Once in a rare while an unusual human body, by accident of birth or deliberate manipulation, becomes an object of fascination and mystery. In the heyday of P.T. Barnum’s circus, these human marvels became popular attractions—some by choice, others sold to circus owners and all promoted by savvy impresarios who publicized their performers through the flourishing medium of photography. Even today, when the very notion of human “freaks” is outmoded, these images remain historically, culturally and visually compelling—each with a story, each a window into the strange and wonderful. Check out the superstars in the PROJECT B collection and enjoy the show!
Swipe or click to view more.
Born with a rare genetic mutation, little Josephine Boisdechêne, by the age of eight, already sported a beard two inches long. By the time she was fourteen, her Swiss father was accompanying her on European tours, where her fame grew…as did her beard. Officially measured at six inches, her facial endowment (and notoriety) had attracted the affections of Parisian painter Fortune Clofullia; after they married and produced an unusually hirsute little son, the family moved to America, where Madame Clofullia teamed up with P. T. Barnum. Fortunately for us, Madame Clofullia lived just into the age of studio photography; she died in 1875, at age 48.
Standing barely three feet tall, yet able to perform astonishing feats of strength with heavy weights and heavy audience members, the “Wild Men of Borneo” were actually Hiram and Barney Davis, two brothers from Mt. Vernon, Ohio, who, with the help of showmen like Lyman Warner and P. T. Barnum, channeled their developmental disabilities into a long stage career. Their most famous and impressionable audience member may have been 17-year-old Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain], who—writing breathlessly to his mother after seeing them perform in 1853—seemed to swallow the carny’s tale that “Waino and Plutano” were “things”: part human and part orangutan. Hiram died in 1905 and Barney in 1912. The two are buried together in Mount Vernon, Ohio, under a gravestone marked ‘Little Men.’
Born into slavery in 1851, Millie and Christine McKoy were conjoined twins whose parents had no control over their fate. Not even a year old, they were sold by their North Carolina slaveowner and then re-sold over and again to promoters and agents who exploited the commercial potential of these unusual girls, who shared a pelvis but otherwise had complete sets of limbs and organs. Remarkably, one of their owners reunited them with their mother, and (with an eye toward their performing careers) provided them education in foreign languages and instruction in music, ballet and recitation. The McKoy twins—often referred to simply as Millie-Chrissie—soon became among the most celebrated “oddities” in 19th-century entertainment. Dubbed “The Two-Headed Nightingale” or “The Carolina Twins,” they were invited to Buckingham Palace to perform for Queen Victoria and enjoyed great financial success in the U.S. Due to Millie’s failing health, they retired to North Carolina, and died within hours of each other in 1912.
Among the staple attractions of American carnivals, sideshows and circuses were the so-called “Circassian Beauties,” women with extravagantly fine or mossy hair who supposedly descended from the “purest” peoples of Eurasia’s Caucasus mountains, in the little-known region of Circassia. In fact, many of these beauties were American girls who cleverly teased out and stiffened their hair and adopted exotic names invariably beginning with “Z” – Zalumma, Zribeda, Zoledod, Zeleke. Pictured here is one of P. T. Barnum’s Circassian harem, Zoe Zobedia, who became a favorite subject of the New York photographer Charles Eisenmann.
During her 30-year show business career, Texas-born Mary Alice Wade, nicknamed “Alice from Dallas,” entertained audiences with her outsize personality, warmth and, er, size, in famed stints as the “Fat Lady” with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses, Coney Island and the 1943 World’s Fair Museum. Billed at 685 pounds, Alice’s renowned girth required fabrics six feet wide to costume her. She was beloved not just by audiences: Alice won the heart of circus tattoo artist Frank Julian, with whom she shared a long and happy marriage well past their retirement from the big top. She died at age 62, weighing a mere 425 pounds, in the city of her nickname
Anna Mae Burlingston was born in 1893 in Linwood, Wisconsin. In 1907 the family moved to Colville, Washington, and shortly thereafter, she went to work as a domestic servant in Spokane, Washington. There she met the tattoo artist Charles “Red” Gibbons in an arcade and they married in 1912. After several years of marriage, Gibbons and her husband decided they would make a better living if she became a performing tattooed lady. She was a deeply religious woman so Gibbons tattooed her with images from her favorite classical religious artwork. Her performance name was Lady Artoria Gibbons – The Living Art Museum and her tattoos included illustrations of angels and saints as well as patriotic images, and drawings by Raphael and Michelangelo. She worked for Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey and countless circuses, dime museums, carnivals, and sideshows thereafter
For a limited time, Project B is offering an Archival pigment print made from the original photograph. Get yours now!