There is a primordial dread that kicks in when you face fire. Yet here I was — the warmth of the flames on my cheeks, the taste of gasoline filling my mouth — gripping a blazing torch in my hand. It was a Monday morning in Coney Island, and nerves or not, it was my turn to swallow the flames.
For four days in August, eight classmates and I gathered to learn the secrets of the sideshow. We’d all been drawn there for different reasons, but were all united by a desire to master the fringe art form that’s been mostly pushed to the margins of live entertainment by changing social mores and technological advancements. At the school, which is hosted by Sideshow by the Seashores on the southernmost tip of Brooklyn, we’d learn to swallow swords, hammer nails into our faces, walk on broken glass, recline on a bed of nails, survive the blade box, get zapped in the electric chair, stick our hands into animal traps, and learn the ins and outs of caring for a Burmese python. For the princely sum of $1,500, my classmates and I spent three days learning from the sideshow masters, followed by a student showcase on the last day.
My reason for being there was more personal. I am what’s known in sideshow parlance as a “natural born” — a person born with a physical abnormality on my left hand that, in the heyday of sideshows, might have made me a star. So I had a little more skin in the game than any of my classmates. Literally.
People with disabilities have historically played a large role in the sideshow, but that legacy remains complex and evolving. It has taken major shifts in society’s perceptions to take us from the controversial “freak shows” of the 19th and early 20th century to the current generation of disabled performers, many of whom take their place onstage as an empowering personal decision as well as a tribute to those who came before.
We learned how to swallow fire on day one. There’s a very specific way to do it (remember, never breathe in) and it takes a lot of practice to master, but I agreed not to give away any secrets. As I clutched the flaming torch, our instructors watched intently from a foot or two away. I could feel the ghosts of sideshow freaks past watching, too. Punking out now was not an option.
As every cell in my body screamed, I stuck out my tongue, drew the fire into my mouth, and closed my lips around the torch in one measured motion.
Once you step foot into that colorful, rickety old building that houses the sideshow school on the corner of 12th and Surf Avenue, there’s no telling what you’ll encounter.
The building itself has been standing since 1917 and is designated as a New York City landmark. Sideshows by the Seashore, which has hosted famous acts such as Insectivora “The World’s Most Partially Illustrated Woman,” the Lizardman, and Serpentina the snake charmer, was launched in 1985, five years after the nonprofit Coney Island USA was founded. It’s now the only permanently housed sideshow in the country, the last of a dying breed. The school was created in 2001 and its curriculum, taught biannually to a maximum of 10 students per semester, has not changed since its early days.
Adam Realman, who took over the school in 2012, told me that those who enroll tend to be “thrill-seekers,” sideshow history buffs, novice performers, or seasoned sideshow folk looking to punch up their acts. My class included a French amateur magician, a burlesque performer from Kalamazoo, a clown from outside Philly, a retired cardiologist, a magician from Chicago, an amateur fire-eater from Colorado, and a married couple from outside Worcester. But never before, Realman told me, had a “natural born” who was not already a part of the Coney cast enrolled in his course.
A few days after graduation, once my fire-eating burns had healed, I called Realman to talk about the history of disabled performers and the sideshow. There are three traditional categories of sideshow performers, he said, explaining their place in the hierarchy. First, there are the working acts, such as fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, glass-walkers, and everything in between. These performers were considered the lowest rung because, as Realman explained, “anybody can do that!” The next level up are the self-made or “self-inflicted” performers, people who’d made the conscious decision to modify their bodies in various ways, like the famous “tattooed ladies,” Captain Costentenus the Illustrated Man, and the modern-day Lizard Man, with his full-body green scale tattoos and sharpened teeth.
Finally, at the top of the ladder are the “natural borns,” who made up acts such as early 1900s British conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and Johnny “The Half Man” Eck, whose fame followed the sisters’ by a few years. “In a traditional sideshow, the natural borns were considered the royalty ... the creme de la creme of the sideshow; they were people who were born different,” Realman explained. “These were the people that were the highest-paid performers, because you can’t manufacture this.”
So, how do I qualify? I am a bona fide, one-of-a-kind, can’t-believe-your-eyes “Lobster Girl.” I was born with a rare congenital disorder called ectrodactyly. One of my hands is smaller than the other and has only three knobbly fingers, two of which were fused together when I was born and were surgically separated, creating a claw-like effect. This disorder is quite rare (one out of every 90,000 babies hits this particular lottery) and there are a number of ways it manifests; though only one of my hands is affected, others may have two or even all four limbs affected.
