Try to imagine for a second that you lived in 1865. There’s no internet. You get a local paper, maybe, depending on where you live. Your news comes by way of mouth and gossip otherwise, and then it’s mostly about local happenings because your world is only as far as you can walk. If you’re lucky, it’s as far as you can afford to ride in a carriage.Your news of big cities is practically build out of legends and fables, and if you live in a big city your news of the other big cities is maybe a little more rich, but even still, fairly confined.
The people you know as a kid are probably the same people you’ll know as an adult.
So news comes that a carnival is setting up shop outside of town. Not only is this a break from the humdrum of every day, but it’s a chance to hear news of all the places the carnival has been. You get to taste food you’ve never had before and play games you didn’t know existed.
And, you get to see things that are so impossible to believe they make Frankenstein seem kind of mundane.
It’s not like in modern times you walk into a coffee shop and there’s a pair of conjoined twins working behind the counter, or four legged woman in the grocery store, but even if we did see them, our reaction would be “whoa, gotta Tweet this,” not – that’s impossible, miraculous, fantastical. And then we’ll go straight home and Google the disease. Because we can.
But in 1865, you couldn’t and anyway, they probably didn’t even know there was a disease associated with the deformity/oddity. All you knew was that standing before you were two pretty young girls joined at the hip, arguing back and forth. Or that the woman on stage had the face of an ape and covered head to toe in hair.
It’s the kind of thing that would blow your mind.
And I think these oddities, these sideshows, had a kind of power over the world. They brought the fantastical to the masses, taught them to set their imaginations on fire. There’s a lot of debate about whether it was wrong to put them on display for entertainment of the masses, while the other side says it gave them a way to make honest money. That’s not the debate I’m here to have today. All I know is, even as an adult with access to Google on her phone and computer at all times of the day, I still believe in the fantastical when I read about the sideshows of the past. There’s something about them that still takes me to a place where I can smell popcorn and grass and hear the hum of excitement from a crowd who want to believe.
I’ve been doing some research lately on sideshows. Freak shows. Human oddities. Not deep research, because I know that once I start down that path I can guarantee my next project will be set in a traveling carnival. My interest right now is fairly shallow so doesn’t require a deep dive. In a discussion with my husband about the superhero story, he drew an interesting parallel between my supers in hiding and freak shows leading up to World War II when the medical community started understanding the underlying diseases that created the carnival oddities, sometimes offering cures, and when not, causing mild hysteria that a carnival patron might “catch” the disease. That, combined with a growing sentiment that viewing these freaks for entertainment was low brow and unacceptable to the civilized society, left an audience turning on the sideshow freaks and the carnivals they traveled with. That’s not exactly what happened in my book, but we started to discover some real similarities that let me peel back the social layers surrounding my ostracized heroes.
I’m still working, but I thought I might share some of the things I find along the way. Because if you love history, if you love carnivals, and if you find fantasy and wonder within the striped tents and the mythologies they worked across the country, well, maybe you’ll enjoy what I find, too.
Lazarus and Johannes Baptista Colloredo
Lazarus was born with a parasitic twin protruding from his abdomen. The twin had one thigh, hands, a fully formed head with hair, and, as if this wasn’t rare enough alone, the twin, named Johannes, was documented as having some responses to stimuli separate from Lazarus, though he could not speak and did not open his eyes.
Lazarus took his show on the road early in his life and even performed for Charles I.
Lazarus was said to be quite handsome, despite his parasite, and eventually married and fathered children. (I would like someone to write a book about his wife because wow she must have been interesting!)
Their date of death is completely undocumented.
I’m afraid my resources are pretty lame for this information. There’s just not a lot of info out there about these two, but I’m totally won over by the idea of a handsome, charming man keeping this bizarre secret beneath his cloak. Imagine how his first date with his future wife went! Like, “Hey baby, what’s your favorite food? Your idea of a perfect date? Wanna see what I’ve got hidden in my cloak?”
One of my favorite sites about Lazarus and Johannes is the Royal College of Physicians who did this interesting exercise in re-framing disabilities. Several of the participants brought up curious questions about how the brothers got dressed and whether this maybe implied Lazarus either worked for someone or at the very least, worked with someone. Their elaborate clothing and intense travel schedules would suggest they either had a patron or did very, very well earning money for themselves. There are even a couple of poems on the site written about them.
Wikipedia (I’m so ashamed.)