Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Mitchell, Michael (Ed.). Monsters: Human Freaks in America's Gilded Age. Toronto: ECW Press, 2002. I-55022-532-4, $19.95

Jay, Ricky. Extraordinary Exhibitions. New York: The Quantuck Lane Press, 2005. 1-593-72012-2, $49.50

Reviewed by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Emory University

Ricky Jay's Extraordinary Exhibitions and Michael Mitchell's Monsters each reveal a way of seeing disability that has disappeared from our modern era. What both books bring to disability studies is a chapter in the lost history of people with disabilities. These books chronicle the labor history of disabled people during the emergence of what we now call the entertainment industry. They capture a lost understanding of disability, one that we should attempt to recuperate more than judge. Extraordinary Exhibitions is a collection of the broadside show bills owned by Ricky Jay, who has written extensively on unusual performers and slight-of-hand culture. Monsters is a collection of the photographs of Charles Eisenmann, who ran a portrait studio in New York's Bowery between the years of 1879 and 1893. Both Mitchell and Jay are collectors of the material culture of the entertainment world. Mitchell, a photographer, emphasizes technique, composition, and early photographic history. Jay, a magician, appreciates freak culture because of its extravagance.

Both books document a human response that our current historical moment neither recognizes nor values very much. That human response is wonder. Wonder, like other emotions, has a distinct history. It enters the English language very early. The OED finds the first use of wonder in Beowulf in 840, defining it as that which evokes astonishment. Wonder is originally a religious impulse. It was central to a pre-modern world view informed by enchantment, superstition, or mystery. In our time, rationality has replaced wonder. Rationality seeks to master; wonder seeks to inflame. One prostrates oneself before wonder, not gloats with triumph. Religious wonder focuses on the astonishing power of gods, whereas secular wonder shifts to amazement about the natural world. In a modernizing era, natural wonders were god given but were themselves sources of immense surprise and awe. Perhaps we still find a remnant of wonder in our contemporary "green" understanding of nature.

Wonder elicits amazement by breaking the rules of the ordinary. It traffics in the marvelous, the surprising, the miraculous, the prodigious, the awful, the monstrous, the exceptional, and the extraordinary. Translated into human terms, disability is wondrous. The scale violations found in giants and midgets, fat people and human skeletons inspire wonder. The baroque shapes of armless calligraphers and legless bicyclists induce wonder. Hybrid figures such as bearded ladies, people with simultaneous breasts and penises, or the extravagantly hirsute provoke wonder. Wonder, when sought out, is deemed curiosity, which has had a mixed reception in Western history. On the one hand, curiosity has been imagined as overreaching or hubris, and, on the other hand, as the noblest of human ventures.

The visual vocabulary of wonder dominates both Mitchell's and Jay's books. All the images depend upon extravagance and ornamentation. Extraordinary Exhibitions presents textual narratives of "unusual" entertainers, to use Ricky Jay's term, many of whom are people with disabilities. The broadsides collected in this book range from the year 1618 to 1898. These bills were ephemera, cheap and crudely made, yet compelling in their intricacy and urgency. None include photographs. Many are illustrated, but images are subordinate to textual description. Words are crammed onto every single bill Jay has collected. These are material narratives of hyperbole, wonder, extravagance, amazement, and enchantment. We read of Miss Beffin, a miniature painter who was born without hands and arms, the Hottentot Venus, the pig faced lady from 1815, Tom Thumb, living skeletons, giants, Chang and Eng the original "Siamese" twins, as well as the conjoined twins and supposed two-headed girl, Millie-Christine. Jay's broadsides also tell the story of nondisabled curiosities, of famous African hermaphrodites, mermaids, stone eaters, elephants, ventriloquists, a singing mouse, a sapient pig, strong men, a fugitive slave, jugglers, and finally Joice Heth, George Washington's supposedly 161-year-old nurse.

Even though this is the vocabulary of the now discredited freak show, it is often the language of admiration. Ironically, such descriptions are similar to the way many people with disabilities seek to be understood today. Jay's bills credit their subjects because of their accomplishments. They are very good at what they do. For instance, a broadside from 1620 regales an armless dulcimer player. A 1728 broadside names Matthew Buchinger as "the greatest German living." The legless and handless Buchinger was an expert calligrapher, bowler, swordsman, dancer, and musician. Gushy it may be, but patronizing it is not.

