Why Queen Victoria was obsessed with “freak shows.”
During her reign Queen Victoria was so mesmerised by circus freaks and her fascination ensured them a lifetime of fame — but there was a dark side.
When six-year-old, 63cm tall Charles Stratton arrived at Buckingham Palace in March, 1844, with his showman P.T. Barnum, it marked the beginning of Queen Victoria’s obsession with the world of “circus freaks”.
Stratton, whose stage name was General Tom Thumb, mesmerised the Queen, performing tricks and skits; he even had a ceremonial sword battle with her royal spaniel.
The royal crowd, which included Prince Albert, thought it was hilarious. Apparently, the room was in hysterics.
Queen Victoria was so taken with Tom she wrote about him in her diaries and invited him, along with other circus “freaks”, to several more meetings that year.
It was 175 years ago this week that Tom Thumb made his debut on the London stage, with hundreds flocking to see the “the wonderful little man.”
His legacy lives on with new audiences and generations being introduced to Tom Thumb — along with other “curiosities” — in the 2017 hit movie The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum and Sam Humphrey as Stratton.
But his biggest fan was also his most famous fan — Queen Victoria’s obsession with Tom and other freak performers ensured a lifetime of celebrity, which saw many enjoy incredible wealth. But there was a dark side too.
One historian believes the circus freaks were the original “reality TV shows” which ensured those in the limelight were also subjected to the downside of fame and the intrusion into privacy that came with the bright, blinding lights.
THE FREAK FANCIER
It wasn’t a secret that Queen Victoria was known as the “freak fancier par excellence!” Historian Dr John Woolf, author of The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age told me that the Queen actually popularised the freak show in Britain.
“Before the 1840s, the freak show was seen as a lowly affair associated with itinerant fairs. But it became a respectable form of entertainment, enjoyed by everyone from all ages, classes, genders and backgrounds,” Dr Woolf said.
“Queen Victoria’s endorsement also opened the doors of European palaces — and Tom Thumb stepped right in.”
“He went on a European tour in 1845 and met King Louis Philippe of France, King Leopold and Queen Louise-Marie of Belgium, and the Queen of Spain. Years later he was meeting the likes of President Lincoln. Meanwhile, Victoria continued to greet freak performers.”
According to Dr Woolf, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle became a revolving door for freaks including dwarfs, giants, Aztecs, Earthmen, Siamese twins and Zulus.
“Queen Victoria’s love of freak performers was well known at the time — although largely ignored by historians ever since. Victoria wrote about many of the performers who visited her.
“I trawled through her journals finding her entries, which make for some interesting reading,” Dr Woolf said.
“For example, in July 1853 she met ‘the Aztecs’: siblings born with microcephaly who were paraded in the freak shows and were later legally married in a publicity stunt.”
TOM THUMB AND THE RISE OF THE FREAK SHOWS
Many of the freak performers became instant celebrities — the word first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1849, a few years after Tom Thumb rose to prominence as one of the world’s first international celebrities.
He was only four years old when he was “discovered” and thrust onto the stage, but P.T. Barnum passed him off as being several years older.
As with modern celebrities, the private lives of the freak performers were of intense interest to the public.
“When Tom Thumb married another short person, Lavinia Warren, their private lives were exposed to satisfy public curiosity. Barnum even conducted a wedding ceremony for the couple to raise money and even rented a baby to pass off as the couple’s own child,” Dr Woolf said.
Tom Thumb eventually made a lot of money, travelled the world, owned his own property, as well as a yacht he loved to sail; although, when he died, he had spent most of his money.
“Freak performers like Tom were discussed by scientists, ethnologists, anthropologists; they were displayed in all manner of popular entertainment sites — from museums to music halls, zoos to aquariums, travelling fairs to world fairs. They were in literature, newspapers and photographs. They were omnipresent and many were celebrated,” Dr Woolf said.
“P.T. Barnum had worked hard to secure the meeting between Tom and the Queen, and he worked even harder publicising Victoria’s love for Tom. Barnum printed reviews in the Court Circular, he pronounced Tom Thumb as a dwarf with royal connections, patronised by Her Majesty.
