Barnum’s Performers

The American circus was a primary form of entertainment in the nineteenth century. Beneath the surface of its excitement and extravagance, the circus was a used as a vehicle to promote the study natural history  P.T. Barnum, an American businessman and showman, brought special attention to the “scientific and commercial aspects of natural history” (Betts 353).  As co-founder of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Barnum recognized society’s obsession with natural anomalies, and employed eye-catching wonders such as the “Siamese Twins”, Chang and Eng Bunker.

Chang and Eng Bunker toured with Barnum until their retirement in 1839, receiving notable fame and fortune.  The original “Siamese Twins”, however, were not the only performers employed by Barnum used to capture society’s fascination. There were others who, despite being called “freaks”, found success in the circus business (Betts 355). In fact, many performers were praised for their unique talents and intelligence.

Although most performers stayed with a single circus for no more than two years at a time, the performers often united in their differences, establishing exclusive families and friendships within the circus population. Popular  performers included, Eli Bowen “The Legless Wonder”, Annie Jones “The Bearded Lady”, Issac W. Spraque “The Living Skeleton, and many more. The performers’ popularity and grandeur suggest that such physical deformities were more valued and accepted then, than those like them today.

"The Legless Woman" Bright Bytes Studio

-Zachary Greenwald