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Top 10 Famous Side Shows & Peculiar Performers


sideshow is a secondary production associated with a circus, carnival, or
In the middle of the 19th century a variety of different traveling circuses
and freak shows began to gain popularity.  The main goal of these shows was
to shock and entertain the masses.  During this era, vaudeville was a major
theatrical genre.  Many strange acts became internationally famous. Promoters
even enlisted bounty hunters to look for abnormal human conditions.  Here is a
list of 10 of the most famous sideshows and peculiar performers.  

10. Sam Alexander - The Man with Two Faces


Sam Alexander was born a normal man, by his early 20s he was pursuing a
career in theatre and had been promoted at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago.
One morning disaster struck his life.  The details are a bit sketchy, but Sam
was involved in a huge gasoline explosion.  He was able to save his eyes by
covering them with his hands, but he received severe burns to his lips and
lower face.  The situation was made much worse after his wounds festered
and became severely infected.  Doctors were forced to remove much of his
lower face and lips. 
One morning Sam read about the traveling Pete Kortes
Sideshow, which was in the city.  He attended the show and revealed himself
to Kortes, who hired him on the spot.
Sam began touring almost immediately and instantly caused a stir.  Billed as
“The Man with Two Faces,” Sam’s exhibition consisted primarily of a stage
monologue detailing his story.  Sam was a soft and well spoken man.  He lured
the crowd with his tail of heartbreak and then made the anticipated reveal of
his face.  Kortes made Sam the “Blow Off” attraction, which was an extra
attraction that people had to pay a premium to see.  He was labeled as “not
for the weak of heart.”  Sam Alexander was soon in demand. During his career
he joined the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey show, the Clyde Beatty
Circus, and worked for showman Ward Hall from 1960 to 1967.  Sam
Alexander passed away in 1997.

9. Pasqual Pinon - The Two Headed Mexican


Pasqual Pinon was born in the late 19th century.  He claimed to have two
separate heads, with one smaller mass protruding from his forehead.  It is
possible to have two heads, a condition known as craniopagus parasiticus,
but Pinon's appearance was proven to be a falsity.  A true parasitic head is
always situated upside-down on top of the main head, as is the case with The
Two Headed Boy of Bengal. 
The second head of Pinon was a fake.  The true
story of Pasqual Pinon is interesting.
Pinon was a railroad worker from Texas who had a large benign tumor growing
from the top of his head.  He was discovered by a sideshow promoter in
1917.  The promoter decided that the huge tumor protruding from Pinon’s head
was not odd enough and decided to create a fake face out of wax.  That mask
was placed over the growth and The Two-Headed Mexican was born.  He
went on to become a featured attraction with the Sells-Floto Circus in the
early 1900s.  After several years of popular touring, the Sells-Floto Circus
manager paid to have the cyst removed and Pinon returned to Texas.

8. Mirin Dajo - The Extreme Human Pincushion


Mirin Dajo was born in 1912 as Arnold Gerrit Henskes.  His career began in
1947 when he allowed an assistant to plunge a fencing foil right through his
body at the Corso Theatre in Zurich, Mirin.  The foil appeared to pierce
several vital organs, but Dajo was unharmed.  Mirin was forced to undergo
many medical tests and performed his act for baffled doctors.  After x-ray tests
were conducted, the legitimacy of his abilities were confirmed by the medical
community.  It could not be explained by any physician.  Mirin Dajo's sideshow
displays were often concluded with a lecture and a message of peace. 

During his act he would be impaled by three hollow skewers.  He would then
pump water through those skewers to become a human fountain.  On May 26,
1948, Mirin Dajo died from an aortic rupture.  He was not performing at the
time, but his death could have resulted from previous acts.  A true explanation
for his incredible ability is yet to be determined, maybe luck, faith, unique
biology, or mind over matter. 

