Lith. Accessed through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


The exhibitions of people who are different have been called many things: Raree Shows, Halls of Human Curiosities, Sideshows, Pitshows, Odditoriums, Congress of Oddities, Collections of Human Wonders, Museum of Nature’s Mistakes, and Freakshows. One of the first ex­amples of a traveling exhibit of a person appeared in 1738, in a colonial American newspaper. The paper ran an advertise­ment for an exhibit of a person who “was taken in a wood at Guinea, ’tis a female about four feet high, in every part like a woman excepting her head which nearly resembles the ape.”

Throughout the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, freakshows or sideshows were among the most popular at­tractions for the middle-class public. [1]

From 1840 until 1940, freakshows were at their height. Historians typically mark 1840 as the beginning of the freakshow era. That was the year P.T. Barnum began the American Museum, a New York City attraction that cost a dime to enter. The museum contained many exhibits of historic artifacts and gaffes, faked items made to trick the viewer. The museum also housed many people who were considered to be rarities worthy of exhibition. These people included: General Tom Thumb, a person with dwarfism; the Aztec Twins; albinos; the “What is It?” a person with micro­cephaly; and many other “living curiosities.” [2]

Barnum’s American Museum was, in a sense, following in the footsteps of the earliest museums of the Western world. Considered to be the first modern museum, the Ashmolean Museum in England opened at Oxford University in 1683. It is generally thought to be the first museum established by a public body for the public benefit. The collection con­tained natural history specimens, coins, books, and art and was essentially a “cabinet of curiosities.” Anthony Wood described the Ashmolean Museum as a building “necessary in order to the promoting and carrying on with greater ease and success severall parts of usefull [sic] and curious learn­ing.” The museum had ten rooms and three of those were open to the public. Collections included the “hieroglyph­icks [sic] and other Egyptian antiquities” donated by Dr. Robert Huntingdon, an “intire [sic] mummy,” and “Romane [sic] antiquities.” These collections represent what was for­eign, entertaining, and intriguing to Oxford students, fac­ulty, and residents. [3]

In 1865 a fire destroyed P. T. Barnum’s original American Museum. The New York Times listed many of the items of interest that had been lost in the fire, though none of the people who were exhibited died. A newspaper article pub­lished in 1865 claimed that Barnum was constructing a new museum to replace the old. The author claimed, “The fact is, that the loss of the museum was a national calamity.” [4]

When Barnum’s museum burned in 1865, few com­plained. In The Nation, Edwin Lawrence Godkin exclaimed, “The worst and most corrupt classes of our people must seek some new place of resort.” He then questioned whether visi­tors were more upset by the fire that destroyed the museum or the state of the artifacts in the museum. Godkin asserted that the “insufficiency, disorder, neglected condition” of the museum should have insulted visitors. To Godkin, muse­ums had to be more professional, educational, and limited in the audience they sought to attract. He concluded, “The profoundly scientific are not those who care for public mu­seums, unless containing this or that unique treasure. The frequenters of museums are those who cannot themselves give much time or means to the collection, classification, and study of specimens, but who read in the evenings and would gladly see by day a larger number and greater variety of helps to understand than their own limited time has sufficed to discover.” Godkin called for a new museum that would do justice to that title. He said, “It is in behalf of all classes of the community, except that vicious and degraded one by which the late ‘American Museum’ was largely monopolized, that we ask the community for a building and for collections that shall be worthy of the name so sadly misapplied.” [5]


Burning of Barnum's Museum, July 13, 1865By C. P. Cranch, from the New York Public Library.

Burning of Barnum’s Museum, July 13, 1865 By C. P. Cranch, from the New York Public Library.


