Giants, dwarfs, bearded ladies and three-legged children: the Victorians had a taste for unusual entertainments. Matthew Sweet recalls the lives of some unique 'prodigies', and uncovers bizarre modern parallels.
Coney Island ain't what it used to be. The faux-Arabian towers of Luna Park have been demolished to make way for an undistinguished housing development. The wooden skeleton of the Loop The Loop rots slowly inside a barbed wire enclosure. The Dragon's Gorge indoor scenic railway, which rattled its passengers from Hell to the North Pole and back, burned down over half a century ago, and was never rebuilt. Surf Avenue, once a parade of food parlours and amusement booths, has now been colonised by bric-a-brac stalls run by Russian immigrants. Great place to buy an electric samovar or a set of second-hand spark plugs. Not so great if you want the thrill of your life. In its heyday, Coney Island was where America went for just such stimulation. In particular, it went to gaze upon the extraordinary bodies of the freak show performers. Punters could gratify themselves by stepping inside the booth to come face to face with The Toad Man with Two Noses, The Penguin Boy, The Barracuda Ape, The Lobster Boy, or The Alligator- Skin Girl. They might visit Samuel W Gumpertz's Lilliputia, a half-scale metropolis with a population of 300 dwarfs, or his "Congress of Freaks", a big-top extravaganza with a cast of 3,800 physically bizarre performers. Three months ago, I took the B Train to Coney in order to see America's last freak show. It is housed in a featureless concrete building, tucked between Astroland, a tatty amusement park, and Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, a great, greasy Brooklyn institution. The facade is hung with garish banners, painted in a naive, sensational style that has remained the preferred sideshow aesthetic since the end of the 19th century. In one picture, a monocled Nimrod figure peers at a two-headed creature, captioned, "Nature's Mistakes". Another poster trumpets the presence of a "Real Human Shrunken Head", with a crude image of a decapitated body, prone and bloodied by the side of a bubbling cannibal cooking pot. Most eye-catching of all, perhaps, is the banner for "The Freak Bar", which depicts a pair of Siamese twins toasting each other with foaming glasses of cartoon beer, and an armless woman perched on a bar stool, clutching a pint of lager with her painted toes. Being lied to is part of the fun of the freak show. After I'd parted with $3 and entered the tiny auditorium, I wasn't too surprised to find that none of these attractions materialized. Instead, Frank Hartman - Blockhead and Sword Swallower - hammered a 6in nail up his nose, Serpentina the Snake Woman sucked the head of a 15ft albino python and Electra the High-Voltage Lady illuminated light bulbs with her tongue. Koko the Killer Clown, of whom I had great hopes - his publicity claimed that he "spent five years in prison for murdering his wife and her lover" - turned out to be a surly dwarf with an unremarkable line in balloon sculpture. To give Koko his credit, however, he did saunter on-stage to the blare of "Le Freak" by Chic. The sparse crowd - mainly giggly college kids and a handful of poor-looking families - didn't seem much interested in the only "real" freak in the place. (Unless, of course, you could count the members of the audience themselves.) Hidden away in a corner, half-concealed by the rickety seating stand, sat a glass case containing a dark, desiccated creature about the size of a small dog. Coil-shaped eyes googling out from a simian face; fur giving way to scales and a blackened piscine tail. To the cynical eye, this was just a few pieces of monkey and salmon skin sewn together for monstrous effect. To those in the know, however, it was something more unique - Phineas T Barnum's legendary Fejee Mermaid.

