Freaks Like Us

Buxom firestarters and dog-faced men: Frontier theater on the fringe

Fisk then moved on to Minneapolis, where she and her performers continued to squabble over payroll issues. A Tribune report of her Minneapolis performance has her blondes telling jokes and taking up poses, until, at the end, Fisk herself offered a temperance lecture "with an eloquence probably born of bitter experience."

 

Was Joe Biernat in the Elephant Licensing Business? The circus was big business in the Twin Cities: Press accounts show that three or more troupes typically passed through town each summer. And our fair city, keen then as now to the financial bottom line of the culture, did as much as possible to wring every last dollar out of the traveling enterprises. This led circus pressman Charles H. Day to pen these dismissive words in 1885 in the Sporting and Theatrical Journal:

 

I'm sorry to hear that both Sells Bros. and Forepaugh paid an extravagant license at Minneapolis. It would do no good to state the amount here. It would be a good day's receipts for a small show. It would have been better to let Minneapolis go without a circus....Merchants and the local authorities of towns and cities will often appropriate large sums to subsidize horse trots, balloon ascensions, displays of fireworks, agricultural exhibitions, and the like, to make business. But when a showman comes along and assumes all risks, some of these same parties will put an obstacle in the way, in the way of a robbing license. Skip the high license towns, Mr. Managers, and let the councils of those burghs encourage the cultivation and growth of grass on the highways.

Get Your Freak On: The Dime Museums September of 1885 saw the start of Sackett and Wiggins's Dime Museum, located at 214-216 Hennepin Ave., and featuring a Curiosity Hall, Monster Museum, Lecture Room, and the Luxurious Theatorium. The headline performer for the museum's opening week: Che-Mah, "Barnum's Famous Chinese Dwarf."

It is hard nowadays to imagine the high weirdness that was the dime museum, a nationwide fad for assembling vast collections of oddities and displaying them all under one roof. Luckily, a Minneapolis Journal article from the time offers some marvelous hints as to Sackett and Wiggins's contents: "The top floor has become the home of the freaks, big and little freaks, old freaks and young freaks, freaks human and freaks of nature. The next floor below it is devoted to the exhibition of birds and animals."

Sackett and Wiggins's Dime Museum specialized in bringing traveling acts to Minneapolis, and in their first year offered Punch and Judy shows, Zulu warriors, Chinese giants, an elastic-skinned man, a three-legged man, a human skeleton, and a living mermaid. In its second year, the dime museum grew even more creative, offering a series of bizarre conventions, including an albino beauty show and a "fat people's convention," where topics under discussion included "The Width of Doors." Oddly, in their grandly named Theatorium, the Dime Museum also offered a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.

Sackett and Wiggins would run into competition in 1892 with the arrival of the Palace Museum, which opened with a headliner far more impressive than Sackett and Wiggins's presentation of the Chinese Dwarf. This was a Russian youth by the name of Fedor Jeftichew, who suffered from hypertrichosis, or excessive hair growth. Because his face and body were covered by a thick mat of brown hair, Jeftichew was better known by his stage name, Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy. Jeftichew had been an employee of Barnum for many years, becoming a worldwide sensation, despite Jeftichew's ongoing refusal to bark on command.

Not only did the Palace Museum offer a better headliner, but its promotions tended to be wilder. Where Sackett and Wiggins might offer a convention of fat people, for example, the Palace offered a "crawling fat woman." Also present was a two-headed wild giant, Joltum ("He Catches Cannon Balls"), and Josephine Myrtle, the dancing four-legged woman. Occasionally at the Palace it was possible to see women boxing kangaroos, and roller-skating horses. But the museum outdid itself in 1895 when it showed a waxwork re-creation of a notorious local murder, including the buggy and mare used to transport the victim to the scene of the crime. Eventually, the Palace added to the exhibit, tracking down the gallows used to execute the ringleader in the murder, as well as a pirated Edison recording of the ringleader's last words. This, unarguably, was a show that killed.

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