However, the museum yet again burned to the ground in 1868 and was not rebuilt. Instead, Barnum took his show on the road, thus founding one of America’s most famous trav­eling circuses and sideshows. [6]

Based on Barnum’s model, entrepreneurs organized exhi­bitions of people with physical, mental, and behavioral dis­abilities or impairments to attract the public and generate a profit. Many times they advertised these exhibitions as edu­cational and scientific. Barnum’s museum and others like it became known as dime museums. Often, they housed gaffes or fake objects and people, and were little more than a circus or carnival sideshow exhibit. While people likely did not conflate museums with sideshows, the sideshows generally billed themselves as educational, and the sideshow did grow out of the dime museum tradition. [7]

These exhibitions allowed the general population to see “dioramas, panoramas, georamas, cosmoramas, paintings, relics, freaks, stuffed animals, menageries, waxworks, and theatrical performance.” The museums served as escapes for Victorian Americans who suddenly had leisure time thanks in part to the industrial revolution. For many, the word “mu­seum” thus became irrevocably associated with the weird, strange, and unknown since many of the sideshows and at­tractions were erroneously labeled museums. [8]


Freakshows and Humanity

Once the sideshow or freakshow became an entity of its own, organizers named the people integral to these attrac­tions curiosities, rarities, oddities, wonders, mistakes, prodi­gies, special people, and even monsters. The bally shouters and fair organizers categorized performers into different races and natural mistakes, such as giants, people without arms or legs, obese, conjoined twins, “wild” men hailed to have been from foreign and unexplored lands, little people, albinos, and more. People with physical disabilities or anomalies were generally called “born different” peoples, unlike those who were “made freaks” by swallowing swords or nailing objects into their heads. [9]


Photograph by Jack Delano. From the Library of Congress Prints Photographs Division Washington, DC. Outside a freakshow at the Rutland Fair in Vermont.

Photograph by Jack Delano. From the Library of Congress Prints Photographs Division Washington, DC. Outside a freakshow at the Rutland Fair in Vermont.


By labeling a person a freak, the sideshow removed the humanity of the performer because he or she might not have the same physical characteristics of the “normal” person, and authorized the paying customer to approach the person as an object of curiosity and entertainment. To reconcile the exploitation of people who were different as curiosities worthy of admission price, society had only to take away their humanity. [10]

Primary sources reveal little criticism of the exhibition of people with disabilities. Instead, many scientists and doctors accepted and assisted such displays as educational experiences, and they attended the exhibits as well to exam­ine and comment on them. Though scientists studied the people in the exhibits and wrote articles about them, none of the articles critique the display of people with disabilities for public amusement and entertainment.11

In Boston in 1850, the popular exhibition of Maximo and Bartola, the Aztec Children, featured them dressed in outfits with Aztec designs and feathers, was an immediate success not only among the public but also with the scien­tific community. One observer claimed that to everyone the children were “subjects deserving of careful scrutiny and thoughtful observation…they must be objects of vivid interest.” The fact that the children seemed to be severely cognitively impaired was not addressed in the booklet that accompanied the exhibit or by observers. [12]

Eventually, in 1985, the complaints of concerned citi­zens prompted the last remaining freakshow, New York State Fair’s Sutton Sideshow attraction, to be moved away from the midway of the park. The term “freak” was no longer an acceptable term for people with disabilities in the amusement industry. This reaction recognized the reality that freakshows were crude, exploitative, and somewhat embarrassing to society; it has even been called the “pornography of disability.” [13]


Impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1988, historian Robert Bogdan argued that the freak­show was a dying exhibition style that would not be around for much longer for financial reasons and propriety’s sake. In 1990, Congress approved the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA was the first major legisla­tion that provided a promise of equality to all people with disabili­ties. However, Arelene Mayerson argued in “The History of the ADA: A Movement Perspective,” the ADA did not begin with the congressional legislation of 1990. It began much earlier with the people and communi­ties that fought against discrimination. [14]

Legally, the shift towards disability equality began in 1973 when Congress passed Section 504: the Rehabilitation Act, which banned discrimination based on disability for the receiving of federal funds. Following this action the disabil­ity civil rights movement gained momentum, and in 1988, the Americans with Disabilities Act first appeared before Congress. In 1990, Congress passed the act giving rights to people with disabilities that had previously not been guaran­teed by federal law. Essentially, the law protected against dis­ability discrimination in employment; public services, public accommodation, and services operated by private entities; transportation; and telecommunications.

Interestingly, as institutions and citizens grew accustomed to compliance with ADA requirements, the freakshow re­appeared in American popular culture, albeit in a different format. This was especially true at Brooklyn’s Coney Island. The reboot of sideshows and freaks in the United States focuses more on “self-made” freaks than “born-differents.” This suggests that people who are considered to be freakish in some way by societies are embracing the term and using the title as a power term.