There are at least seven Fejee Mermaids known to exist, and nobody can be entirely sure which is the one that Barnum unveiled to a curious American public on 8 August 1843. Several alternative candidates are held by the Ripley's Believe it or Not company, which runs a chain of around 30 dime museums across the States. Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology also claims to possess the original, where it shares a locked storage cabinet with a similarly mutated creature, and is rarely put on public display. The mermaid was first exhibited in October 1822, at a coffee house on the corner of Jermyn Street and St James's Street in London. A Captain Eades of Boston acquired the specimen while visiting either China or Calcutta - and had embezzled some $6,000 of his ship's money to make the purchase. Eades hoped that the monster would make his fortune. Instead, it became the focus of a legal dispute which left him penniless. All he had to bequeath to his son when he died was the shrivelled body of the mermaid - which Eades junior sold to a Barnum collaborator named Moses Kimball for a paltry sum. Kimball and Barnum used one of the most extravagant publicity campaigns in American history to make the mermaid the hot topic of conversation in the summer of 1843. They planted stories in the press, they went on a PR offensive to gain the favour of influential newspaper editors, they circulated engravings of the beast, and they hired a stooge to impersonate an English academic, "Dr Griffin" of the "Lyceum of Natural History" - who was said to be bringing this remarkable creature to New York. By the end of the affair, Barnum was $1m richer. Even when the public began to suspect something fishy, he was able to exploit this scepticism to his own advantage. One advert read: "Engaged for a short time, the animal (regarding which there has been so much dispute in the scientific world) called the Fejee Mermaid! Positively asserted by its owner to have been taken alive in the Fejee Islands, and implicitly believed by many scientific persons, while it is pronounced by other scientific persons to be an artificial production ... At all events, whether this production is the work of nature or art, it is decidedly the most stupendous curiosity ever submitted to the public for inspection. If it is artificial, the senses of sight and touch are useless, for art has rendered them totally ineffectual. If it is natural, then all concur in declaring it THE GREATEST CURIOSITY IN THE WORLD." The ploy had worked before. In 1835, Barnum had exhibited Joice Heth, a grotesquely wizened old lady whom he billed as the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington. When opinion began to turn against the veracity of these claims, Barnum wrote anonymous letters to the newspapers, claiming that Heth was a clockwork automaton operated by the showman himself. The crowds came flooding back, hoping to hear the mechanism whirr or click and catch the humbug out. Naturally, they heard nothing.

In Britain, the exhibition of bizarre curiosities - some living, some dead, some animal, some human - was a thriving industry throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, its personalities - dwarfs, giants, baboon women, dog-faced boys and hirsute missing links - are all but forgotten. After having spent some time gazing at their posters and handbills in the John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, I'm more and more convinced that the freakish history of these islands is one that needs to be reclaimed, that the reputations of its personalities must be recuperated and allowed to repopulate accounts of 19th-century history. Everyone knows about Lillie Langtry and Henry Irving, but Zalumma Agra, the Circassian Girl, and Julia Pastrana the Nondescript need talking up with a bit of showman's ballyhoo. With that object in mind, let me enumerate the lives of some of their lost tribe. The Dwarfs: Simon Paap, a musician from Holland who wowed Regency Britain and gained the favour of the Prince of Wales. Charles Stratton, known as General Tom Thumb, the 19th century's most celebrated dwarf performer, who earned enough to retire to a specially scaled-down country house with his equally diminutive wife, Lavinia Warren. Count Boruwlaski, an aristocratic Polish dwarf who became a close confidante of King Stanislaus, went on a guitar-playing tour of Lapland, and died in Durham at the age of 98. The Giants: The Yorkshire Youth, 7ft 8in tall ("the sight of whom never failed to give universal satisfaction, and fill the beholder with wonder and astonishment," according to one commentator in 1812). O'Brien the Irish Giant, who lived above a Charing Cross confectioner's shop in the 1780s. Exhibited internationally, he lost his fortune in a robbery, and became obsessed with the idea that his body would continue to be touted around the show rooms after his death. He paid a gang of fishermen to dismember him and scatter his remains at sea, but he was outbribed by the eminent surgeon John Hunter, who had his bones mounted and put on display in the Hunterian Museum, where they still reside. The Assorted Wonders: Krao Farini, the "Missing Link", exhibited between 1880 and 1920 as living proof of Darwin's theory of