Secrets of the Sideshows

Secrets of the Sideshows

by Joe Nickell

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On small-town ballfields and county fairgrounds, the sideshow performers set up their tents and trailers in the shadow of the Ferris wheel. There they amazed us with daring feats such as fire eating and sword swallowing, intrigued us with exhibitions of human oddities and various "anatomical wonders," and yes, deceived us with illusions such as "Atasha the Gorilla Girl" and even outright fakes. These bizarre spectacles engaged the mind as well as the eye. Was the human blockhead act, in which the performer pounded a large nail or ice pick into his nostril, real or fake? Was the so-called alligator boy genuine or a "gaffed" oddity, painted with glue to produce a scaly simulation of reptilian skin? While the sideshows have now all but vanished from the American landscape, they leave a fascinating legacy of romance and mystery. Many of their secrets remain, only grudgingly given up, if at all, by aging showmen and "bally talkers." Joe Nickell -- once a carnival pitchman, then a magician, a private detective, and an investigative writer -- has pursued sideshow secrets for years. He has interviewed the showmen and performers, collected carnival memorabilia, researched the published literature, and even performed some classic sideshow feats, such as eating fire and lying on a bed of nails while a cinderblock was broken on his chest. Secrets of the Sideshows reveals the specific methods and tricks behind the performances, the showmen's tactics for recruiting performers and attracting crowds, and more. Nickell also examines the behind-the-scenes secrets of sideshow life, including details of the remarkable personal lives of those men and women billed as "freaks."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813171791
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Publication date: 09/09/2005
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 966,788
File size: 12 MB
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations     x
Acknowledgments     xvii
Preface     xix
Origins of the Sideshow     1
Early Roots     1
The Fair and Beyond     4
Beginnings of the Modern Circus     6
Barnum the Showman     10
The Greatest Show     15
Carnivals and More     18
On The Midway     25
Creating the Midway     25
Concessions     28
Games     34
Rides and Amusements     40
Sideshows     48
The Ten-in-one     52
The Banner Line     53
The Bally Platform     62
On the Inside     68
The Blowoff     76
Human Oddities: Large and Small     80
Giants     81
Fat People     92
Living Skeletons     101
Dwarfs     105
Midgets     111
Human Oddities: Between a Half and Two     120
Siamese Twins     120
One-and-a-Halfs     128
Armless and Legless Wonders     133
Other Human Oddities     141
"Animal" People     141
Hirsute Women-and Men     150
And More     158
Anatomical Wonders     165
Contortionists     165
India-Rubber People     168
Special-Effects Performers     171
Mr. Anatomical Wonder     175
Created Oddities     178
Tattooed People     178
Pierced Ones     184
Other "Made" Oddities     189
Gaffed Oddities     194
Gaffed Acts     201
Working Acts     209
Fire-eaters     209
Sword Swallowers     220
Phenomenal Ingesters     225
Human Pincushions     233
Blockheads     238
Other Torture Acts     240
Electric Marvels     247
Snake Charmers     250
Knife Throwers     254
Illusions     260
Magicians     260
Psychic Marvels     264
Torture Box Illusions     271
Living Heads     275
Headless People     282
Floating Lady     285
Gorilla Girl     288
Girl in the Goldfish Bowl     291
Other Illusions      293
Animal Shows     299
Menageries     299
Single-Animal Acts and Exotics     303
Freak Animal Exhibits     309
Flea Circuses     314
Curios     322
Pickled Exhibits     322
Other Preserved Exhibits     328
Bogus Creatures     333
Other Curios     341
The Egress     345
References     353
Index     361

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