The shift from “born different” to “self-made” freaks in sideshows and other displays is shown in the sideshows of Coney Island today, television shows, and movies. Writing in Disability Quarterly Studies in 2005, Elizabeth Stephens details the differences between those born with a disability and those who are “made freaks.” She adds, “The wonder and anxiety generated by the body of the self-made freak arises not from the randomness of its physical difference, as responses to the ‘born’ freak did, but at its celebration of different capabilities and aesthetics.” [15]

The freakshow revival is not just apparent at Coney Island. In fall 2012, a new television program Freakshow pre­miered on the American Movie Channel. The show follows the Venice Beach Freakshow performers in a reality show format. Its trailer features several individuals with physical disabilities. The main character, owner, and performer Todd Ray notes, “Freak is one of the most positive words I can think of; for us freak means normal.” [16]

Coney Island is banking on the freakshow, in part to continue to fuel a resurgence of popu­larity among locals and tourists. Coney Island USA has been work­ing to revitalize the area for many years. On the boardwalk, the organization houses a museum, a sideshow, and a freak bar for visi­tors to experience aspects of Coney Island at its prime.



Signs inside Coney Island, USA’s Freak Bar directing visitors to the Sideshow or Museum. By Katie Stringer.

Signs inside Coney Island, USA’s Freak Bar directing visitors to the Sideshow or Museum. By Katie Stringer.


The museum contains information about the history of Coney Island, some examples of gaffes that were popular in sideshows, and even a cyclorama that portrays the burning of Dreamland in the early twentieth century.

A board of directors operates Coney Island USA. Its board chair in 2012 when I visited, was Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum, a physician who has been studying sideshow performers with physical disabilities. Additionally, he is a pediatrician with HEAT (Health and Education Alternatives for Teens), of which he is the founder, director, and physician. Dr. Birnbaum has also studied sideshow performers, congenital malformations, disabilities, and the medical community. [17]

Today, Coney Island still operates one of the only side­shows in the country. Its website proclaims, “Sideshows by the Seashore is the last permanently housed place in the United States where you can experience the thrill of a traditional ten-in-one circus sideshow. They’re here, they’re real, and they’re alive! Freaks, wonders, and human curiosities!” In an age of ADA, disability rights, and varying degrees of political correctness, it can be hard to see how a sideshow can fit into the modern world. In May 2012, Coney Island USA had just completed its annual Congress of Curious Peoples, at which there are exhibitions of people, speeches, parties, and inductions into the Sideshow Hall of Fame for such categories as “Born Differents” and “Self Inflicted.”18

Dr. Birnbaum shared information about several people he knows who participate in sideshows or other types of shows to raise awareness about disability issues. Matt Fraser is to the sideshow world a “seal boy” or person with phocomalia, and he is also a disability rights activist who uses his dis­ability in his performance. He uses his impairment to make the audience uncomfortable for laughing and having fun, since almost all people are conditioned to ignore or remain sympathetic toward people with disabilities. [19]

An interview with Jason Black from Austin, Texas, addressed key questions about disabil­ity and the sideshow in today’s world. Black is known in the sideshow and entertainment world as the Black Scorpion, and in the past he may have been known as a human lobster because of his impairment. Black is affected by ectrodactyly, an attribute present at birth in which one or more digits from the hand or foot is missing, and the effect is a claw-like appearance. Black commented in an email, “I am the Black Scorpion. I do participate in freakshow/sideshow perfor­mances…. The world I’ve grown up in is one that can be, at times, hardheaded and difficult to communicate with, because of preconceived notions or thoughts, if you will, as to who someone with different [fill in the blank] is sup­posed to be…. What I do on stage is magic, not because of illusions or tricks but because of soul. I try to change pre­conceived negatives into positives and at times fail misera­bly when agendas have already put blinders along someone’s path through our world.” The world in which Black grew up is very different from that of his predecessors in the side­show experience. Rather than displaying himself simply as a freak, Black tries to change people’s impressions of freaks. [20]