natural selection. Miss Atkinson, the Pig Woman, an Irish heiress with a fetching pink snout - to whom at least one respectable gentleman made an offer of marriage via the personal columns of the Morning Herald. Miss Stevens, the Pig Woman, who was in fact a strategically shaved bear, dressed up in crinolines and strapped into a chair. (Nobody proposed to her.) The Lobster Claw Lady, who delighted audiences by knitting and crocheting with her crustaceoid hands. "The Human Tripod, or the Three-Legged Child and First Bipenis ever seen or heard of" - a dead little boy preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, whose mother would discourse upon his short life for a shilling. "The nobility and gentry, and lovers of natural science are respectfully invited to view," declared the Tripod's publicists. And then there was Miss Julia Pastrana the Nondescript, variously known as The Bear Woman and the Baboon Lady, who deserves a couple of paragraphs of her own. Covered from head to toe in thick brown hair, her gums and jaw were as massive as an ape's. It was claimed that she was discovered inside a cave in a monkey-infested area of Mexico - the implication being that she was some hybrid product of a simian-human coupling. She sang, she acted, she danced the Highland Fling, and by special arrangement, she would visit members of the public in their own homes, to entertain them with operatic arias. She was dead by 1860, though her career was far from over. After her appearances in Britain during the late 1850s, her manager - a man named Lent - married her and took her to Moscow, where she died in childbirth. In 1862 Lent returned to London, exhibiting the mummified remains of his family as a miracle of the embalmer's art, the triumph of a Muscovite scientist named Professor Suckaloff. The biologist Francis Buckland, who examined her for a book on natural history, had his suspicions: "As regards the history of the embalmment," he noted, ominously, "there were some queer stories told." Queerest of all, perhaps, was the true story that the embalmed Pastrana was soon touring Europe in the company of a second Mrs Lent - a German woman who suffered from the same kind of hairiness and deformities as her predecessor. For the next hundred years, Julia Pastrana and her child were toured around the carnivals of Europe. The pair were exhibited as late as 1973, when the baby was eaten by mice and the body of its mother stolen by vandals while being exhibited at a fairground in Norway. Pastrana's mummy was thought lost forever, but in 1991, the Norwegian authorities admitted that the body was being stored in the vaults of the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Oslo.

Histories like this - both mournful and comic - demonstrate the cultural importance of the freak show. Such entertainments seem to contravene every rule of decency and dignity to which we, as late 20th-century people, wish our society to aspire. They are one of the many reasons why we dislike the Victorians so very much; why their name has become a catch-all pejorative for anything heartless, hypocritical, repressive and typically British. Our perceptions of the Victorians are mired with prejudice. Principally, I think, we have abused them in order to amplify our own self-esteem. We like to think of them tut-tutting in wood-panelled rooms, all mutton-chopped impassivity and stony Gradgrindism. We characterise them as sexually repressed because it reinforces our sense of ourselves as liberated Moderns, unshackled from our great-grandparents' neuroses about piano legs and self-abuse. It comforts us to imagine that Victorians ground the faces of the poor into the horseshit-splashed streets, because it makes the modern strategy of pretending you haven't heard the homeless boy's request for change seem all the more enlightened. In the case of the freak show, we like to think of able-bodied Victorians paying to poke their "disabled" contemporaries with sticks, because the 20th century has brought us wheelchair ramps and induction loop systems. It's less comfortable to consider the alternative view: that giants and bearded ladies commanded respect and hefty fees, and that the Victorians did not regard the genetic quirks and bodily abnormalities of their peers as disadvantages or misfortunes, but celebrated them - to the extent that they were willing to hire such people for parties like conjurors or after-dinner speakers. It is still less comfortable to remember that it was 20th-century people who initiated sterilisation programmes to rid society of the "burden" of individuals with unusual bodies. The Holocaust was not a Victorian event. The ability to choose the sex of a baby, or abort a "disabled" foetus; these were not Victorian aspirations. The term "freak", moreover, is very difficult to find in Victorian texts dealing with such figures. Even the Bipenis Boy and the Baboon Lady were spared this indignity. Indeed, when Barnum's heirs brought a line-up of extraordinary human specimens to London in 1899, there was such vocal public distaste expressed at the use of the f-word in their publicity material that the company accepted Canon Wilberforce of Westminster's suggestion that these attractions be reclassified as "prodigies". This