“The press declared him ‘The Pet of the Palace’. This all rocketed Tom Thumb into public consciousness and with the queen’s backing, people poured into his shows.”
It wasn’t long before other dwarfs capitalised on Tom’s success, hoping to meet the Queen too and get their fair share of fame and fortune.
The so-called Highland Dwarfs and German Dwarfs were granted an audience with Victoria and the press wrote about a “Deformito-mania” (an obsession with the deformed body) gripping the nation.
THE FUN-LOVING QUEEN
While Queen Victoria is remembered as the stern-faced monarch, or the Widow of Windsor, she was actually known in her personal life as a fun-loving queen who was drawn to outsiders.
Dr Woolf said it’s worth remembering that Victoria was a German Princess born into a foreign land who lived under the oppressive Kensington System.
“She was, by birth, an outsider. Even as Queen she was marked as different because of her birth. And she had her own body issues: she was known as ‘the little queen’, only 4ft 11in (150cm) tall, and she used to lament that ‘Everybody grows but me’.
“She grew close to her servants, John Brown and Abdul Karim, two outsiders whom she embraced. So, there is this interesting connection between Victoria and freak performers,” Dr Woolf said.
“As a child, she found escape from her difficult childhood in the circus. In 1839, a few weeks after her 18th birthday and shortly after she was made queen, she was enthralled by the lion tamer Isaac A Van Amburgh who pioneered the combination of menagerie and circus.
“She saw him perform with lions seven times over six weeks; she used to imagine herself battling with the lions. She was hooked, and she gained a reputation for preferring the spectacular to the graceful, the foreign to the British, the circus to the drama. Throughout her reign she would visit — or be visited — by the circus.”
THE DARK SIDE OF FREAK SHOWS
The cult of celebrity enjoyed by the freaks didn’t mean their lives were perfect. According to Dr Woolf, there were numerous cases of exploitation.
“There is a tense relationship between empowerment and exploitation, choice and coercion in this history.
“There are numerous cases of exploitation — Julia Pastrana embalmed by her husband; Joseph Merrick The Elephant Man robbed and abandoned on the continent; the Aztec Children, Maximo and Bartola, displayed onstage despite their mental disabilities; Joice Heth — an elderly, senile, paralysed slave lugged across the northeast by Barnum,” Dr Woolf said.
But many of them made a lot of money. According to Dr Woolf, Tom Thumb earned huge amounts. His parents were poor people from Bridgeport, Connecticut but thanks to their son they could buy their own property fitted with servants, they could send their other children to private school; and Tom could buy his own mansion.
“The family became almost deranged by the amount of money Tom Thumb made — bear in mind he was only a child when he first found fame so they got lots of the money. But Tom was also rich.
“Chang and Eng, too — they became their own bosses in 1832 and, by 1839, had saved $US10,000 from their freak shows which made them the richest men in Wilkes County, North Carolina, where they chose to settle, opening a retail stored and buying their first piece of land.”
HOW PRUDISH WERE THE VICTORIANS?
Freak shows were very central to Victorian society and made a huge impact on how the Victorians saw the world. And yet there is a wide belief that Victorians were prudes.
According to Dr Woolf, the idea of the Victorians as prudes has been overstated as sex was a subject that was widely discussed and the private lives of freak performers were made public.
“In the freak show — marriages, freak families, and the like were advertised in the freak show, or created for the freak show,” he said.
“In fact, one of the points of my book is to change how we see the Victorians, to move away from the idea that this was an age of prigs and prudes, industrialists and scientists, but rather an Age of the Freak: a time when wonders reigned supreme, when everyone from Queen Victoria to the average man, woman and child, came to gaze at nature’s great diversity.”
In fact, Dr Woolf sees the freaks as the “reality TV stars” of the Victorian age.
“Popular culture has always thrived on the exposure of troubled and vulnerable individuals. Today we might pour scorn on the Victorian obsession with ‘freaks’.” he said.
“But we evidently have our own. We continue to lust after difference; we continue to make spectacles of the unfortunate.”