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Disease and deformity as spectacle and curiosity

'Nightingale Music', sheet music cover showing Chrissie and Millie McKoy, London, England, 1857-1887

'Nightingale Music', sheet music cover showing Chrissie and Millie McKoy, London, England, 1857-1887

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Over time, medicine has played a role in determining what is considered ‘normal’. Since the ancient world, individuals whose bodies fell outside a culture’s idea of normality were frequently viewed with fascination, awe or fear. Teratology, or the study of ‘monstrosities’, saw people and animals whose bodies were considered unusual interpreted in spiritual or supernatural terms. Conjoined twins, the excessively short or tall, individuals whose gender was not clear; all were seen as symbols of the extremes of natural creation.

Viewing people with physical differences

In the 1500s the French surgeon Ambroise Paré classified and organised the ‘monstrous’ into varying categories of abnormality. This was part of a broader trend towards taxonomies, and resulted in individuals with physical differences beginning to be viewed in more medical terms. Medical interest in such bodies saw people with such differences studied, examined and sometimes displayed. Most commonly this took the form of the preservation and display of abnormal anatomies and organs in a museum or clinical setting. However, some individuals were also displayed during their lifetime.

Circuses and travelling shows

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By the 1800s individuals known as ‘freaks’ were a standard part of the circuses and travelling shows which were increasingly popular across Europe and the USA. Tattooed men, bearded ladies, contortionists and in fact anyone whose appearance appeared ‘different’ were all commonly featured. Their display was often contextualised as scientific or medical, as well as offering entertainment.

The lives of people in travelling shows

The shows were big business, and individuals with unusual bodies were often exploited. European circuses and even zoos featured indigenous people from around the world as part of their displays, often against their will. With limited options for employment for those considered different, other people were forced by circumstances to display themselves. However, for some, life as a ‘freak’ or curiosity could also lead to empowerment. Life in a circus among others whose bodies were considered different could enable individuals to find a sense of community.

For others having unusual bodies meant financial independence and even celebrity. For instance, Chrissie Millie McKoy were enslaved African-American conjoined twins who became famous singers and performers. They chose to remain with their previous owners even after they were freed by the Emancipation Act of 1863. While undoubtedly exploited, the twins also obtained levels of education and financial security unusual for women at that time.

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Chang Eng Bunker, the original ‘Siamese’ twins, likewise became wealthy through the display of their bodies. For others, such as Charles Byrne and Joseph Merrick, displaying themselves was a last resort, which they found deeply distressing.

People on display today

The display of people with physical differences for entertainment or curiosity became less popular in the 1900s, and the idea of such displays is now regarded with horror by many. However, some would argue that nothing has changed. While conjoined twins are no longer displayed in travelling shows, their lives are often broadcast in medical documentaries. These have an emphasis on medical interventions and particularly cosmetic surgery to ‘normalise’ their bodies and lives. Other television shows use the language of medicine and science to justify their interest in documenting the lives of those considered different.

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Bibliography

H Deutsch and F Nussbaum (eds), ‘Defects’: Engendering the Modern Body (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan press, 2000)

J Van Dijk, The Transparent Body: A Cultural Analysis of Medical Imaging (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2005)

W Ernst (ed.), Histories of the Normal and the Abnormal: Social and Cultural Histories of Norms and Normativity (London and New York: Routledge, 2006)

E O'Connor, Raw Material: Producing Pathology in Victorian Culture (Durham NC and London: Duke University Press 2000)

R G Thompson (ed.), Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York and London: New York University press, 1996)

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