Special People

* Note: The information presented here comes from a variety of sources, some written on the photographs and some from reading numerous books and web sites. It is offered with no guarantee of authenticity.

In the less enlightened days of the 19th and early 20th centuries those who were "different" from most people; smaller, larger, with unusual physical characteristics were called "freaks". They appeared in numerous "dime museums" like P.T. Barnum's American Museum, circuses, and side shows. It is easy from our 21st century perspective to look at society's fascination with these people as exploitative and demeaning. While the recent reputation of the carnival side show is decidedly tawdry and the exhibiting of people with physical abnormalities is even illegal in some states, reading about the lives of the 19th century "freaks" shows some surprising differences. Many were performers who were known for their talent and intelligence. Some of them were paid extremely well for the times, traveled extensively, met with Presidents and the crowned heads of Europe, and saved enough money during their careers to invest and live out their retirement in comfort. At the time of their marriage Tom Thumb and Lavinia were paid $3,000 a week plus $300 each day from the sale of their autographed carte-de-vistes, Many of them married "regular" people and had families. In a time when there would have been little chance for a physically challenged person to find work they were able to support their families and make a life for themselves. It has been suggested that these people were more valued then than those like them are today.

Their photographs were produced in quantity and sold to the public as collectible curiosities. The more successful shared in the profits of the sales. When we first began collecting in the early 1970s these images were not very expensive. Penciled prices of $1.50, $2, and $5 are still on the back of some. While the ordinary portrait photographs from this period still sell for only a few dollars, "Special" pictures like these are now quite expensive. Yes, we do find these photographs are often disturbing but they seem too important to the understanding of the place of photography in society to ignore.

Mr. & Mrs. Tom Thumb

Among the best known of Barnum's performers were Charles Sherwood Stratton, AKA General Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia Warren. We have a number of Brady photographs of their 1863 wedding party in carte-de-visit and stereo format. Also well know are the photographs with the pretend Thumb's baby, a real baby but not really the Thumb's baby.

* 12/2005 To share more of our photographs of this very special man and his friends and family we have added a page Tom Thumb and His Circle.

On the far left is Admiral Dot, a Barnum midget from the same era as the Thumbs. Like General Tom Thumb the military title was obviously ironic. Born Leopold Kahn, he met Barnum in 1868 and had a career of 20 years.

Nellie Keeler was another of Barnum's little people. In the carte-de-visit on the left Bogardus uses massive furniture to emphasis her tiny size. The information on the card front tells us that she is 11 years old, 28 inches high, and weighs 12 pounds.

Issac W. Spraque, billed as the Living Skeleton, is shown here at age 24. He is listed on the card front as being 5 feet 4 inches and weighing only 48 pounds. It was not uncommon for height, weight, age or other stated statistics to be given as more or less than reality to emphasize the special characteristic being offered.

Spraque and other Living Skeletons almost certainly suffered from some wasting disease and may have appeared on stage because they were not physically able to work.

In this carte-de-visite by Charles D. Fredricks & Co. New York, Madame Sherwood - Giant Lady is listed as weighing 675 pounds.

The stated weight may well have been exaggerated since this was a common ploy to improve the marketability of the performer.

In the light of today's sensibility we find it hard to accept that the "fat lady" was an enduring staple of any exhibition of unusual people in this period.

Another staple of the dime museum, circus, and side show was the giant. Unusually tall people have been looked at with fascination since antiquity.

The carte-de-visite card below shows a giant in uniform with a "normal" man looking up at him. Without this man for scale we would not know how big he is. In the same way furniture or larger people gave scale to the photographs of midgets.

Other copies of this image are identified as Monsieur E. Bihin, a Belgian giant with great strength.

Living Skeleton
Information about these special people can not always be taken at face value. Waino and Plutano were billed as the "Wild Men from Borneo" but were really dwarf brothers from Connecticut. Eli Bowen, the Legless Wonder, who was born without legs developed very strong arms and performed acrobatic feats on stage. He married and fathered a number of children before retiring . The photograph below is of the albino Lucasie family, who appeared in Barnum's Museum in New York. Matthew Brady's studio was across the street from the Museum. This unmarked card is from one of his images.
Waino and Plutano
Eli Bowen legless
Albino Lucasie family

The carte-de-visite below of Delina Rossa is one of our special treasures. It shows not only a young bearded lady in an elaborate dress but on the table is a stereo graphoscope (combination stereo view and print magnifier). We have a number of these viewers in our stereo viewer collection and would have bought the card even if the woman had no beard.

The bearded lady, Annie Jones, was described as having the manners of a society lady. Exhibited by Barnum at a very young age, she was kidnapped by a Phrenologist. Her family had to sue to get her back. The kidnapper claimed that she was his child although the likelihood of two little girls with the same unusual characteristics seems to stretch credibility.

Annie married twice, toured Europe and invested her considerable earnings in Real Estate.

Carrie Akers was promoted for both her short stature, 31 inches, and her weight, 309 pounds. In this cabinet card by Eisenmann of New York she is shown with a man presenting her with flowers. They stand in front of a studio backdrop of a rustic log cabin.

Eisenmann's studio produced a large number of photographs of these special people.

bearded lady

bearded lady Annie Jones

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**NOTE** All items on the Collection of Collections web site are in our private collection and are NOT for sale. From time to time duplicate items from our collection will be offered for sale in the Do You Remember This? shop on the GoAntiques cyber mall. Visit the Do You Remember This? inventory page for photographica and toaster related collectibles.

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Updated on 12/2005