A Congress of Freaks In 1848, the ever-trenchant Punch cast its side-eye on “DEFORMITO-MANIA” declaring the live freak show one of the most popular, yet dubious, forms of entertainment. Punch (Vol. XIII) cheekily elegizes “Poor Madame’s Tussaud” and her “Chamber of Horrors,” noting the inevitable snuffing out of waxen entertainment’s popularity when met with the freakshow’s vibrant “number of enormities and deformities that are now to be seen, as the showmen say “'Alive! Alive!'” While the novelty of such specimens may have eclipsed other forms of entertainment during the nineteenth century, their allure—their status as living and breathing individuals—poses a set of prickly intricacies for the contemporary scholar. In what ways may we resuscitate the performing histories of the freakshow? What tools do we have in our arsenals to mine out such histories? Luckily for us, while the freak show’s initial draw may have been the living body, left as its memories is a rich archival body of handbills, short autobiographies, pamphlets, and photographs that we may use to re-member these confounding bodies. A Congress of Freaks, a creative photographic-poetic album materializes the intersection of performance and archival theories to commemorate of the freak show’s repertoire of embodied and material knowledge.
Pictures If Victorian pop entertainment devotees were cheerfully and willingly suffering from “DEFORMITO-MANIA,” by the late 1860’s, they also welcomed a new affliction of modernity: Carto-mania. Initially developed by Andre Disderi, the carte-de-visite (CdV) revolutionized processes for creating and disseminating photographs. Having designed a patented method of capturing eight negatives on a single plate helped Disderi to streamline (and cheapen) the photographic process. Capitalizing off of the dual popularity of all things freakish and photographic, beginning in the 1870’s, Charles Eisenmann set up shop in New York City’s Bowery district to become the premier photographer of freakshow performers. Much of the visual grammar of the freakshow that contemporary scholars have pieced together may be credited to the preponderance of remaining CdV’s collated into print anthologies, private collections, and even university collections, such as Syracuse University’s Ronald G. Becker photograph collection. I chose a handful of Eisenmann’s portraits to serve as the basis so as to pay homage to the man who has shaped our visual understanding of the Victorian freakshow. For me, Eisenmann’s CdV’s are particularly rich for scholarly consideration. First, they stand as tokens of a revolutionized technological process: using a laser printer to print my images, I had serendipitously mimicked the efficient process of photographic development, much like the CdV. Furthermore, so as to give the photographs some physical substance, I chose to affix them to 2-ply board; similarly CdV’s would have been developed on thin albumen print before being mounted onto a thicker paper card. As working with such archival material is central to my research, which puts visual archival materials into conversation with prose, poetry, ad fiction, I wanted A Congress of Freaks to creatively reflect this by replicating as close as possible the various forms of the freakshow’s souvenirs. Equally interesting as the materiality of Eisenmann’s photographs is their aesthetic. Filled with freak performers inhabiting parlors, lounging on divans, or reading books and sewing… with their feet, his CdVs are emblems of nineteenth-century honorific portraiture. As Allan Sekula explains, “the photographic portrait extends, accelerates, popularizes, and degrades a traditional function. This function, which can be said to have taken its early modern form in the seventeenth century, is that of providing for the ceremonial presentation of the bourgeois self.” To question the visual boundaries between freakery and normalcy, I chose Eisenmann’s distinctly middle-class freak portraiture.
Format By including these photographs complete in their own individual pockets that may be removed and examined at the observer’s will, I sought to replicate a photo album in order to memorialize nineteenth-century collecting practices. Freakshow attendees would often purchase CdVs of their favorite performers, so that they may take home their souvenirs and incorporate them into their personal albums. While the personal photographic compilation is illuminating and serves as excellent fodder for indexing the social mind at work in their creation, its shortcomings can simultaneously become glaring. As Cheryl Finley asks, “when the narratives cease to be intelligible, is it possible to salvage, restore, or re-create them?” My book’s format not only replicates the archival repository of the photo album, but also evokes the performance space of the freakshow proper. So as to echo the spatial dynamics of the freakshow, I chose to construct an accordion book, an object that begs to stand (literally) on its own, to construct a spectacle of the act of archiving. Comprised of nine interlocking sheets, the vast horizontality of the accordion book accords well with the freakshow, which would often flank the main source of entertainment. Also, to depict through the form of a book the episodic qualities often attributed to the freakshow, I purposefully chose a random assortment of performers. In performance studies, questions of repetition in performance counterbalance those of uniqueness: may we understand the performance as repeatable and reduplicated through quantitative methods, or does each individual performance resist such efforts? To honor both the systematic and singular natures of a performance, each book is bound identically as an accordion, yet each differs in its page order and photographic embellishment.
Words Freak CdVs would often list the performer’s “stats,” which would include his or her name, birthplace, proprietary circus troupe or dime museum, or height and weight. While such additions to the CdV could assuage the anxiety over the incomplete nature of knowledge that the personal album imparts, so as to illuminate this possible intricacy, I specifically handpicked photographs that, for the most part, did not contain such pieces of information. This left me with the option of crafting my own narrative for each performer drawn from what knowledge their photographic bodies provide. Titling my project A Congress of Freaks, I was borrowing from P.T. Barnum’s (and later Barnum and Bailey’s) freak retinue, which was termed a “congress.” In an effort to emphasize the performing or auditory qualities of my book, I wrote the quatrains from the perspective of the showman or barker who would have been responsible for promoting and introducing each freak performer. In crafting these poems, I combined recorded facts with apocrypha and rumors pertaining to their performance histories, so as to present semi-fictionalized spiels for each freak performer. For example, the poem I wrote for the Snake-Charming-Bearded-Lady, Jane Devere, includes mention of a missing snake, a nod to a set of possibly-fictitious CdV negatives that feature her snake, out of her grasp, and slithering through Eisenmann’s studio unattended. Apparently, unimpressed with the work of these free-agent reptiles, Eisenmann erected a cage especially for photographing his bevy of Snake Charmers. Unfortunately, these negatives are not readily found contemporarily, yet the urban legend manages to remain as an indispensible part of the cache of facts, half-truths, and blatant lies that comprise the freak body of information.
Conclusion In “The Black Body as Souvenir,” Harvey Young imbues the souvenir, the “performance remain,” with the potential to re-member the body that may have disappeared through performance or become dismembered through archival work to put us in contact with the body of the individual. Through the interplay of the pictures, form, and words, this book stands as an attempt to become one step closer to the past of the freak show