Tag Archives: circus freaks

Major Ray and Wife, Cabinet Card

Yet another in my collection of circus freaks from the late 19th Century. In this scan of the card I’ve deliberately tweaked the scan of the back of the card to make the imprinting more readable. You’ve got to love the fact that their ages were left blank, to be penciled in, but their height and weight were printed. It makes me very suspicious of all three figures – Victorian-era circuses were known for intentionally over/under-stating data to make their particular freaks seem all the more extreme as a draw to customers. “Barnum’s fat man weighed 325 lbs! Ours weighs 450!” when in reality Barnum’s fat man was 275 and theirs just breaks 280. Ditto for giants – many of the circus giants were described as being somewhere between seven and eight feet, when in fact they were a bit north of 6’6″. It would have been hard for the average Victorian to gauge, as they often were paired on stage with little people, and the average height in 1870 was around five feet six inches, as opposed to five feet 10 today, so someone standing six feet nine would have looked even taller. Tom Thumb’s height bounced around in official descriptions of the time as well, frequently knocking three to six inches off his actual height (at his passing at age 45, he was 3 feet 4 inches tall).

Major Ray and Wife, by Wendt
Major Ray and Wife, by Wendt

Frank Wendt was the successor to Charles Eisenmann, taking over Eisenmann’s studio in 1893 upon his death, and running it in New York City until 1898, when he moved to New Jersey. Wendt is best known for photographing circus freaks, but he also worked with the general theatrical trade and more mainstream portrait customers as well. For more information about Wendt, check out Frank Wendt Photographs: The Wondrous World of Frank Wendt

Anonymous CDV, Anonymous Subject, Little Person, CA. 1865-70

Anonymous CDV of Anonymous Little Man
Anonymous CDV of Anonymous Little Man


Another addition to the collection of 19th century “freaks”. This one is totally anonymous – no label of who the subject is, or blind stamp on the verso from the photographer. But it’s clearly an original image from the overall quality – not a copy made from someone else’s CDV or stereo view, which makes it a little surprising to see. Oftentimes when photographers were stealing images of another photographer to reprint and sell, they would leave the back of the carte blank so if the copyright holder tried to track them down it would be much harder, and provide them with a degree of plausible deniability “I was merely selling these on consignment – I didn’t illegally copy them! And by the way, I don’t know who it was that sold me the copies…I think he said his name was Smith… yeah, that’s the ticket”. The subject looks familiar to me but I’m not sure – I bet he can be identified though. He’s quite handsome, bordering on just unusually short, and very well proportioned, unlike some of the circus freak little people performers of the day.

Little Person, by Eisenmann

Apologies for the long delay in posting. I just needed a bit of a break from blogging. I’ve been on a bit of a collecting hiatus, but this was a good deal that I didn’t want to pass up. It’s a nice CDV of a circus midget, whose identity, while at the moment remains undetermined, I’m sure I can figure out- I think I’ve seen him before, and I’m sure others would know.

Little Person, by Chas. Eisenmann
Little Person, by Chas. Eisenmann

Suzie Reed, one of Barnum’s Little People

Miss Suzie Reed, by Brady
Miss Suzie Reed, by Brady

Here is a CDV of Suzie Reed, another one of Barnum’s Little People. The image is by Brady, even though the backmark just says E. & H.T. Anthony. The image is documented in the Meserve Collection, which was a collection of Brady images assembled by Frederick Hill Meserve that ended up being one of the largest repositories of Brady’s work not held in a museum. Another notable hallmark is the “reaper” clock, which made a regular if infrequent appearance (there are some 60 known images by Brady featuring the clock, but more may exist in the negatives as the clock may have been cropped out of the final prints). There’s a great article about the clock online – Bob Frishman’s Story of the Brady ‘Reaper’ Clock.

A Day at the Circus!

Here are some more of my circus freaks/performers collection. We’re going to start our tour of the circus in the sideshow, where P.T. Barnum was a busy man – he collected strange people from all over the world, and when he couldn’t find them from afar, he invented foreign origins for them!

