In the 19th and most of the 20th century, humankind’s obsession with all things weird and freaky could only be satisfied with a trip to the circus freak show. There, our ancestors could ogle people afflicted with skin conditions, deformities, and eccentricities, and sometimes people who just happened to be from another culture that the west found “weird.” There were some standards that one could find at a freak show—the tall man or sometimes woman, the fat lady, the dwarf, the bearded lady (who very suspiciously looked like a man in drag)—and then there were the specialties, unique to various circuses, and the more famous the circus, the more special the freaks. Barnum’s circuses displayed the Feejee mermaid, Tom Thumb, The Human Skeleton, The Living Torso, and many other famous freak acts.
Every circus, no matter how small, had its freaks, and the public could take home cabinet cards, professionally taken photos of the freaks to display in their homes. Some of the people on these cards rose to fame and even fortune through their freak status, while many, many others were exploited and treated as sub-humans. I can’t help but look into the eyes in these photos and feel empathy for the sadness I see in some of them. Clearly, the internet has expanded our ability to search out the oddities of life, but looking at these cabinet cards, you can see that our obsession has a long past. Check out an assortment of circus freak cabinet cards below.