10 Circus Acts From The Past You Won't Believe Existed

OMG May 23, 2018 By Hugo

'Freak Shows' were once a staple part of people's entertainment, with records of the events dating back to as early as 16th century England. As for the performer's themselves, some would combine their unusual physical appearance with skills and tricks, but for the most part, many would stand still as others pointed and laughed.

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But times have changed for the better, and though shows of a similar variation are still around, performers are now celebrated and encouraged to make the most of their predicament, which can't be said for all of these acts.

With that in mind, here are 10 circus performers from the past who were labeled freaks.


1. Myrtle Corbin (1868-1928)

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Known as 'The Four-Legged Girl,' Myrtle Corbin was born in 1868 with two additional legs caused from dipygus; a congenital deformity which led Corbin replicating the legs of her twin who had failed to develop in the womb. 

Myrtle also had two small pelvises fused together, while the two extra legs were stunted in growth, leaving the Tennessee woman with a smaller pair of legs wedged between the large and more visible set.

Because of her condition, Myrtle began performing as early as 13 and proved a hit with customers, leading her to earn up to $450 a week in a career which saw her perform for the likes of P.T. Barnum and the prestigious Coney Island Circus.

The subject of various medical examinations and journal reports, Myrtle eventually fell in love with a doctor and ended up having five children with him. This resulted in a wave of phony four-legged women being introduced to shows as arriviste circus bosses tried to dupe their audience


2. Wang (Unknown)

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Most likely the result of a benign calvarial tumor, a Chinese farmer made headlines in the 1930s when he was pictured with what appeared to be a unicorn-like horn on the back of his head. 

His unfortunate appearance would see him labeled 'The Human Unicorn', but despite huge cash offers from circus bosses, Wang decided to remain out of the limelight and because of his decision little else is known about him. 


3.  Martin Laurello (1866-?)

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Due to his extraordinary flexibility, Martin Laurello was one of the few people in the world who could turn his head 180 degrees, a skill that led circus bosses to introduce him as 'The Human Owl.' 

But unlike others on this list, the German performer could pass off as entirely normal and performed at events as esteemed as Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not show. An alleged Nazi sympathizer, Laurello's views also attracted much publicity and criticism, but little else is known about his life following his last public performance in 1945.


4. Mary Ann Bevan (1874-1933)

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Named the 'World's Most Ugliest Woman', Mary Ann Bevan's confidence was never going to be high. Shockingly, Mary's condition only came about in her 30s, and until then, she had lived a happily married life until an abnormal facial growth developed.

The condition, known as acromegaly, produced an excess amount of growth hormones, and her facial features became enlarged. If things couldn't get any worse, Mary Ann's husband died in 1914, and with no income to support her four children, she entered an “ugliest woman” competition. Winning the contest, she received a cash prize and a modest income as a sideshow performer until her death in 1933.


5. Mademoiselle Gabrielle (1884-?)

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Acts with missing limbs were nothing new in circuses, but Mademoiselle Gabrielle's lithe posture and clear-to-see beauty made her stand out from the rest. As well as being highly independent and charming, she also married three times. 

Born in Switzerland, Gabrielle was performing in Paris by the age of 16 after recognizing the possibilities that came with her act. A typical show of hers included juggling and everyday things people wouldn't often associate someone without legs doing.

After her popularity in Europe, Gabrielle moved to America and worked for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus before switching to the more coveted and up-market vaudeville circuit. The star continued performing well into her 40s, though it is unknown when she passed away.


6. Sam Alexander (1920s- 1997)

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Unlike many on this list, Sam Alexander's condition wasn't of biology's cruel making. Instead, it was sadly self-imposed following his ill-judged decision to light a cigarette near gasoline; the results of which left his face severely disfigured.

After a year in hospital and with his life all but consigned to horrifying others, he met a well-skilled prosthetics maker, who made Alexander a mask that allowed him to conceal his disfigurement and look like an ordinary member of the public. 

Upon receiving the mask, he approached a ringmaster and told him his story. Hiring him on the spot, Alexander toured the country under the nickname 'The Man With Two Faces.' As part of the act, Alexander recited his story before revealing his true identity at the end. In some cases, he was even paid not to perform, due to his act being billed as "unfit for the weak of heart." Because of this, we have not shown his injuries, but you can find them via a quick Google search. 


7. Josephine Clofullia (1827-1875) 

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Born in a small Swiss village in 1831, Josephine Clofullia- who would later be known as The Bearded Woman of Geneva- was dappled in fur the moment she was born and by age 2, experienced significant beard growth. Yet local doctors were unable to come up with a suitable prognosis and suggested her parents take her to Geneva for treatment, which proved unsuccessful. 

However, when Josephine went to boarding school in her native Switzerland, she realized the lucrative market that existed for people with her condition after attracting large crowds in the playground.

Hearing her stories, her father soon acted as her agent and took Josephine around Europe where she found significant fame. In one case, she received diamonds from Napolean III as her beard was modeled in a similar style to his. The rest of her career took place in America where she performed at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.


8. Isaac W. Sprague (1841-1887)

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Billed as 'The Living Human Skeleton,' Isaac W. Sprague experienced rapid weight loss when he was 12, and historians later determined that he had suffered from progressive muscular atrophy, which ultimately led to his death in 1887. Because of his life-altering condition, Sprague had to give up his job as a cobbler and after a period of unemployment, a circus boss cast him as a sideshow performer.

His instant popularity with the audience led the famous P.T. Barnum to sign him as a client, who he billed at Barnum's Museum as 'The Living Human Skeleton.' 

But despite good earnings, most of Sprague's income went on gambling, and when he died at 46, his 5ft 6 in frame weighed a measly 18kg. 


9. Ella Harper (1870-1921)

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Born with an extremely rare orthopedic condition that caused her legs to bend backward, Ella Harper's situation would lend itself to the nickname 'Camel Girl' due to her preference of walking on all fours. Another native of Tennesse, Harper's journey in the circus began with W. H. Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus, and it wasn't long before word got out whenever she performed.

For her time in the circus, Harper is believed to have earned around $200 a week, with a rare pitch card of hers reading, 'I am called the camel girl because my knees turn backward. I can walk best on my hands and feet as you see me in the picture. I have traveled considerably in the show business for the past four years, and now, this is 1886, and I intend to quit the show business and go to school and fit myself for another occupation.'


10. Stephan Bibrowski (1891-1932)

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The medical conditions of sideshow freaks were often exaggerated by promoters, especially when it came to promoting their clients as 'animals' when in reality they had rare conditions like hypertrichosis which caused abnormal hair growth on the body. 

One such attraction who suffered this condition was Stephan Bibrowski who traveled around the world as The Lion-Faced Man. Born in 1890 and covered in hair, except for his palms and the soles of his feet, Bibrowski was abandoned by his mother who believed he had the condition because his father was mauled by a lion when she was pregnant.

After selling her son to a German impresario, the child's unusual condition was displayed throughout Europe and America before he died of a heart attack at 41.


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