Although both books document the material culture of early entertainment, Extraordinary Exhibitions is primarily about narrative, whereas Monsters is predominantly about visual imagery. In the nineteenth century, Eisenmann used the relatively new technology of photography to make portraits of people with disabilities and other freaks for commercial use. Whether his subjects came to Eisenmann of their own free will or whether they were brought there by their managers is unclear, probably both. In his introduction and explications of these pictures, Mitchell highlights this commercial enterprise, emphasizing that the pictures were designed to sell the image of the freak to a curious public. The book's excellent historical overview makes clear that these photographs were produced during the height of urbanization and when advertising was emerging in the United States. This linkage of photography, advertising, and urbanization conveys how the entertainment industry developed in new city spaces by capitalizing on the advent of leisure time spent in unrelated, often anonymous groups. Shorn from the constancy of agrarian subsistence and the isolation of small communities and families, urban workers deliberately sought stimulation and engagement through wonder and amazement at museums or street fairs. Mitchell's analysis centers on the theatrical conventions these images employ. He details the choreography of the photographs, the careful placement of subject, props, sets, backdrops, costuming, and investigates the photographic process that produced these images. The result is a presentation of what academics call the performance of disability.

Almost all the photographs collected in Monsters are of people we would today consider disabled. We see Jo Jo the lion-faced boy, Millie-Christine, the armless wonder Charles Tripp doing calligraphy with his toes, bearded ladies who are also snake charmers, and Chauncy Morlan, a fat boy who posed for Eisenmann in the 1880's. We also witness freak figures such as Fanny Mills the Ohio bigfoot girl, Myrtle Corbin the four-legged girl who had children with each of her two vaginas, a variety of piebald black boys, and what Mitchell calls "professional savages." Some have fantastic stage names like Maximo and Bartola the Aztecs, while others reach for realism under ordinary names, like Sophia Schultz, who is simply called a dwarf fat lady, or Felix Wherle, the elastic skin man. Mitchell provides biographical information about each subject, details about their exhibition, and in most every case, the diagnostic category of their disability as well. Only in these diagnoses does Mitchell veer from the older discourse of wonder to the newer discourse of the medical. This seems a gesture toward a modern audience who has been trained not to experience wonder, but to instead manifest curiosity in the form of the question, "What's wrong with you?" Certainly this medicalized understanding would not have been implicit in these photographs in the 19th century. Ricky Jay's broadsides, even the ones that were situated in the same historical period as Eisenmann's photographs, used no medicalized language at all.

Both Mitchell and Jay display a reverence for the material they present in these books. These are collections that are or were owned by each man. They are objects from worlds that both men participate in and admire, the world of spectacle and entertainment. Both Jay and Mitchell convey a deep appreciation for disabled people as performers. The portraits in Monsters are poignant and profoundly human. The narratives in Extraordinary Exhibitions are respectful if ridiculous. There is not a shred of identity politics in either book; the word "disability" appears nowhere. For disability studies, this absence is both the strength and the weakness of these books. What disability studies would ask of Jay's and Mitchell's books is to confront the question of exploitation, the question of subjugation.

My own work has tried to understand the position of the disabled person to determine whether this was dignified labor for people with disabilities or the worst kind of exploitation and prejudicial treatment. We cannot reliably know whether the audiences or consumers of these images experienced reverence, admiration, disgust, titillation, or ennui when they gazed upon bodies like these, nor can we know how these entertainers imagined themselves. We can read their statements elsewhere; we can look at their faces; we can try to imagine how they went about their days. But every representation of these performers, whether it is textual or visual, is intensely mediated. Just as we can never reliably access the interiors of Elvis, Marilyn, Madonna, or Kurt Cobain, we cannot establish a definitive sense of what these jobs were like for disabled individuals. The people whose images and narratives Jay's Extraordinary Exhibitions and Mitchell's Monsters present were celebrities. As such, they are ultimately unknowable just as are the faces and bodies on the pages of People magazine today. The difference is that the freaks' presentation could still resurrect wonder to capture an audience's dime.