As a teratologist, I make my living from the study of congenital abnormalities. Is it, then, hypocritical for me to be against dime museums and traveling freak shows? My problem with these enterprises is not that they exploit their performers but that they promulgate the public’s lack of understanding and sympathy for people with birth defects.
I regularly make my rounds at dime museums and traveling freak shows in order to provide basic physicals for the performers. And in recent years, their living standards have greatly improved. But public opinion of my patients has not.
Recently, a bill was put up before the Pennsylvania Legislature “prohibiting the exhibition of physical deformities, infirmities and maladies as a source of pecuniary gain.” But the Medical Record, a publication that enjoys much esteem in my profession, is against this bill! I quote:
“The desire of ordinary humanity to see the freaks of nature enables many unfortunate people to gain a comfortable livelihood. The fat man, the giant, the pigmy, the lady with a horse’s mane, the girl who sews with her toes, and the ossified man are probably incapable of supporting themselves by any of the ordinary means. Without the dime museum or the traveling show they would lead a dependent and perhaps impoverished existence. As objects of public interest they not only earn a livelihood, but probably experience a certain degree of pleasure in the wonder they excite.”
Can you believe the callousness? This is what I fight against every day of my life.