Sidebar on sideshows

by Blanche Evans

Nearly every circus, carnival and major fair had a sideshow. The sideshow surrounded the main tent, and its purpose was to “turn the tip,” or get people to part with more money besides the admission they had already paid. It also served as a barrier to keep people from jumping over the temporary fences without paying.

The carnival barkers lured the circus and fair-goers with megaphone voices. At night, they used fire eaters who blew great flames from their mouths that could be seen from a distance. By day, snake handlers were used to draw the curious. But the real show was inside the tent, where nature’s oddities were often ordinary people afflicted with inherited, undiagnosed or untreatable skin conditions and physical deformities.

Giants, dwarves, limbless women and elephant-skinned men were called “born freaks,” and as one tome put it. They were considered “the royalty” of the sideshow, ranking above the “made freaks” or the working acts such as fortune tellers and sword swallowers. Sideshows could also two-headed animals, mummies, shrunken heads and other spooky artifacts.

Sideshow performers formed families with their fellows. Many married despite their physical disabilities, had children and were productive members of society. They also tended to settle together out of season and in retirement in Florida and other places.

Many people who had never seen a sideshow before received their first glimpse in the controversial movie Freaks, in 1932. The classic horror film used real sideshow performers as actors. Two of the featured players were Siamese twins named Daisy and Violet Hilton visited Dallas, and Violet was married during the Texas Centennial on the 50-yard-line of the Cotton Bowl on July 18, 1936.

Dallas sideshow history

Many of the most famous sideshow performers came to Dallas during the Texas State Fair, courtesy of showmen such as Ward Hall, owner of the World of Wonders traveling sideshow.

One special act was Louise Capp, an armless woman whose act consisted of painting canvases with a brush held by her toes. Now that’s art!

Other famous performers who visited Dallas were Shelly, the Turtle Girl, Pop-Eye, and Frank Lentini.

Dallas photographer Lynn Lennon captured some terrific sideshow images which now reside in the SMU archives. See:

And before he was the founder of Teradyne, Nick DeWolf captured these images in 1977. See:

Sideshow shut down in the 1980s due to a wave of political correctness. Many who fought hardest to keep them open were the sideshow performers themselves. The last World of Wonders to come to Dallas that featured “freaks” was in 1983.

As Ward Hall, King of the Sideshows, once said, “There are more freaks in front of the stage than on it!”