Disability and Freak Shows: A History

The Wheelchair Historian
6 min readNov 28, 2020

Welcome to the latest post in my series on disability as entertainment. This week I will be discussing the history of freak shows, with a particular emphasis on the 19th century version. This of course was the era of P.T. Barnum, who, in recent years has been brought back into the public’s mind, through the musical movie The Greatest Showman. You may be disappointed, but not surprised to hear that the reality of the situation was no song and dance. As you can imagine, the topic of freak shows is gargantuan. There are already several books written on the topic, and with a growing interest in disability history, there is bound to be several more. With that in mind, I have decided to divide this topic across several posts. This first one will give an overview of what freak shows were, as well as a brief timeline of their popularity. The subsequent posts will focus on particular people and performers involved in the industry.

As with pretty much every topic I cover, this post includes a term which is no longer deemed acceptable when discussing disability. This week that word is freak. If you would like to know why I use derogatory terms, you can read my post ‘The History of Disability Terminology’.

Freak Show: Origins

Okay. I have yet to explain what a freak show actually was. Basically, a group of people who had an unusual appearance, or who could perform unusual acts were put on display and the public would pay a fee to see them. I am well aware that freak shows still take place today, but I am using the past tense, as this is a history blog after all. The freak show was a culmination of several aspects of disability history, that I have already discussed, or will be discussing on this blog. For instance, ‘monstrous’ births have been documented as far back as Stone Age cave paintings. In Ancient Egypt, there were dwarf gods (e.g. Bes), as well as dwarf jesters. Throughout history, there has been a fascination with abnormal bodies. I suppose the 19th century freak shows could be seen as the peak of this interest.

What became the freak show, had its origins in 16th and 17th century Europe. Before this time, the physically deformed were feared as they were seen as bad omens. However, this belief faded, and the public wished to learn more about these people. ‘Monster shows’…

The Wheelchair Historian

Wheelchair user with an interest in history, so I created a blog about history, with a particular emphasis on disability.