When asked how things might have been different if he had lived during the peak of sideshows, Black remarked, “I probably would have made more money, owned a show, and my act would have been slightly different…or I may have been chased by an angry mob of villager—with pitch­forks and torches into a barn only to be silently killed by my creator.” Though this may be an exaggeration, the changes from the past to today remain evident. Black replied to a question about exploitation of himself and his disability in his show. “I think when folks see my act, the word ‘exploit’ doesn’t really cross their minds, though I could be wrong…. Negative feedback I’ve received has always been of the political nature, usually geriatric white men upset over something I’ve said. I mostly teach about and share experi­ences of life with ectrodactyly. But really all performers are exploiting themselves.” [21]

Dr. Birnbaum explained that in the past, the disability community often viewed people who performed as taking part in something equal to pornography. Today, however, many in this population see it as a “rock ‘n’ roll career.” Rather than the negative stigma originally associated with the term “freak,” today many people in the sideshow com­munity embrace the term. In New York City and along the east coast, many people seek out the unofficial mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, in hopes that they will be chosen to appear at Sideshows by the Seashore. [22]

Though Coney Island does not employ any people with intellectual disabilities as performers, Dr. Birnbaum divulged a story about a child with microcephaly born in New York City but abandoned at a local hospital. A hospital worker knew of Birnbaum’s interest in sideshows and his work with Coney Island, and the hospital employee asked if he would adopt the child to give him a career at Coney Island. Although this is a sec­ond-hand tale from an interview, it does show that people still as­sociate some disabilities with the sideshow and the exhibition of curiosities. [23]



Coney Island USA’s Museum and Sideshows by the Seashore with “Museum” written prominently across the top of the building. By Katie Stringer.

Coney Island USA’s Museum and Sideshows by the Seashore with “Museum” written prominently across the top of the building. By Katie Stringer.


In addition to the live sideshows of Coney Island and Venice Beach and the new program Freakshow on the cable network AMC, many television programs take on the circus midway sideshow. As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the pre­sentation of the other for entertainment at home. Perhaps today society is more comfortable watching, asking ques­tions, and gawking at the different people with disabilities or different proclivities than they would be in a public forum.

The exploitation of disability in the modern world contin­ues in many ways. While some programs on television may appear to recognize the humanity of people with disabilities, the pointing and staring aspects seem to still pervade soci­ety; the sensational promotional commercials may be the only view that a person has of the people portrayed on any of the shows mentioned above. If that is the case, those people may only see the characters as freaks without humanity. [24]


Lessons for Today’s Museums

Some of the most popular and most-visited museums are a part of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium franchise. These “museums” are sometimes still billed as odditoriums, and though they do not contain living people in their ex­hibits, wax and plastic figures of people who were considered to be freaks are still on display. Most items in the mu­seums are reproductions or gaffes (such as the famous Barnum hoax the Feegee Mermaid). The Ripley’s franchise of museums and exhibits is arguably for enter­tainment, not education, much like the original sideshows and dime museums of the past. The modern Ripley’s fran­chise includes the odditoriums or museums, perhaps the most recognizable of their brand, as well as aquariums, mini-golf, haunted adventures, and mirror mazes, to name a few.

Even today people are still interested in seeing the maca­bre, taboo, or different in so-called respectable museums, even as they were in the past centuries. Today exhibits that display human bodies are popular in several regions. Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds, a German exhibit aimed at exhibiting human anatomy, opened in 1996 and continues to travel in various forms around the world. In this exhibit there are more than 200 specimens, and 26 whole human bodies that have been prepared and posed in diverse poses. Though many of the bodies may have been obtained illegal­ly or at the least unethically, the press reports on the exhibit, even those that were negative, served only to increase the number of visitors to museums. [25]

The success of Body Worlds is apparent in the number of exhibits that imitate the original exhibition: Bodies…The Exhibition, The Amazing Human Body, Body Exploration, and Bodies Revealed, are just a few of the traveling popular ex­hibits that are based on von Hagen’s original work. While these are arguably more scientifically educational than the freakshows of the past, the exhibitions do exploit the bodies of human beings, just as sideshows did throughout the nine­teenth and early twentieth centuries.