Waino and Plutano(r), the Wild Men of Borneo, were actually brothers born in Ohio with physical and mental developmental challenges. As you can see in the photo, even in adulthood, they were pygmy sized. They did however possess considerable strength for their size, and were known to lift up to 300 pounds. Their real names were Hiram and Barney Davis (no relation!). They were a huge success in Barnum’s circus and over a 25 year career in show business spanning from 1880 to 1905, they earned $200,000, a gigantic sum in that day and age.

Waino and Plutano, The Wild Men of Borneo, by Eisenmann
Waino and Plutano, The Wild Men of Borneo, by Eisenmann

As you can see, this was yet another carte by Chas. Eisenmann, who specialized in photographing theater people and performers. I love the Victorian era advertising slogans – “Portraits taken by Instantaneous Process – Extra Inducements to the Theatrical Profession” on this carte, and on another one I have by him, it shows a photographer striding the globe, with “The Popular Photographer” inscribed below. It’s too bad the carte-de-visite tradition died out; there’s nothing quite like it today in terms of marketing and character.

Next up, also in the sideshow, is the fat lady. Why this particular display was so popular, I’ll never quite understand. I don’t think the fat ladies sang or had any particular performing talent – they were just fat. I think it would have to have been one of the most humiliating experiences in the sideshow, to be looked at that way. At least in the other circus freak cases like the human skeleton or the midgets, they had little or no other viable employment options.

This image is an E&H.T. Anthony publication, with no credit given as to the photographer. The image has the Anthony blind stamps in the corners, and what appears in the scan to even be a fingerprint, possibly of the person who printed and mounted it. It is a breathtakingly beautiful carte in person, and I would suspect that it is probably a Brady carte, given that Anthony owned the Brady negatives for many years, and served as Brady’s publisher/distributor. The lady appears to be Madame Sherwood, a famous fat lady in Barnum’s circus. She also bears a vague resemblance to another fat lady I have, this one from the Brady studio in Washington DC. I don’t think the Brady image is the same woman, but it’s possible.

Madam Sherwood, on an E&H.T. Anthony CDV
Madam Sherwood, on an E&H.T. Anthony CDV

The Brady image:

Circus Fat Lady by Mathew Brady, Washington DC
Fat Lady, Matthew Brady Studio, Washington, DC

Moving under the big top, we have the acrobats! Here is a trio of boy tumblers/high-wire walkers/trapeeze artists. They look very much like the two I have in another cdv, which I’ll post again here for ease of comparison. If they are the same brothers, then the third one’s name is a mystery to me – the first pair appears to be the O’Brien brothers, but in my research, they were only ever a duo, and their father died fairly young as a result of injuries sustained in a circus accident.

Trio of Boy Acrobats, by Drew & Maxwell
Trio of Boy Acrobats, by Drew & Maxwell - possibly the O'Briens?
Circus Siblings, Gurney & Son, New York
Circus Siblings, Gurney & Son, New York

More from the Family Circus (make that circus family)

I’ve been fascinated by the Tom Thumb “Fairy Wedding” photos since I found the first one. Now that I’ve discovered that there were multiple poses sold, I’m building a collection of them, trying to see if I can find them all. So far, I have four Brady images from the wedding, an unsigned image of Commodore Nutt and what appears to be a regular girl child without back-stamp, and another Brady image of Tom Thumb, his wife, Commodore Nutt and what I’m guessing is a circus giant (he appears to be twice the size of Charles Stratton – Tom Thumb – who was 3 feet 4 inches tall at his death, making the giant next to him in the neighborhood of 7 feet tall).

Here are the new ones:

Lavinia Warren Stratton, Mrs. Tom Thumb
Lavinia Warren Stratton, Mrs. Tom Thumb
Bride & Groom, The Fairy Wedding
Bride & Groom, The Fairy Wedding

Recent arrival to the collection

Nellie Keeler- by Bogardus

The scan does not do the original justice. An amazingly beautifully preserved CDV of a Barnum performer. She was originally from Kokomo, Indiana. Hired in 1879 at age 11, she weighed 28 lbs. The photo is then most likely also from that year or within a year or two after that date.


For more information, check out quasi-modo.net