Freaks in 19th-century British Media & Medicine


A review of Freaks in Late Nineteenth-Century British Media and Medicine, by Fiona Yvette Pettit.

Fiona Pettit explores the mainstreaming, media presence and legacy of freaks in late nineteenth-century British culture. Using John Kotre’s notion of “generativity,” she argues for the centrality of freaks to the production and maintenance of their own and others’ legacies (p. 7). Freaks’ cultural significance, she posits further, lies beyond their non-normative status. A cultural studies perspective allows her to span a variety of spaces of freaks’ heightened visualization – from popular science and entertainment to print culture – and address both medical and popular audiences, and their reception and production of narratives of freakery. Her sensitivity to the cross-fertilization of popular and scientific discourses, in which one can see the influence of such experts as Kate Flint, Gowan Dawson and Bernard Lightman, is accompanied by the crucial acknowledgement of the centrality that the freaks’ multimedia presence had to their cultural resonance.

Apart from outlining Pettit’s theoretical anchoring and methodological precepts, the introduction lays out the complexities at work in the mutual influence of science and popular culture ranging from medical uses of freak shows as a means of professional self-legitimation to the contiguity of performative and medical practices of display. Referencing the seminal studies by Richard Altick (The Shows of London. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), Nadja Durbach (Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), Robert Bogdan (Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) and Marlene Tromp (Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Britain. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008), Pettit sets out to address a desideratum in the study of Victorian freakery: she inquires about the multiplicity of its meanings in the diverse contexts and for diverse audiences, which, unfortunately, have become homogenized by contemporary critics. Rather than regarding freaks as ciphers of Victorian socio-cultural and political anxieties, Pettit shifts her interest to the contexts of their display as a way of addressing their role in the production of complex legacies. This focus allows her to posit that “freakery was not marginal, defining what normality might be, but that it was central, creating the ability for individuals […] and groups […] to define and assert their legacies” (p. 21). Pettit’s work with digital archives helps her see the necessity of recontextualizing freaks, which, in turn, allows her to draw attention to their “generative value,” resultant from the pliability of their representations.

Focusing on the genres of eccentric biography, historical freak biography and the freak show advertisement, the first chapter inspects diverse modes of representation that catered for a broad range of audiences. The late nineteenth-century freak print representations, argues Pettit, not only made freakery familiar but also suggested appropriate audiences for its spectacle (p. 56). The popular press’s depiction of the conjoined twins Millie and Christine, and their appropriation of (and distinction from) the cultural legacy of “the original” twins, Chang and Eng Bunker, was instrumental in broadening the appeal of freakery to embrace female audiences (p. 58). At the same time, argues Pettit, the generative character of these representations lay in their simultaneous “support for and against women’s engagement with popular entertainment” (p. 68). By contrast, in boys’ magazines such as Illustrated Chips, representations of freakery were both culturally and technically generative as they provided instructive amusement for boys and a valuable spectacle central to the realization of their future roles (pp. 73-74). By integrating a wealth of materials (comics, cartoons, reviews, editorials, etc.), Pettit instantiates her argument that through the broad dissemination of freak imagery, the popular press made it central to Victorian readership, while the iconotextual character of this imagery made it familiar even to the illiterate audiences.

The second chapter pivots around the ways in which freaks’ cultural legacy proved helpful in the practices of self-fashioning used by Phineas T. Barnum, as ways of asserting his status as a showman and instigating his own legacy. At the same time, Barnum’s public persona, argues Pettit, was instrumental in popularizing the freak show. Positioning Barnum’s joint venture with Bailey (“Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth”) within the history of the circus, and referencing the historiographic work of Helen Stoddart and George Speaight, Pettit shows the ways in which Barnum’s success was dependent on a skillful (self-)presentation in the press. In the course of the promotional campaign for the first shows in Britain in 1889, Barnum used the myth of a master showman that had accumulated around his person to sell his show “as a form of tasteful, rational recreation” (p. 96), a feat which he successfully repeated on his second visit in 1899, with the help of well-attuned publicity campaigns that presented the freaks in ways that suited “British tastes” and thereby drew diverse audiences to see the show (p. 116).

Chapter 3 shifts focus from popular to medical culture. Having established a degree of their cross-fertilization, Pettit now looks at the modes in which medical practitioners used freaks’ bodies in their quest for professional legitimation. At the same time, she also demonstrates the complexities of these practices, which, while they were used to strengthen medical practitioners’ professional authority, also had to maintain due distance between medicine and the freak show as a form of popular entertainment. Taking Joseph Merick, the Elephant Man, as her prime example, she argues that although medical practitioners took pains to problematize the popular consumption of freakery, the practices they themselves employed bore a curious resemblance to those that they denigrated. Importantly, while “the profession utilized existing flexibility in the interpretation of freakish bodies to serve the generative ends of medicine” (p. 126), the representations of freaks in the medical press were palimpsestous creations that included their media presence and their cultural legacy.

The fourth chapter continues to explore the contextualization of freaks in the medical culture positing that “freak show performers and their narratives were ideal cases for the exaltation of medical legacy” (p. 149). Pettit addresses the intricacies of the medical relations to freakery in her case studies of Cornelius Magrath, an eighteenth-century giant, Roda and Josepha Blazek, and Radica and Doodica – two pairs of nineteenth-century conjoined twins. She outlines the major role of freaks and their legacies in medical self-fashioning and in the establishment of medicine’s authority as well as outlining the importance of their non-normative bodies to the development of medical knowledge and medical archive (p. 165). Freaks served medical men of various sorts as embodiments of extreme states of disease as well as playing a crucial role in the processes of taxonomy building.

Fiona Pettit’s thesis expands the study of nineteenth-century freakery to include its polymorphous, complex cultural significance that goes beyond the symbolic function of freaks’ bodies as sites for a renegotiation of current socio-cultural anxieties. Through her detailed analysis of a wealth of medical and popular print materials, Pettit establishes an array of functions of these representations: from exercises in medical and popular self-fashioning, through the establishment and dissemination of medical knowledge to a problematic intertwining of medical and showmanship practices of display and sensationalization. This multifacetedness of Victorian freaks and their media presence are a strong indication of their centrality to Victorian culture and their crucial role in the production of multiple legacies. Pettit’s well-contextualized, detailed work demonstrates that digital humanities are helpful in rethinking our cultural legacies and in re-considering the cultural resonance of “marginal” subjects.

Monika Pietrzak-Franger
Seminar für Anglistik
Fakultät I: Philosophische Fakultät
Universität Siegen

Primary Sources

Periodical press: Fun, The Times, The Era, Ilustrated Chips
Medical journals: The Lancet, BMJ
Digital archives

Dissertation Information

University of Exeter. 2012. 242 pp. Primary Advisor: Joe Kember.


Image: Joseph Merrick (1862–1890), photographed c. 1889. Wikimedia Commons.

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