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Joseph Merrick: The Elephant Man & the History of the Human Sideshow

August 5th 2012 Next month marks the 150th birthday of Joseph Merrick. Arguably the world’s most famous freak, the so-called “Elephant Man” lived in 19th-century England, and was part of human curiosity exhibits.

Not so long ago, people with unusual physical attributes were fair game for gawking, in circuses and sideshows. Arguments both for and against – for employment and opportunities, against exploitation and exposure – were equally hard fought, and still are in modern conversation. Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks brought the performers out into the open and began the conversation in earnest – it was a risky, revolutionary cinematic move because Browning opted to cast real circus freaks in the film’s roles, rather than use make-up, prosthetics or the like.

From Tom Thumb to The Lobster Boy, we’ve compiled a selection of books chronicling the lives of some of the performers in history’s human zoos.

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