Fabricating Freakery: The Display of Exceptional Bodies in Nineteenth-Century London

Woolf, John Jacob. 2016. Fabricating Freakery: The Display of Exceptional Bodies in Nineteenth-Century London. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

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Abstract or Description

This thesis examines five individuals in the tradition of freakery: the performance of constructed abnormality as entertainment. Departing from a tendency to explore the ‘freak’ and the ‘freak show’ from the mid-nineteenth century, this thesis starts at the beginning of the 1800s to explore the diachronic evolution of freakery as it went from small-scale transitory exhibitions to large-scale commercial enterprises tied to the burgeoning entertainment industry. This thesis argues that, as the freak show changed, it functioned as an index for broader social changes across the nineteenth century. Each chapter represents one or more of those changes, probing the construction and presentation of a specific identity rooted in a particular epoch and framed around the life history of a performer, whether this biography was alleged or ‘real’.

The five agents explored in this thesis are Daniel Lambert (1770-1809), who displayed as a Fat Man; Chang and Eng, The Siamese Twins (1811-1874); Charles Stratton (1838-1883), a little person known as General Tom Thumb; Julia Pastrana (1834?-1860), billed as The Baboon Lady; and Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), The Elephant Man. Freakery was a lived identity reliant on a biographical history and dependent on numerous discourses that turned constructed identities into ambiguous, paradoxical and ambivalent representations. The hitherto entrenched historiographical dichotomy between the ‘offstage’ and ‘onstage’ life of a ‘freak’ is substituted for the claim of interdependency between performer and performance, reality and representation: agencies and the culture of everyday life were imbricated in the construction of ‘freak’ identities that were marked by character as much as corporeality. Overall, this thesis presents a picture of pervasive freakery in nineteenth-century London and beyond: a practice and discourse that permeated life and culture, representations and perceptions.

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Thesis (Doctoral)

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Additional Information:

This is an edited version of the thesis with third-party copyright material removed.


Freaks, freak shows, disability, history, London, nineteenth century, deformity, bodies, Victorian

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31 August 2016

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Date Deposited:

09 Sep 2016 14:27

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 13:56



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