Ectrodactyly, or ectro, was once called a birth defect and is now known as a “medical abnormality,” but I’ve always been partial to its more colloquial term: lobster claw syndrome. Back in the earlier days of the sideshow, I would’ve just been called a freak. Further back into antiquity, I would’ve been called a monster.
Growing up in an isolated rural community, I was one of the only kids in my town who was “different” in a way that confused and unnerved people. My school was very small and tight-knit, so at least the teasing tapered off by the time I hit first grade. As I got older, I’d occasionally catch someone staring. But, aside from always hiding them in photos, my hands became largely a nonissue. Still, the thought of actually being proud of being born different was completely alien until I became interested in the sideshow.
Ectro has a deep history within the sideshow community, specifically in the freak show.
One of the most infamous sideshow performers of all time, Grady Stiles, was born with ectrodactyly on both hands and both feet and was billed as the Lobster Boy. By all accounts, Stiles wasn’t exactly an ideal role model — he was an abusive alcoholic who murdered his daughter’s fiance and was eventually killed by a fellow sideshow performer. But still, after I came across his story in my mid-20s, reading about him and seeing his photos was a balm, simply because I’d never seen anyone like me before.
Since then, I’ve come across a few other people with ectro and seen the condition hamfistedly represented in American Horror Story: Freak Show. Still, there aren’t too many other lobster girls scuttling around out there in the world, and it gets a little lonely being one in 90,000 multiplied however many times.
In an effort to understand myself and my place in the world, I’ve devoured endless books about the sideshow, human oddities, human zoos, and the myriad ways that our society has turned disability and physical anomalies into entertainment.
During the 19th century, sideshows offered one of the few opportunities for people with disabilities and other physical abnormalities to find employment and avoid institutionalization. Some sideshow performers made handsome livings and carved out their own unique niches in show business, like Annie Jones, a 19th century superstar “bearded lady” who used her fame to advocate against the word “freaks”; or Millie and Christine McKoy, conjoined twins who were born into slavery but, following Emancipation, enjoyed a globe-trotting career as “The Two-Headed Nightingale.”
The immensely talented little person General Tom Thumb was instrumental in launching the career of Ringling Bros founder and legendary showman P.T. Barnum. Thumb — born Charles Stratton — also became a millionaire, toured Europe, was invited to Abraham Lincoln’s White House, and enjoyed an audience with the Queen of England. Charging an astronomical fee of $250 per hour for appearances, Thumb saved Barnum from bankruptcy twice.
But others suffered. In the sad case of Julia Pastrana, known as the “Ape Woman,” mistreatment followed her from life into death. So too with Sarah Baartman, dubbed the “Hottentot Venus,” and other performers of color who were put on display and subject to racist and colonialist attitudes. Many natural borns were skilled performers in their own right, yet they were hauled up onstage to be gawked at or, in an extra level of dehumanization, locked in cages.
These horror stories chilled me. But there was still an aspect of the sideshow that I was drawn to: the idea that being born different had, at least in this context, been valued and celebrated by many. The negative messages I’d internalized since I was small quieted and I became more open and unapologetic about my claws. So what if I was different? Why was that a bad thing?
Like me, 32-year-old Xander Lovecraft, who is a person with dwarfism, falls into the “natural born” category. Lovecraft got his start in the sideshow in 2011 and he is currently on his fifth season at Coney Island as a master of ceremonies, balloon-swallower, and a crackerjack performer of other assorted acts. “I believe that we owe it to our past freaks to evolve to the point where our image isn’t the only attraction,” he said. “We want to bring people in with how we look, then surprise them with an act they wouldn’t expect.”
The complicated place sideshows hold in disability history filters all the way down to the usage of the word “freak.” For his part, Lovecraft says he’s “a little militant” about using it, because “that word belongs to the natural borns of the world; [no one else] has the right to call yourself the word we’ve had hurled at us for ages. Me, personally? I’m a proud freak.”
In a recent interview, Sarah Birdgirl, who performs as Koo Koo the Bird Girl in her touring one-woman show, said that the disability rights movement had “killed the freak show.” It was a jarring statement, one that Sarah later explained was taken out of context. A TedX speaker and scholar of freak show and sideshow history who has spoken at the United Nations, the performance artist places the contributions of the disability rights movement alongside — not in opposition to — the freak show’s complicated past.
