Coney Island, “Freak Shows” (1940s)
In late July 2010, I drove to the state fair in Harrington, Delaware, for a profile I’d been assigned to write about a country singer. I got to the grounds early — hours before the interview — because I wanted time to look around. I’d never been to a state fair before.
The first thing that caught my attention was an enclosure painted over with garish slogans advertising the world’s smallest horse. I paid a dollar to the leathery man in wraparound shades sitting out front and stepped inside. In the corner of a hay-lined pit maybe ten feet below the viewing area was, indeed, a very small horse. The effect was less than thrilling.
A similar structure across the way advertised the world’s biggest snake. Inside, coiled in a rectangular metal box with a glass top, was a large snake. I overheard a man telling his daughter that it was a reticulated Burmese python. I’d guess the reptile was 20 feet long — impressive, certainly more so than the horse, but I’d seen bigger snakes at the zoo.
The third “freak show” attraction promised “Tiny Tina, World’s Smallest Woman.” This time I gave my dollar to a heavyset black man smoking a cigarette. I thought maybe I’d see a wax statue or a mannequin. It never occurred to me that I’d see a real person.
Tiny Tina was sitting in the middle of a box open on one side. More out of awkwardness than anything else, I greeted her with a “Hey.” She didn’t say anything. She just looked back at me with vacant, glassy eyes. I put a dollar in her tip jar and left. I felt as if I’d just paid to shit on my soul.
KobTV4, “Fair Allows Exhibit Of 29-inch Woman” (Albuquerque, 2009)
The questions implicit in this clip are familiar ones. Should society continue to condone freak shows? As long as “freaks” are prepared to exhibit themselves and people are willing to pay to gaze upon them, what argument can be made against them? The answers remain unclear.
Self-actualization and freedom of expression are, of course, all well and good. But deformities inspire as much horror as curiosity, and it doesn’t take much for curiosity to tip over into something cruel.
In 1903, Thomas Edison filmed the death by electrocution of Topsy the elephant at the Coney Island amusement park. Topsy had killed three men, including one who had fed her a lit cigarette. 1500 people gathered to watch Topsy’s execution.
Near the end of my Delaware day, I was talking with a guy who did sound for one of the bands that was playing that night. I mentioned Tina. He told me that she travels from state fair to state fair, plying her trade. As the saying sort of goes, Tina is not an animal, she’s a human being. Which means she’s gotta make a living.
Before I left the fair, I bought a giant strawberry ice cream cone and walked over to the concert area where Lynyrd Skynyrd — or what’s left of it — was playing “Free Bird.” They always play that one. It’s what the people pay to see.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Free Bird: MN State Fair” (2009)
– David Marchese