Victorian Freaks and other Bodies of Knowledge

The British Library has put up a great informational page and gallery of Victorian Freak Show Posters.

“Novelty acts relied a great deal on shock, therefore performers were not revealed in the flesh to audiences until money had changed hands. Titillating publicity was crucial, as the people described in these adverts often bore little resemblance to what lay behind the curtain or turnstile. Exaggerated and stylised illustrations lent age to dwarf acts, stature to giants, and plausibility to mermaids and bear boys. The advertisers of these shows aroused the curiosity of the audience by overplaying, often entirely inventing, ‘true life’ stories.”

This online exhibit is part of a collection called Bodies of Knowledge, which also includes medieval astrology, Chinese acupuncture (with amazingly detailed diagrams), Renaissance anatomy lessons, Ruysch’s “fantastical cabaret of preserved body parts,” the first X-Rays ever taken, and lots of other morbid and fascinating eye candy. Thanks for ze tip, Jerem!

6 Responses to “Victorian Freaks and other Bodies of Knowledge”

  1. theremina Says:


  2. D Says:

    I had a teacher who tried to find freakshows as a hobby. This was in the early 90s and he still found a few to visit every year, mainly in small town fairs in germany and Italy.

  3. Jerem Morrow Says:

    Ze Jerem does what he can.

    @D: Bizarrely, I found a side-show exhibit at a county fair in Shelby, NC (U.S.) some ten years ago. Replete with “Giant Rats”, babies in jars of yellowish fluid, 6 legged cattle und a varying array of very obviously faked cryptozoological finds.

  4. D Says:

    *strong cryptozoological envy*

    Until I find something similar, I’ll have to make do with the local museum of natural history that has a tiny, tiny cabinet of various stuffed/formaldehyded animal anomalies.

    I did manage to see a swedish fakir once. He had the market salesmanny patter while the audience helped him dislocate his shoulders and threw darts at his chest.

  5. Jerem Morrow Says:

    D: Ye could always buy (or build) your own:

  6. Paul Komoda Says:

    I want that mounted tableau of happy child -skeletons as a center-piece in my living room… though I’d probably have to make it myself. And this would be when I’m finally living in the “Paul Komoda Dream House”.
    I particularly like the reclining fetal skeleton on the base who seems to holding a moth.