Dead Man’s Circus – Historical Notes

Originally I had two very similar ideas for two different chapters of Deadlands, and in the end I merged it into one. The other was a snake oil salesman tale, playing off the real usage of mummies in medicine in the 17th century, and I think if I could go back I’d focus more on that than the carnival of terror aspect I went with. The original idea, and the one I ultimately went with, followed more the urban legends of carnivals or houses of horrors that accidentally (or intentionally) show real dead bodies. I merged the idea of the mummy and the dead person coming back for revenge and ended up with the Mummied Man, who probably more closely resembles the monster from Stranger Things over the Mummy.

I tried to research carnivals and fairs in this time period, and this is where I struggled. I didn’t want to do a traditional sideshow. I didn’t want to write on conjoined twins and werewolf boys, though it might’ve fit in with the story. What I wanted to focus on was gaffs, tricked exhibits, the most famous of which is P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid (Barnum will come up a lot). These are done by taking different parts of different animals and crafting them together. Gaffs still exist in oddity shops and have a thriving industry online. A number of the ones featured in the Silverton Circus were mimicked from what I found on eBay. I wanted to touch on some of the tricks and performances we think of when we think of early circuses or traveling fairs. I give a shout out to pickled punks as well, which are merely preserved fetuses in a jar. Circuses had juggling acts, pantomimes by clowns, trapeze acts, and stages to present exotic animals. A comprehensive look at Victorian era circuses can be found here.

P.T. Barnum started his circus business in 1835, where he purchased and presented a blind slave woman named Joice Heth, sold as “George Washington’s nursemaid” supposedly lived to the age of 160. She was only eighty and died the next year, and Barnum charged fifty cents a ticket for her autopsy. The tradition of buying slaves and presenting them as exhibits isn’t without precedent. Human zoos were a very real thing and apparently have not died out completely, which is a gruesome thought in its own right. In 1836, Barnum opened up a museum of oddities, including living people such as albinos, giants, magicians, and varying other people. His first major and most famous hoax is the Feejee Mermaid. The mermaid had a history already of appearing in oddities museums, previously being mostly dugongs, and in Japan they sold a similar item. He also took a distant cousin, who stopped growing around six months old and remained 25 inches tall. He lied about his age (he was stated to be eleven, when he was actually five), groomed him to stand and impersonate political figures, and named him General Tom Thumb. More famous people he exhibited was Fedor Jeftichew “The Dog Faced Boy” and Captain Costentenus “The Tattooed Man”. By the time the 1890s rolled around, however, science had given explanations for many of these conditions, and people stopped finding joy in making light of such things.

For more information Barnum and freakshows in general, I suggest these links.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a history of gaffs in particular. People clearly enjoy making them, for all the websites I’ve found to buy them at, and they are still purchased. These curiosities did not seem to fool anyone in their time, but like haunted houses and other graphic displays, we are in it for the thrill. Since they are fake, it’s doubtful any were made of real humans. If you’re more interested in learning about the times we ate people to cure our ills, which I won’t go into much because it’s more of a Renaissance thing than an old west thing, I’d recommend these podcasts, which discuss it in detail.

Side note: I am trying to use my writing muscles more and more, and the best thing I’ve found for that is having a story I am constantly updating. I started a writing journal for other ideas I’ve been working on to help me in my goals. Please visit if you want more stories from me.

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