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Arts & Culture

Finding Humanity At The Sideshow

Bain News Service
Creative Commons
Sideshow, Coney Island, 1910

The concept of the early 20th century sideshow evokes images of bearded ladies, sword swallowers and exotic "others" exhibited as "freaks" before audiences both lured and repelled by what they saw.

Crowds flocked to Coney Island sideshows where, for 10 cents, they could find solace that someone was worse off than they were during times of low life expectancy, high infant mortality, world war, and financial instability. Few had the luxury of seeing the humanity behind the act.

Cartoonist Bill Griffith based his legendary character Zippy the Pinhead on Schlitzie, a real life sideshow "pinhead" who appeared in the movie Freaks. Early audiences were appalled by director Tod Browning's use of real sideshow actors who banded together to seek revenge on those who treated them with cruelty.

Griffith's new graphic novel is his way to dig a little deeper into who Schlitzie was and the sideshow family who cared for and loved him.

Also this hour: we learn about a man who saved thousands of premature infants over almost 40 years by exhibiting them in incubators in a Coney Island sideshow. Behind the acts, sideshow performers were often people of great compassion, courage, and humanity.


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Colin McEnroe and Jonathan McNicol contributed to this show.

Betsy started as an intern at WNPR in 2011 after earning a Master's Degree in American and Museum Studies from Trinity College. She served as the Senior Producer for 'The Colin McEnroe Show' for several years before stepping down in 2021 and returning to her previous career as a registered nurse. She still produces shows with Colin and the team when her schedule allows.

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