Mirin Dajo X-Ray

7. Hadji Ali - The Great Regurgitator


The Great Regurgitator, who was also billed as The Egyptian Enigma, was
born Hadji Ali in Egypt in 1892.  In the 1920’s Hadji Ali became a vaudeville
sensation for his unusual ability to swallow unique items and regurgitate them
in a specific order.  Ali also had a famous human water spout routine.  His
regurgitator act was a matter of controlled vomiting and repetitive training of
the muscles of the stomach and throat to clench at will.  Ali brought a lot of
unique elements to his act.

His foreign appearance captured attention, as did the vast amounts of water
he was able to ingest and expel with ferocious pinpoint accuracy.  In his finale
Ali would down a gallon of water followed by a gallon of straight kerosene.
Expelling the kerosene in a powerful jet, he would ignite objects and then
extinguish the inferno with the water he had swallowed.  While touring England
and enjoying a wave of unexpected popularity, Hadji Ali died of heart failure on
November 5th, 1937.

6. Willie & George Muse - The Men from Mars


The Muse brothers were born in Roanoke, Virginia during the end of the
1890’s.  In 1899, the pair was kidnapped by bounty hunters working for an
unknown sideshow promoter.  They were seen as an extremely lucrative
attraction, as they were black albinos.  To accentuate their already unusual
appearance, their handler had the brothers grow out their hair into long white
dreadlocks.  In 1922, showman Al G. Barnes began showcasing the brothers
in his circus as White Ecuadorian cannibals Eko and Iko, but that act did not
last.  Soon, they were labeled as the “Men from Mars.”  They traveled
extensively with the Barnes circus for a long while.  The brothers also toured
with Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1920’s.

In 1927, the brother’s mother tracked them down and demanded their release,
which was given.  However, the Muse brothers missed the public attention and
circus life, so they returned to show business.  During their first year back
they played Madison Square Garden and drew over 10,000 spectators during
each of their performances.  The pair made great money and their new
contract allowed them to sell their own merchandise and keep all profits.  In
the 1930’s the brothers toured Europe, Asia and Australia.  They performed
for royals and dignitaries, including the Queen of England.  The pair ended
their career in 1961 with the Clyde Beatty Circus.  George Muse died in 1971,
but amazingly Willie lived until 2001 and died at the age of 108.         

5. Carl Herman Unthan - Armless Musician


Carl Herman Unthan was born on April 5th, 1848 in Sommerfield, East Prussia.
He was born without arms, but his father insisted that he be treated like any
other boy.  Carl was soon able to grasp objects and write with his feet.  He
practiced daily on the violin and quickly became very skilled.  Unthan began his
stage career similar to most limbless marvels.  He would perform various tasks
like shuffling cards and smoking cigarettes with his feet.  However, Unthan’s
ability with music and as a talented marksman soon took precedent.  He was
recognized more as a legitimate act than an odd exhibit performer.  He toured
the world and was invited to play before Strauss in Vienna.  During WWI,
Carl served with the German Army in a moral role.  He would visit hospitals
and demonstrate his abilities to recent amputees.  In 1928, Carl Unthan
passed away at the age of 80.

4. Chang - The Chinese Giant


Often billed as Chang Yu Sing the Gargantuan, Chang Woo Gow was born in
Fychow, China in 1845.  Chang’s enormous frame was extremely unique during
the middle of the 19th century.  He was 7 foot 9 inches tall.  Gow's enormous
size made him a celebrity.  He spent many days delighting the emperor of
China as part of his royal court.  In his late teens Chang decided to travel to
England.  He gained a reception beyond his expectations and thousands of
curious patron’s paid good money, up to three shillings each, to witness the
exotic giant speak and display traditional Chinese garb and etiquette.

Chang went on a tour of England and even performed in front of the Prince and
Princess of Wales by request in 1864.  He was often exhibited as a single
attraction, but sometimes he was paired with a dwarf in order to accentuate his
huge proportions.  The Chinese Giant was an intellectual, kind, and well read
man.  In 1881, P. T Barnum contracted Chang to his Greatest Show on Earth.
At $600 a week he was one of the most well paid attractions of his time.  He
was billed as a giant “as strong as Heracles” and “as beautiful as Apollo.”
Chang passed away in 1893 at the age of 48.

