The Freaks That Inspired ‘The Greatest Showman’

Starring Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, ‘The Greatest Showman’ musical delves into the life of 19th century showman P. T. Barnum. Famously known for his management of freak performers and the creation of a successful museum and circus, Barnum worked closely with freaks of all talents and abilities, in turn making a healthy profit. Whilst the musical primarily tells the story of Barnum’s success, it also features a multitude of fictitious freaks, many of whom emulate their real 19th century counterparts. ‘The Greatest Showman’ succeeds in chronically Barnum’s life, (albeit with a little Hollywood glamour and poetic license thrown in), and despite my reservations, empathetically portrays many freak performer’s transition from unemployed social outcasts to respected performers with a degree of financial autonomy.

For those who may love the film but perhaps do not know too much about the real freak show performers and their journey from poverty to autonomy, here just a few freaks similar to those shown in the film.

General Tom Thumb

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Charles S. Stratton, a dwarf known as General Tom Thumb, aged twelve. Lithograph by C. Baugniet, 1844. Wellcome Images, Wellcome Collection, London.

Born Charles Stratton, General Tom Thumb (1838-1883) performed for Barnum’s circus from the age of five, travelling across the globe. He performed primarily on his own until he married fellow dwarf Lavinia Warren in 1863. Thumb reportedly helped to reignite Barnum’s business after his fortunes turned, showing just how lucrative the entertainment industry could be for a freak show performer.

Daniel Lambert

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Daniel Lambert, weighing over fifty stone, aged 36. Coloured etching. Wellcome Images, Wellcome Collection, London.

Daniel Lambert was known for his heavy weight, at his peak his weight was recorded at 52 stone. Originally a gaol keeper, Lambert developed money problems in 1806. To raise money, he exhibited himself to visitors. Whilst only performing for a year, and never for P.T Barnum, Lambert is a fine example of a freak show performer in complete control of his display and earnings.

Bearded Ladies

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Madame Delait, the bearded lady of Plombières, head and shoulders portrait. Photographic postcard by Scherr, 1923. Wellcome Images, Wellcome Collection, London.

‘The Greatest Showman’ features a bearded lady, who becomes the figurehead for Barnum’s show. Whilst portraits of bearded ladies are available, currently little is known about their individual lives. Just as giants strove to be the tallest, bearded ladies strove to have the longest, fullest beard. This would not only increase their fame and publicity, but also their bank balance.

Of course, there are plenty more examples of freak show performers. Performing for both managers and for themselves, these show men and women provided entertainment for many 18th and 19th century spectators. ‘The Greatest Showman’ sheds light on a few of these entrepreneurial characters, who used their disability or perceived abnormality to support themselves in an otherwise tough environment.

*Featured image: ‘Show Bill, Barnum and Bailey’s show’, Wellcome Images, Wellcome Collection, London.

*All images used under the Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), with permission from the Wellcome Collection, London.

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