In modern museums, even without these bodies exhibits, there are rarely traces of images or displays of people with disabilities in regular permanent exhibits or art. Annie Delin explains that this absence reinforces cultural stereotypes against people with disabilities and conspires to “present a narrow perspective of the existence of disability in history.” Museums that exclude people with disabilities from exhibits, whether they are exhibits themselves as in the past sideshows and dime museums or represented in general exhibits, the museum is discounting an entire segment of visitor population. In most history muse­ums there are not images of people living, working, making art, or anything else in the past; if they are present they are called marvels of nature. [26]

Delin goes on to argue that when people with disabilities are shown in museums, many times they appear only as freaks or beggars. Portraying people as freaks takes away their humanity; even in museums this makes it acceptable to point and stare at people who are differ­ent. Delin states that this makes it pos­sible for ridicule and dehumanizing to take place in the museum. [27]


Lessons for the Field

The question of how museums can combat this imagery of exploitation and entertainment can be answered through effective educational programs, universal de­sign, and the welcoming of the entire public to museums. Rather than displaying those with disabilities as exhibits, museums should strive to tell everyone’s story, include those with disabilities in the exhibit materials itself, and offer equitable experiences to all populations. Many museums are making great strides in these directions, though his­toric structures pose a myriad of challenges to overcome. The Jewish Museum in Manhattan, Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian, the New York Transit Museum, and many children’s museums have great models of accessibil­ity programs and universal design. The time for historic sites, houses, and museums of all shapes and sizes to raise standards in these areas is now, and the opportunities are endless.

There are still several obstacles for educators and ad­ministrators to create inclusive museums and historic sites. Historic sites have many specific difficulties because they are tangibly inaccessible to many people with physical or mul­tiple disabilities. The inclusion of people with disabilities in exhibits or interpretation is still an area that many museums and historic sites could address.

History institutions have changed ex­ponentially throughout the years. Public historians today have the opportunity to enlarge and enhance museum audiences by creating effective, dynamic environments and programs. Simply inviting groups of people with special needs or disabilities to a historic site is not enough. Once the group is at the site, public historians must use their skills of engagement and shared authority to help then teach social and life skills as well as educational. Our organiza­tions also offer the unique opportunity, in many cases, for students to see the historic structures and artifacts that people actually lived in or used in the past that they usually see through history books. Firsthand experiences can help students make those connections that make history and people from the past matter to them.

Though it is rare to find a freakshow today, especially one that displays people with disabilities, it is important for mu­seum professionals to understand that those exhibitions are considered close cousins to modern exhibits and museums. Historic sites and museums are such great places to build community and connections with humanity from the past and today; it would be a shame to continue to exclude the ideas and participation of those who some consider to be dif­ferent. By understanding the past, museum professionals can be more cognizant of their actions and efforts of inclusion.

Katie Stringer graduated in May 2013 with a Ph.D. in Public History (with a concentration in museum management) from Middle Tennessee State University. She is currently a Teaching Association at Coastal Carolina University. In 2014, Rowman & Littlefield published her first book,  Programming for People with Special Needs: A Guide for Museums and Historic Sites, as part of its AASLH book series.



These sources are very helpful for museums to create in­clusive and accessible exhibitions and spaces. The literature is still developing, but these sources are a wonderful start.

