Merchant's House · Museums

Time Changes Everything—Sometimes for the Better


Recently while sorting through research notes for the book I wrote about the 19th century home of the Tredwell family, I ran across an interesting diary entry made by Samuel, the youngest son. When he was a teenager he dutifully noted he had borrowed five cents from his little sister so he could go see the “fat lady.” Apparently he didn’t have quite enough for the 25 cent admission fee to the American Museum on Broadway where the fat lady was on exhibit.

The American Museum
The American Museum

Founded by the flamboyant showman, P.T. Barnum, the museum was one of New York’s most popular tourist attractions from the time of its founding in 1842 until 1865 when a spectacular fire completely destroyed it.

It was a combination zoo, aquarium, wax works, and theater. Barnum filled his museum with all manner of curiosities including an exhibit of “freaks.”—persons who suffered rare and strange deformities and disabilities: among them Jo-Jo the dog faced boy, who had a th-1genetic disorder that caused him to have abnormal amounts of body hair; William Henry Johnson, a mentally defective African American who assumed the role of a man/animal, and ran around growling; Chang and Eng, the conjoined Siamese twins; Tom Thumb, largethe famous dwarf,—and of course the fat lady.
The freak show at Barnum’s museum was the forerunner of the sideshow, a component of carnivals and circuses throughout the country well into the 20th century. Gradually, however, thanks to the advances of medical science, an increased understanding of genetic disorders and mental illness developed. Many th-6conditions can now be successfully treated; even conjoined twins can sometimes be surgically separated (thank you, Dr. Carson). And with support and the proper assistance, the severely handicapped can live peaceful, sometimes productive lives. Legislation protects the Josephine-Myrtle-Corbin-4-gamberights of the disabled, and private non profits provide assistance for every type of disability and rare disease. Today the word “freak” applies to accidents, not people.

We can certainly point to many examples of the debasement of our popular culture from the twerking of Miley Cyrus to the foul language that sometimes seems to be the staple of ordinary conversation. But it is no longer acceptable for the malformed and handicapped to be the object of voyeuristic curiosity. In that respect, at least, we can say we are wiser, more sensitive, more compassionate than our 19th century counterparts.


6 thoughts on “Time Changes Everything—Sometimes for the Better

  1. Love this post. I have always been intrigued by the fascination “Freaks” have for people. I understand it, but it does seem barbaric. Thank goodness we have evolved as a society. And also thank goodness for the advances made to help some of these people.


  2. Excellent post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    There is still quite a fascination with the unusual. “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not” remains very popular as does the “Guinness Book of World Records.” By its nature, every world record is a “freakish” event.

    We can find out who the youngest person to give birth was, the oldest mother, the oldest father, who fathered the most children, who gave birth to the most children. It goes on and on, and that’s just the mother / father stuff.

    Every few months we see a news story about how the oldest person in the world died and his or her age. Those stories typically point out who replaces that person and the age of the “newest” oldest person. (The “oldest person in the world” is a crown isn’t worn for long, so these stories are rather frequent.) People want to know this extreme value….the age of the oldest person.

    Going back to Miley Cyrus, it’s her unusualness that draws the attention of so many. To put it bluntly, in a way she’s rather “freakish,” in a way that I believe is intentional and a great business move on her part. It’s served her very well.

    I’m glad we don’t have those sideshows, those Freak Shows any more. As a society, we’ve gotten better about that. But, if they did have those shows today, they’d still be popular, still make a lot of money. They tap in to something within us.


    1. I am sure you’re right about that last point. The good thing is that the exploitation of the handicapped is no longer acceptable. In fact, in some jurisdictions I understand it is illegal.


  3. My favorite quick story is about Barnum posting a sign ” THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS ” which lured unsuspecting customers to a door which closed firmly after leaving them out on the sidewalk and required to pay another fee if they wanted to reenter…….Barnum, always the showman……and huckster.


  4. My favorite Barnum story is about the sign in the museum stating “THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS ” which led patrons to a door that closed firmly after leaving them on the sidewalk, and needing to pay another fee to re-enter.
    Barnum…..the showman……..Barnum the huckster.


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