3. Tom Jack - The Ice King


Tom Jack was born as Karl Breu on January 10, 1884 in Dubiau, which is now
Northern Bohemia of the Czech Republic.  Karl Breu was born with severe
albinism, a hypopigmentary congenital disorder characterized by a lack of
melanin pigment in the eyes, skin and hair.  Karl’s albinism manifested as snow
white skin, colorless hair, and pink eyes.  From early childhood Karl showed
an interest in illusion and manipulation.  With the success of Houdini, Breu
saw an opportunity and began performing under the American name Tom
Jack.  He studied feverishly and focused on chain escapes.
His escapes were based around illusion, trickery, physical contortions, and
restraint manipulations.  Tom Jack became successful and routinely performed
for sold out crowds. He was labeled the Ice King due to his frosty appearance.
Tom Jack routinely toured Europe and also nearly died during a performance
in London when he was tossed from the Tower Bridge into the Thames.  He
failed to escape from his restraints.  The Ice King passed away on October
17, 1953, at the age of 69.

2. Schlitzie the Pinhead


The most common opinion is that Schlitzie was born as Simon Metz on
September 10, 1901, in the Bronx.  It is likely that Simon was sold to a
showman at a very young age.  Schlitzie was born microcephalus, a condition
characterized by an abnormally small and often pointed cranium.  The
condition often results in retardation and Schlitzie himself had the cognitive
ability of a four-year-old.  Pinheads were nothing new to the sideshow world
and were often billed as a species apart from man or the last member of an
ancient race.
Schlitzie was extremely popular with crowds, his colleagues, and caretakers.
As a sideshow entertainer, Schlitzie was employed by every major name in
the business.  Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty
Circus, Tom Mix Circus, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow,
and the Dobritsch International Circus all had Schlitzie in their shows at some
point.  He also had a role in Tod Browning cult classic film Freaks.  He was a
true performer and his act was extremely lively and interactive.  Later in life
Schlitzie could often times be seen feeding the pigeons and ducks with his
guardian.  He died in 1971 at the age of 71.

1. Frank “Cannonball” Richards - Punching Bag


Frank Richards was a carnival and vaudeville performer.  He started his
career in 1932 and featured one of the most usual acts in sideshow history,
which included taking massive blows to the stomach.  Early in Frank’s life he
took to letting his teenage friends punch him in the stomach. 
Richards act
included allowing spectators to jump on his stomach and absorbing blows from
a two-by-four and sledgehammer.  He famously took body shots from former
heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey.  Finally, in a feat Richards
would forever be remembered for, he took to being shot in the belly with a 104
pound cannonball, fired from a spring loaded cannon.  All reports indicate that
there were no gimmicks at work during his performances.

Frank developed an incredible immunity to physical trauma and his act would
likely have killed or severely injured an average man.  Nothing like “Cannonball”
Richards has ever been seen since his disappearance from the sideshow
performance scene.  The date surrounding the birth and death of Frank
Richards is not known by public records. 

Honorable Mention

Susi - The Elephant Girl


Ichthyosis is a family of genetic skin disorders.  All types of ichthyosis produce
dry, thickened, scaly or flaky skin.  In many cases the skin is said to resemble
the scales on a fish. 
Susi was born in 1909 as Charlotte in the western
district of Berlin.  She had ichthyosis that manifested aggressively and her
skin quickly thickened, turned grey, and cracked.  It looked similar to that of an
elephants.  Due to the severity of her condition, Susi endured physical pain
daily.  Her pain was made worse by multiple infections and illnesses, as
bacteria invaded the major cracks of her skin.
Susi first came to the United States in 1927 as part of a troupe consisting of a
giantess and a bearded lady.  During her career, Susi often exhibited herself
at Hubert’s Museum on 42nd Street in New York and Coney Island.  She even
worked at Madison Square Garden for the Ringling show in 1967.  Her last
confirmed public appearance was at the Great Allentown Fair in Pennsylvania
as a single attraction billed as “The Swamp Girl.”  Susi passed away in 1975
at the age of 66.

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Copyright The List Blog - Top 10, All Rights Reserved, Posted August 16, 2009