done, the Barnum family's paying customers could gawp with a clear conscience at Hassan Ali, the Egyptian Giant (7ft 11in high, and a 70-cigarettes-a-day man); Laloo the Hindu (a young man with a "headless parasitic body" growing from his epigastric region, and first exhibited in London in 1891); Charles Tripp (an armless man from Ontario); and Annie Jones (a bearded woman from Virginia, whose tresses measured 6ft in length). Were these performers exploited by their managers? No more so than many other 19th-century employees - the ballet girls expected to turn tricks for wealthy patrons; the five-year-old children who crawled inside industrial machinery to retrieve dropped spanners; the miners, scuffling about under the ground for a pittance. Their rates of pay also compared favourably with others in the entertainment industry. In the States, late 19th-century stage actors received about $35 to $80 a week. The top performers on the dime museum freak circuit might take home $500 per week. Andrea Stulman Dennett, in Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum of America (New York University Press, 1997), has catalogued the earnings of freak show stars. Charles Stratton ended his days in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the owner of a yacht and several racehorses. Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins, retired to a farm in North Carolina, as did Millie-Christine, another pair of conjoined celebrities. (Strikingly, they all owned slaves.) "Commodore Nutt," Dennett writes, "a mid-century midget, was heralded as the $30,000 Nutt because he had a three-year contract worth that sum, [which was] an extraordinary amount of money at the time." We tend to assume that such figures were the helpless victims of their employers because it suits us to regard the Victorians as our moral inferiors: cruel and unusual characters for whom prudery and perversity were a way of life. Take the case of Maximo and Bartolo, the Original Aztec Children, a pair of Central American dwarfs who were exhibited in London in 1853. "In appearance they were certainly extraordinary," wrote one commentator. "They had small but long heads with little or no chins, and their deformity was exaggerated by an enormous bunch of black hair, which they wore at the back of their heads." They were married in 1867 at a London registry office, and treated to a lavish breakfast at Willis's on Old Compton Street, the fashionable Soho supper club beloved of Oscar Wilde. However, in reality the pair were brother and sister, and indentured to a Spanish trader who had sold them to an American impresario, who brought them to England. It sounds like a textbook case of Victorian brutality: you can imagine the Freddie Jones character from David Lynch's film The Elephant Man (1979) slapping one of these unfortunates on the back, making lewd remarks about the wedding night through a mouthful of game pie. These relationships between performers and agents, however, have modern analogues. Compare the fate of the Aztec Children to this remark from an interview with the late Dirk Bogarde, reflecting upon how he nearly became indentured to a Hollywood film studio. "Twentieth Century Fox were buying up everyone willy-nilly. And when I say bought, I mean bought. They were going to call me Ricardo something or other Spanish and I was going to do a crash course in Spanish so that I could be discovered in Mexico - I think they'd got enough Englishmen at the time. And the contract stipulated that after a certain period of time in Hollywood, I think it was 18 months, I would have to marry one of the girls who were also under contract to them."

Many concepts that seem to be modern - political spin-doctoring, elaborate publicity stunts, hardcore pornography, anxieties about the impact of violent pop culture - are Victorian inventions. Most of the pleasures we imagine to be our own, the Victorians enjoyed first. They invented the theme park, the shopping mall, the movies, the amusement arcade, the crime novel and the sensational newspaper report. They were engaged in a continuous search for bigger thrills. If Queen Victoria wasn't amused, then she was in a very small minority. The Victorians took their pleasures in private fetish clubs and at terrifying magic lantern displays. They watched death-defying tightrope acts, played mechanical arcade games, and were dazzled by the spectacles offered by panoramas, dioramas, neoramas, nausoramas and physioramas. The Cremorne Gardens - a pleasure park near Battersea Bridge - was more of a meat market than Stringfellows. The sensation drama - a theatrical genre reliant on spectacular stage tricks - created hi-tech simulations of waterfalls, burning buildings, horse races and avalanches, over a century before the "helicopter moment" in Miss Saigon. The Burlington Arcade was a swanky mall where sex and shopping were pursued with equal enthusiasm - and cross-dressed boys were its speciality. Sensation novels - books like The Woman in White (1860) and Lady Audley's Secret (1862) offered pleasures so intense that their detractors claimed they could drive you to drink, insanity, or copycat crime. As in these cases, the freak show is not a cultural paradigm which we can comfortably designate