“I advocate that [the freak show] was the best and safest place for performers with disabilities to be at the time. At least they could marry, have children, and live normal lives instead of being locked up in the asylums,” she told me when I reached out for clarity on her statement. “The disability rights movement definitely put us forward as valuable human beings, but I think that it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, saying that the freak show was bad; they can walk alongside each other.”
Maria Town, the president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, or AAPD, had a slightly different perspective. “Sideshows set the stage for modern conceptions of disability — identifying people with disabilities as objects of scorn and pity, as inherently ‘other’ from mainstream society,” she told me. “The disability stereotypes that sideshows perpetuated were what the disability rights movement sought to resist. However, even though sideshows were exploitive, they were spaces where people with disabilities, like famed [conjoined] performers Chang and Eng, began to assert their worth and curate how individuals looked at them.
“As people with disabilities work to reclaim sideshows and identities like ‘freak,’ modern sideshows become important sites for the development and proliferation of disability culture,” she added.
Sword-swallowing lessons began on our last day, with all nine of us gathered around a trash can, set out in case someone vomited (someone did). The sound of gagging filled the air as we each tried to slide a carefully bent wire hanger down our throats. Realman circulated, doling out advice and encouragement. There’s a reason that sword-swallowing remains one of the sideshow’s greatest marvels: it’s one of the hardest acts to master.
Within the tightly knit sideshow community, there’s something of a generational divide between new sideshow students like us, current performers, and old-school sideshow lifers. The idea that anyone can now access these secrets simply by paying a fee and showing up offends more traditional sensibilities.
But Realman argues there’s a surefire way to ensure that the next generation of performers are learning these acts in a safe, controlled environment and being taught by the best. It’s also a way to guarantee that there will even be a next generation. “The original idea behind the school was that this is a dying art form and we need performers,” Realman explains. “So if we teach people how to do this, we’ll have access to them and we’ll never have a dead spot in the cast.”
After three days of intense instruction (and a few minor injuries, including torch burns and a slashed foot), it was time for our class to move on. Our final exam involved one last death-defying feat, followed by the presentation of our “diplomas”: the chunks of concrete that had been smashed on our stomachs during our turns on the bed of nails. With a wide grin, he stood on the stage and bestowed upon us one of the sideshow’s most sacred mantras: “Gooble gobble, one of us! We accept you! One of us!” For an errant lobster girl in search of acceptance — someone who’s been called a freak all her life — it felt like finally coming home.
In what’s left of the sideshow tradition these days, boundaries between natural borns, self-made, and working acts have largely evaporated. We’ve got a long way to go, but the disability community has gained significant rights and society is inching toward acceptance of various physical differences.
But for Lovecraft, keeping the sideshow’s reverence toward natural borns alive is important. “It wasn’t many years ago where we still weren’t welcome or allowed in regular society,” he said. “It’s definitely nice to keep the ‘royalty’ tag going [and] to tell the uninitiated just how important the freak performers were to Coney Island. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we are. We’re the performers that we are today because of those who came before us.”
I never wanted to be the prom queen and, as a rule, reject all forms of hierarchy, but there is something inherently appealing about the way the sideshow privileges those who may still feel ostracized by the mainstream and about how the community’s expectations of people like me has shifted. I’ve always hated the thought of being “special” because it made me feel pitiful, but “royalty” has a much more satisfying ring to it. Walking into the first day of sideshow school, raising my hand, and claiming my status as a “natural born” was an indescribable feeling. I’d finally found the one place on earth where having only eight fingers was a plus. I’m even thinking about pursuing sideshow performance under the name Greta the Lobster Girl, in a tribute to Grady Stiles.
And whether I was swallowing fire, sticking my hand in an animal trap, or walking on broken glass, one thing stuck out. It might be scary, it’ll probably hurt, it may leave a mark, but the most important thing is believing that no matter what the rest of the world wants you to think — and as long as the flesh is willing — yes, you can nail this.
That’s the biggest sideshow secret of all.
Kim Kelly is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She is the labor columnist for Teen Vogue and a columnist at the New Republic, and her writing on politics and culture have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Baffler, the Pacific Standard, and many others.
Jordan Tiberio is a photographic artist based in New York City.