Out of the ordinary

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Fear is often our reaction when we encounter those who are physically different. Julie Hearn recounts the lives of some extraordinary people

In 1783, when Charles Byrne, "The Irish Giant", realised he was dying he promised friends his life savings if they would bury him at sea. His friends, however, were easily swayed. For pound;500 they turned the Giant's body over to the anatomist, John Hunter, who chopped it up, boiled it down, and reassembled the bones to hang among his collection of freaks and curios.

Forty-one years later, a man claiming to be the father of Caroline Crachami, "The Sicilian Dwarf", arrived in London to claim the girl's body, having learned of her death via the newspapers. He was too late. Her remains, along with her thimble, her ruby ring, a pair of silk socks and her tiny slippers were already collectors' items.

The skeletons of Charles Byrne and Caroline Crachami are still hanging, side by side, in the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons, London. Seven feet ten inches tall, and one foot-ten-and-a-half inches small, they continue to evoke the kind of lurid fascination that the strangely formed human body has always held, for those who consider themselves "normal".

Fear, more than anything, appears to have shaped our collective consciousness in relation to physical difference. Babylonian clay tablets, dating back to 2800BC, associate congenital abnormality with widespread catastrophe ("When a woman gives birth to an infant who has six toes on each foot, the people of the world will be injuredI"). The malignant goblins, man-eating ogres and winged harpies of folklore and mythology perpetuate the perceived link between evil, and a deviation from the physical "norm". And we were well into the 17th century before the mothers of malformed babies were spared gruelling interrogations - even torture - on suspicion of intimate dealings with Satan.

In response to fear came the need to denigrate, categorise and control those whose appearance was considered grotesque.

The medieval church cited "giants" in particular as sub-human and incapable of high reasoning. Such beings, it was said, were wiped out in the Flood to make way for better, brighter mortals - apart from the biblical King Og of Bashan, whose massive teeth were displayed as priceless relics until the 17th century, when they were proved to have come from the jawbone of an elephant.

The lucrative practice of exhibiting "monsters" (the word "freak" did not become synonymous with human abnormality until the early 1800s) became increasingly popular as explorers in the New World discovered people who, through their very difference, appeared to challenge "safe" categorical boundaries of race, gender and personhood.

Ships that delivered spices, silk and rhinoceroses to these shores also brought Eskimos, Pygmies and African tribesmen who were snapped up by showmen and exhibited as either savages or exotics. As Richard Altick, author of The Shows of London (1978) notes: "There can be scarcely any question that the various exhibitions of specimens of other races - so different from, supposedly so inferior to Caucasians - contributed conceptions, prejudices and stereotypes to the prevailing climate."

Bartholomew Fair, in London's Smithfield, was from 1133 until 1855 a major venue for itinerant showmen and their human wares. Ironically, it was held a stone's throw from the city's gallows and on the very spot where heretics were burned alive - William "Braveheart" Wallace's execution, in 1305, coincided with the opening of the fair, so trade was suspended while mummers (masked performers), merchants, stilt-walkers and a woman who could balance head-first on the point of a sword rushed to watch him being disembowelled.

Surviving handbills for the fair advertise a boy covered with hedgehog bristles; a woman without hands or feet who could nonetheless thread needles, fire pistols and spin fine thread; two girls joined together by the crown of their heads; a child "but 30 weeks old with a prodigious big head, being above a yard about".

The poet William Wordsworth visited Bartholomew Fair in 1802. In "The Prelude" (1805) he comments on the variety of human beings on display that year, and the troubled fascination they inspired: The silver-collared Negro with his timbrel Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs.

The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire.

Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl All out-o'-the-way, far-fetched perverted things

All freaks of nature

Most such "freaks of nature" suffered from what we now recognise as rare genetic disorders, including dwarfism, albinism, microcephaly and abnormal elasticity of the skin, or from such embryological conditions as hermaphroditism. Some were out-and-out cons - including a "talking centaur" who was really a legless soldier attached to a stuffed decapitated horse.

Others had been deliberately maimed or crippled: "Young children are bought or stolen at a tender age and placed in a ch'ing, or vase with a narrow neck, and having in this case a moveable bottom. In this receptacle the unfortunate little wretches are kept for years in a sitting posture, their heads outside, being all the while carefully tended and fedI When the child has reached the age of 20 or over, he or she is taken away to some distant place and 'discovered' in the woods as a wild man or woman."