  • Majewski, Janice. Part of Your General Public Is Disabled: A Handbook for Guides in Museums, Zoos, and Historic Houses. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.
  • Playforth, Sarah. Resource Disability Portfolio Series. London: Council for Museums, Archives & Libraries, 2003.
  • Sandell, Richard. Museums, Society, Inequality (Museum Meanings). London: Routledge, 2002.
  • Sandell, Richard, Jocelyn Dodd, and Rosemarie Garland- Thomson. Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum. London: Routledge, 2010.
  • Sherman, Daniel J. Museums and Difference. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008.
  1. Robert Bogdan. Freakshow: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), 25.
  2. Phineas T. Barnum, An Illustrated Catalogue and Guide Book to Barnum’s American Museum (New York: Wynkoop, Hallenbeck, & Thomas, circa 1860).
  3. Geoffrey Lewis, “The Role of Museums and the Professional Code of Ethics,” in Running a Museum: A Practical Handbook, ed. International Council of Museums. Paris: ICOM, 2010, 2; Hugh H. Genoways and Mary Anne Andrei, Museum Origins: Readings in Early Museum History and Philosophy (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008), 19, 21.
  4. “Disastrous Fire: Total Destruction of Barnum’s American Museum,” New York Times, 14 July 1865; “Barnum’s New Museum Project: Museum Will Contain,” New York Times, 18 July 1865.
  5. Edwin L. Godkin, “A Word About Museums,” The Nation (27 July 1865): 113-14.
  6. “Burning of Barnum’s Museum: List of Losses and Insurances,” New York Times, 4 March 1868.
  7. People with physical disabilities or anomalies are generally called “born dif­ferent” peoples, unlike those who are “made freaks” by swallowing swords or nailing objects into their heads. Today’s freakshows consist mainly of people who are “made freaks” who do dangerous tricks or have a rare talents, though there are some instances of “born differents” still today; See Godkin, 113-14.
  8. Andrea Stulman Dennett, Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 5, 7; More information about the rise and impact of dime museums and entertainment industry as a whole is avail­able in Dennett’s Weird and Wonderful; John Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century; Genoways and Andrei, Museum Origins; Charles C. Sellers, Mr. Peale’s Museum: Charles Wilson Peale and the First Popular Museum of Natural Science and Art; and Gary Kulik, “Designing the Past: History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present,” in History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, Warren Leon and Roy Rosenweig, eds., 3-37.
  9. Bogdan, 6.
  10. Rachel Adams, Sideshow U.S.A: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 10.
  11. Bogdan, 121.
  12. Ibid., 129, 130.
  13. “Sideshow Freaks a Vanishing Act,” Bangor (Maine) Daily News, 26 August 1985; Bogdan, 2.
  14. Arlene Mayerson, “The History of the ADA: A Movement Perspective,” Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, 1992.
  15. Elizabeth Stephens, “Twenty-First Century Freakshow: Recent Transformations in the Exhibition of Non-Normative Bodies,” Disability Quarterly Studies 25 (Summer 2005): 1.
  16. AMC Network Entertainment, Freakshow,
  17. Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum, interview by author, Coney Island, NY, 10 May 2012. Interview summary available online at:
  18. Coney Island U.S.A., “Coney Island Circus Sideshow,” www.coneyisland. com/sideshow.
  19. The National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD) describes phoco­malia as “a rare birth defect that causes severe birth defects, especially of the upper limbs. The bones of the arms, and in some cases other appendages, may be extremely shortened and even absent. The fingers of the hands may be fused. An extreme case results in the absence of the upper bones of both the arms and legs so that the hands and feet appear attached directly to the body.” See http://on.aaslh. org/phocomalia. In sideshows and freakshows, people with phocomalia are called “seal boys” or “lobster children” because of the physical characteristics of their disorder; Birnbaum interview.
  20. Jason Black, email interview by author, 28 August 2012. Summary online at; Organization for Rare Disorders, “Rare Disease Information,”
  21. Black interview.
  22. Birnbaum interview.
  23. Coney Island does not employ those with intellectual disability as perform­ers, however, it is interesting to note that radio host Howard Stern has employed a person with microcephaly and severe intellectual disability. Lester Green, called Beetlejuice, attends functions and performances with Stern and is generally seen as a comedic entertainer; Birnbaum interview.
  24. The question of exploitation in the modern world is addressed by Annie Delin, who states, in reference to exhibits and portrayals, “In modern society, we no longer actively condone the showing of ‘different’ people as freaks.… Yet we do perpetuate the acceptability of staring and pointing whenever we allow a picture of a small person or someone with a disfiguring condition to be displayed without identity and context.” From Annie Delin, “Buried in the Footnotes: The Absence of Disabled People in the Collective Imagery of Our Past,” in Museums, Society, and Inequality, edited by Richard Sandell (New York: Routledge, 2002), 89.
  25. Peter M. McIsaac, “Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds: Exhibitionary Practice, German History, and Difference” by in Museums and Difference edited by Daniel J. Sherman (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2008), 153, 160.
  26. Delin, 84-85.
  27. Ibid., 86, 89