as "Victorian", and blame on those weird, mutton-chopped ancestors of ours who sent children up chimneys. The exhibition room in which John Merrick, the Elephant Man, was once chained may now be part of a respectable sari shop on the Whitechapel Road, but the exhibition of human oddities still goes on. It has simply been evacuated into other, younger media. Middle-class viewers, myself included, will happily watch the freakery offered by The Jerry Springer Show, in which women with rhinoceros bodies engage in foul-mouthed slanging matches with their slatternly daughters, fist-fights break out between over-pumped male strippers, and deeply weird human specimens try to outrage their loved ones with bolt-from-the-blue revelations about their true identities. And all they get for their trouble is a weekend of shopping in Chicago. The Springer show's relationship with the freak exhibition is a close one. A journalist visiting the production office once spotted this list of rejected publicity slogans pasted up on the wall: "The Shallow End of the Gene Pool"; "Talkin' to Freaks, So You Don't Have To!"; "You Don't Have to Live in a Trailer, but it Helps"; "Jerry's Been Shaking the Freak Tree ... and Look Who Fell Out!" There's little room for ambiguity there, I think. In Brazil, the TV compere Carlos Massa, known as "Ratinho", oversees a show with a line-up more grotesque than those paraded by any Victorian carnival. The nightstick-waving host has introduced a woman whose eyes had been poked out by her jealous husband, an abnormal toddler with pubic hair and a mature penis, an "Elephant Boy" whose deformities were so grotesque, it was claimed, that he had to be shown in profile behind a screen, and a child with hundreds of tumours in his body. There is a game-show element to proceedings: viewers pledge money which is supposedly used in therapeutic medical treatment for Ratinho's guests. "I don't want to hide these people," Massa has said in an interview with the Reuters news agency. "I want to show that the Brazilian health system is a failure, that these people suffer from a lack of money. I want to show a part of Brazil the government tries to hide." For Ratinho, the voyeurism of his programme is justified because it reveals his guests as victims of medical incompetence. How sad and disempowered these people seem, in comparison with the 19th-century prodigies, many of whom embraced a career in freak shows precisely because they wanted to resist being cast as pathological specimens. The Hilton Sisters were a pair of Siamese twins who enjoyed brief success as a vaudeville act in the 1920s. They suffered numerous indignities at the hands of their exhibitors and agents - including being stranded in the middle of nowhere after a drive-in screening of Tod Browning's movie Freaks (1932) - and ended their days working as checkout operators in Charlotte, North Carolina. Theatrical exploitation, however, was still preferable to being the subject of medical interest. "We loathed the very tone of the medical man's voice," they wrote in 1947, and feared that their family would "stop showing us on stage and let the doctors have us - to punch and pinch and take our pictures always." The Hilton sisters left a written autobiographical record, and they are unusual in this respect. The voices of their predecessors were enthusiastically silenced by their managers, who liked to drum up custom by generating exotic - and bogus - narratives around their stars. To some extent, what will survive of them is lies. We'll never know whether Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, sitting in their miniature mansion in Bridgeport, were truly happy with their lives. We'll never be able to judge the veracity of the claim that Julia Pastrana was rescued by cowboys in the Mexican jungle. Or whether Miss Emma Atkinson the Pig-Faced Lady really had all that money stashed away in Ireland, and ate her bran mash from a silver trough. Moreover, it's clear that many Victorian patrons of such events regarded their performers with the same mixture of delight and disgust that characterizes, say, our responses to Jerry Springer's guests. The John Johnson collection contains an autographed photographic portrait of the dwarf Lucia Zarate, who - with her co-star General Mite - visited Britain in November 1880. The posed picture of Ms Zarate conveys nothing but an air of genteel composure, but the souvenir-hunter's written remark is hardly respectful or celebratory. "It was difficult to realise that she was human," she writes. "She had a face like a parrot and the temper of a Tasmanian Devil." Are these words of disappointment? Or satisfaction? However, simply condemning such a freak-fancier's attitude as patronising or barbaric will simply not suffice. The culture of the 19th-century exhibition circuit was too complex and ambiguous to allow for such a reductive reading of the relationship between freaks and their fans. To condemn it all as the sawdusty shame of our callous great-grandparents would be an undeserved insult to the Victorians. And, as we have the excesses of TV and Hollywood to match any cruelty of their sideshows and fairground booths, it would make us guilty of the hypocrisy which we're so fond of identifying in them.