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In 1972, there was trouble in “Three Island Paradise.”
A local sheriff in the sleepy beach town of North Bay, Florida preemptively put a stop to a travelling carnival-freak show before it even began. If the sideshow performers went on performing, the sheriff warned, they would be violating Florida Code section 867.01 banning the "exhibition for pay of any crippled or physically distorted, malformed, or disfigured person." Not taking this citation sitting down, the "freaks" fought back. Helmed by Terhune who was "born a dwarf" and "Sealo, the Seal Boy," World Fair Freaks v. Hodges maintained that the statute was unconstitutionally discriminatory and vague. The Florida Supreme Court eventually found in favor of the freaks, reasoning that the statute violates the plaintiffs' legal rights to "pursue a lawful occupation." Mired in questions of freak self-representation, World Fair Freaks v. Hodges suggests that maybe our understandings of the freak show as an inherently exploitative enterprise are not quite so straightforward. As Eli Clare suggests, we may never know the precise conditions of the freak show performer but we can certainly guess that exploitation was multi-directional, fluid, and ambiguous.
Scholars of the Victorian period write of “liberalism,” a notoriously elusive term that encompasses various philosophical, political, and material practices that elevated the individual and self-governance. To sum up, liberalism offered “a way of being in the world” (Vernon 2011). But this “being” was not extended to just anyone, since liberalism's promises tended to extend only as far as the middle-class, able-bodied, male British self. In inciting energetic debate and making speculation its key conversational tenor, the modern freak show was no doubt part and parcel of cultural atmosphere that prized the liberty of open thought, opinion, and discussion.
However exhilarating for the impresarios, medical-scientific authorities, and casual audience members, the performers themselves began to feel keenly excluded from liberalism’s promises. So much so, the 1898-99 season troupe of Barnum and Bailey’s “Congress of Freaks” staged an infamous “Indignation Meeting” proclaiming their rights to self-expression and self-representation. Annie Jones, the “Bearded Lady” and supremely eloquent speaker helmed the Indignation Meeting with Sol the Human Calculator as the chairman and Charles Tripp, the “Armless Wonder” acting as secretary. The supporting attendees were some of the sideshow’s brightest stars: J.W. Coffey the “Skeleton Dude,” Hiram and Barney Davis the “Wild Men of Borneo,” James Morris the “Elastic Man,” Feodor Jeftichew aka “Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy,” Eli Bowen the “Legless Acrobat” and Lalloo, the “Double-Bodied Hindoo.”
Their demand was simple: they wanted a new name. The term “freak” was heaped on them and it rankled them, since they were denied the right to represent themselves as they saw fit. In a poetic interlude, the performers proclaimed in unison:
“The name has naught to do with us
They brought it 'right along' with them.”
They cut a pretty impressive figure both physically and oratorically, which impressed the London Daily News: “they were all in their Sunday best and looked so uncommonly like other mortals … We have been present at meetings of all sorts … but never has it been our good fortune to witness such an exhibition of strenuous, moral earnestness, as was show by these remarkable people" (London Daily News 1899) The performers approached their debate from an intelligent angle by focusing on the negative connotations of the term “freak” as opposed to “marvel” or “prodigy,” making the question of exploitation one of word choices. To rectify the problem, they invited submissions for alternative names. Barnum’s press agent, Tody Hamilton who “Jingled Words like Bells" (New York Times 1916) suggested by letter that “freaks” rename themselves “whams,” a “word not found in any languages.” The performers’ response: “We might as well be called snakes” (Worcestershire Chronicle 1899) After weighing in on nearly twenty proposed names, they chose “prodigies,” submitted by Canon of Westminster Abbey Albert Basil Wilberforce.
The 1899 “Indignation Meeting” and prodigy manifesto would not be the only attempt by performers to seek more political and social representation. To bolster his performing career, Count Orloff, “The Human Ostrich,” became a booking agent and ran the first international agency specifically for “Refined Freaks and other Strong Attractions” like himself" (The Era 1899). With the medicalization of disability, freak displays were increasingly viewed as distasteful and prurient, which could be seen as a landmark in human rights narratives. But, the performers did not quite see it the same way. For them, the traits that they were born with that made them freaks or prodigies were badges of pride. A particularly haughty group of “born-freaks” even issued a statement of their superiority in 1883. Annoyed by the preponderance of tattooed people and Circassian Beauties clogging up the freak show circuit, the “Freak Union” declined to recognize these dime-a-dozen types of performers as “fit members of their union” asserting that “true freak is born, not made, and cannot be supplied to order in unlimited quantities” (New York Times 1883)
The efforts of the 1899 Indignation Meeting did not go unrecognized in sideshow history, and provided an important precedent for later “Prodigy Strikes.” In 1903, the Sunday Order of the Protective Order of Prodigies arose to protest their working conditions and to demand remuneration again with Charles Tripp, “The Armless Wonder,” as recording secretary. As the New York Times reports, the goal of the great Prodigy Strike was “obtain for prodigies a position of dignity.” Forgoing the art of persuasive speech, this “freak revolt” threatened to destroy billboards and other advertising materials should the “Greatest Show on Earth” not take their requests seriously enough. The eventual outcome was the promise of change, “the consciousness of coming victory.”
If part of liberalism was being visible as a citizen and capable of self-governing, the Indignation Meeting and the Protective Order of Prodigies may be seen as attempts to reclaim freakery on the terms set by the performers themselves—a process judging by World Fair Freaks v. Hodges that is still ongoing. Whether these nineteenth-century episodes in freak activism were earnest attempts or staged contrivances of the freak show we will never know. But one thing we do know is: when it comes to prodigies, don't mess with best.