For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound.
A study in the British Medical Journal in 2006 showed that sword swallowers suffer mainly from sore throats. The researchers asked 110 sword swallowers in 16 countries for information on their health. They reported: ‘Sore throats are common, particularly while the skill is being learnt or when performances are too frequent.’
They conclude that sword swallowers run a high risk of injury when distracted or adding embellishments to their act and also that ‘Sword swallowers without healthcare coverage expose themselves to financial as well as physical risk.’
Many (including Houdini and the Encyclopaedia Britannica) have claimed that sword swallowing is faked, but it is done for real, and there are X-ray photographs as proof. The practice started among fakirs some 4,000 years ago. The technique involves suppressing the gag reflex and allowing the sword to pass down the oesophagus, through the lower oesophageal sphincter and into the stomach. The average distance to the lower oesophageal sphincter is 16 inches (40cm). The Sword Swallowers’ Association International requires members to prove that they have swallowed a sword longer than 15 inches (38cm) and broader than half an inch (1.25cm). Swallowing swords longer than 24 inches (61cm) is not recommended.
During early development of the endoscope (a device doctors use to look down throats), researchers worked with sword swallowers in order to learn from their technique.
Many freak show exhibits were simply people with unusual and tragic medical conditions such as acromegaly - an excess of growth hormone.
Joseph Merrick, known as The Elephant Man, was said to suffer from elephantiasis. It’s now known that he actually had Proteus Syndrome, a condition which involves unusual growth of the bones, skin and head, plus a variety of other symptoms. The name comes from the Greek god Proteus, who could change his shape to avoid capture.
Julia Pastrana was a bearded lady and was in fact hairy all over as a result of a condition called hypertrychosis. She was taken on tour and exhibited by her husband, Theodore Lent. After she died in childbirth, he continued to exhibit her mummified body. He also found another woman with hypertrychosis and married her too. Julia’s mummy is now in the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo.
Jean Carroll, the Bearded Lady was born in 1910 in Schenectady New York. She fell in love with a contortionist, John Carson, who was put off by her beard. This presented a dilemma as if she shaved she would no longer be able to earn a living as a bearded lady. The answer was suggested by a sword-swallower friend named Alec Linton, who recommended that she remove the beard but then have herself tattooed all over so she could continue touring as a tattooed lady. This worked fine, and she and Carson remained together until Carson’s death in 1951.
(Female) Saint Wilgefortis is said to have avoided an arranged marriage by miraculously growing a beard.
P. T Barnum’s exhibit, the ‘Nondescript, or Woolly Horse’, was a mash-up of elephant, deer, horse, buffalo, camel and sheep.
As a boy, Ulysses S. Grant won a prize for taming a pony in a circus.
The trick to lying on a bed of nails is to be very careful about getting onto it. The recommended method is to stand the board vertically with the nails against your back and lean backwards onto it; then allow it to be lowered gently to a horizontal position on the floor, with your whole body staying in contact with the nails. With nails at say 2 inch (5cm) intervals under a body area of 5ft x 1ft 8in (150cm x 50cm), you will be supported by 300 nails. If you weigh 130 lbs (60kg), then each nail would be supporting an average of only 7oz (200g).
CIRCUS, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.
The circus performer Pasqual Pinon was known as the “Two-headed Mexican.” He only had one head
and came from Texas.
The term ‘geek’ originally referred to circus performers who bit the heads off live chickens.