The China Mail, May 15, 1878

Even after scientists cited birth abnormalities as part of "God's natural order", the freak show continued to flourish. PT Barnum's American Museum of Curiosities, established in 1841, thrilled crowds with its bizarre displays of spotted boys, "wild men of Borneo", bearded women and dancing dwarves. These shows, in recognition of the changing times, were promoted as educational, and morally uplifting. And Barnum went to great lengths to portray his "curiosities" as grateful - delighted even - for the chance to earn a decent living.

Tom Thumb, one of Barnum's most celebrated midgets, was given the parodic title of "General" and an act that included the impersonation of such "big" names as Samson, Hercules, Frederick the Great and Napoleon (whom he actually played before the Duke of Wellington). At the age of nine, he wrote to an admirer: "I have travelled 50,000 miles, been before more crowned heads than any other Yankee living, except my friend Mr Barnum, and have kissed nearly Two Millions (sic) of ladies including the Queens of England, France, Belgium and Spain."

General Tom Thumb married a fellow midget, Lavinia Warren, in a much-publicised ceremony in New York. It appears he enjoyed his celebrity status and considered Barnum a faithful friend. Yet whether his willingness to being displayed, infantilised and mocked did his fellow "curiosities" any favours as they began striving for integration and social acceptance, remains a matter of debate.

The sport of "Dwarf Throwing" which began in the US and was briefly popular in a few English pubs during the 1980s, put the whole issue of normalisation into debate, with participants arguing for their right to exploit their own disability, by being thrown across a room, and opponents claiming that such a "right" can never be a free choice while it is premised on a continuing lack of opportunity to earn a living and acquire status in conventional ways.

The fate of Julia Pastrana, a Mexican Indian woman exhibited in the US and across Europe during the 1850s, says a great deal about the hypocrisy of Victorian entrepreneurs who appeared to have the best interests of freaks at heart while exploiting them mercilessly. Pastrana, an intelligent woman who spoke English and Spanish, and loved to dance, was excessively hairy with an over-developed jaw. Her husband, a Russian professor, exhibited her as "The Baboon Lady" and "The Ugliest Woman in the World". And when she died in childbirth, in 1860, he had her body and that of their son (who lived only a few hours) embalmed.

The mummified corpses of Julia Pastrana and the baby were still being exhibited as recently as 1973 when they toured fairgrounds in Sweden, attracting as much attention as pop stars of the day. In 1976 the baby's body was stolen by vandals and thrown into a ditch, where mice ate it. The last reliable sighting of Julia Pastrana was in a storage unit at the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo.

The exhibition of freaks went into decline during the 1940s, although vestiges remained in the US well into the 1960s. The photographer Diane Arbus, who committed suicide in 1971, is best remembered for her black and white stills of dwarfs, giants and other "dime show" freaks. "There's a quality of legend about freaks," she wrote. "Like a person in a fairytale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their traumas. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats."

Today, the entertainment discourses of horror films, beauty pageants, tabloid sensationalism and rock celebrity culture could be said to descend from our fascination with freaks.

Talk shows of the Jerry Spriner variety have been held up as a contemporary "fix" for those who enjoy exhibitions of anomalous beings and behaviour.

Such shows, by promoting understanding of, and respect for, "difference" frequently lead to moments of self-revelation that muddy the waters of "normality" and give viewers the double thrill of feeling both titillated and morally superior. Like the freak shows, these programmes rely heavily upon conflating an individual's "shock-value" over and above any other aspect of his or her personhood. Like the freak shows, they play with the instability of boundaries securing a "normal" person's identity. And audiences love it.

We may no longer gawp at Fat Ladies and Living Skeletons in fairground booths, but the fear and fascination that kept the freak shows in business over generations lingers on.

The story of the "Hottentot Venus", however, perhaps suggests a positive shift in attitudes. Saartjie Baartman was taken from her homeland, in South Africa, in 1810 and paraded half-naked around Europe as a sexual freak and an icon of racial inferiority (her large buttocks and the shape of her genitals, although normal for women of her race, were considered grotesque by westerners).

Saartjie was only 26, and reduced to working as a prostitute, when she died in France from what appears to have been the ravages of syphilis and tuberculosis. For more than 150 years after her death her skeleton, brain and sexual organs were displayed in the Musee de l'Homme, Paris. But, last year, her remains were returned to the South African Government, and buried close to her birthplace among the Khoisan people of the Eastern Cape.

"We are closing a chapter in history," Khoisan chief, Joseph Little, told those who gathered around Saartjie Baartman's grave. "I feel her dignity has been restored."

Julie Hearn is the author of Follow Me Down (OUP, pound;9.99) a historical fantasy novel for older children, based on the showing of "freaks" at Bartholomew Fair.

For more information go to www.oup.comukchildrenfollowmedown

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