Show Mobile Navigation
Humans |

Top 10 Curious Humans Exhibited in P.T. Barnum’s Circus

by Oliver Taylor
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Phineas Taylor Barnum, commonly known as P.T. Barnum, entered the circus business in 1841 when he purchased Scudder’s American Museum and renamed it Barnum’s American Museum. In 1875, he brought circus owners Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup on board and renamed the business P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome. In 1881, this new business merged with Cooper and Bailey Circus, owned by James Anthony Bailey and James E. Cooper, to become the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

P.T. Barnum died in 1891, and the circus came under the control of his partner, James Bailey, who purchased Barnum’s share from his wife. Bailey himself died in 1906, and the Ringling Brothers, who already owned the successful Ringling Brothers Circus, bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus and merged it with theirs to create the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which remained in business until it shut down in May 2017 due to high operating costs, changing tastes, and animal rights issues.[1]

10 Frank Lentini
Oddity: Had Three Legs

Photo credit:

Frank Lentini was born in Sicily on May 18, 1889. (Some accounts say July 8, 1884, or July 8, 1885.) He had three legs, four feet, 16 toes, and two sets of genitalia, all of which were so strange that the midwife who helped with his delivery hid him under the bed and fled from the room screaming. Citizens of Frank’s village believed he was a punishment from God and nicknamed him The Abominable. There were also rumors that he got the third leg after his mother, Giovanna, visited a cart-maker who had a three-legged table while she was pregnant.

The third leg was actually caused by an undeveloped twin that had been absorbed by Lentini. Lentini placed his third leg on a box whenever he slept or sat. His mother also sewed special clothes for him, and he wore specially made shoes. At one time, the two main legs outgrew the third leg, causing Lentini to tie it to one of them. The two main legs were not of equal lengths themselves, and Lentini often joked that he did not have a pair of legs even though he had three legs.

In 1898, Lentini met a puppeteer named Magnano, who brought him and his parents to the United States, where Frank joined the Ringling Brothers Circus and later, the Barnum circus. He was known as The Great Lentini and would often use his third leg to kick footballs. This earned him his other nickname, the Three-Legged Football Player. When asked why he had three legs, Lentini would reply, ”My mother did not give birth to two children. More than one, but not two.” He died on September 21, 1966.[2]

9 Kate Brumbach
Oddity: Exceptional Strength

Photo credit: Bain News Service

Katharina Brumbach was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1884. She and her sisters possessed exceptional strength, just like their parents, who were circus acts. Kate and three of her sisters later joined the circus, but Kate went on to become the most popular. She would often promise a reward of 100 marks to any man who could defeat her in a wrestling match. Reports indicate that she was never beaten in any of the fights. If anything, she even got herself a husband during a match.

The husband was Max Heymann, who thought he would score an easy victory because Kate was a woman. Unfortunately, Heymann could not recall how he lost the fight. He only remembered entering the ring, seeing the blue sky, and being carried away by the victorious lady. During a tour in New York, Sandwina challenged any man who thought he could lift more weight than her. Bodybuilder and powerlifting champion Eugene Sandow took up the challenge, much to the chagrin of Kate, who thought she had made a mistake. Both carried heavier and heavier weights until Sandow failed to lift a 136-kilogram (300 lb) weight past his chest. Kate had lifted the same weight over her head with just one arm. It was after this that she took the stage name Sandwina, a female version of Sandow.

This incident brought Kate more fame, and she went on to tour the U.S. with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Her acts included carrying horses and cannons. Sometimes, she carried her 75-kilogram (165 lb) husband with one arm, and other times she carried carousels of 14 people on her shoulders. She retired at the age of 64 and opened a restaurant in New York with her husband. Sometimes, she broke horseshoes, bent steel bars, and carried her husband, to the delight of her patrons. She died of cancer on January 21, 1952.[3]

8 Schlitzie
Oddity: Microcephaly

Photo credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Schlitzie was born as Simon Metz on September 10, 1890 (or 1901). He suffered from microcephaly, an abnormality that caused his head to remain small while the other parts of his body grew. By the time he was an adult, he had a slanted forehead, a small brain, and the mental capacity of a three- or four-year-old. Schlitzie’s condition often generated curiosity. He found work with several circuses, including the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he was paraded as the last surviving member of the Aztecs. He was also dressed and paraded as a lady, since it was easier to change his diaper when he was in feminine clothing.

Besides touring with the circus, Schlitzie enjoyed a film career and appeared in several movies, including The Sideshow (1928), Freaks (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932), Tomorrow’s Children (1934), and Meet Boston Blackie (1941). He died of bronchial pneumonia on September 24, 1971. His death record listed his name as Shilze Surtees. The surname belonged to George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer who had been his legal guardian from 1936 until his own death in 1960.[4]

7 Joice Heth
Oddity: None

Photo credit: J. Booth & Son

Joice Heth had no abnormality except that she was old, exactly what a young P.T. Barnum needed. In 1835, he billed her as 161 years old and claimed that she had taken care of George Washington when he was younger. These claims were false. Heth was not 161 years old and had never met George Washington. She was a slave, and Barnum had paid her owner $1,000 to tour her around the United States for one year.

She sang for patrons and falsified stories about young George Washington. Barnum created more lies about Heth as time went on. When some preachers protested that he was exploiting a slave for his personal gain, he claimed Heth was no longer a slave and that he was only trying to make money to free her relatives. At one point, Barnum claimed that Heth wasn’t 161 years old and wasn’t even human. Rather, she was a machine made of whale bones and covered in leather.

The tour took its toll on Heth, who was already in poor health. She was weak, blind, and had previously suffered a stroke. She died in February 1836, a few months after she started touring with Barnum. Barnum didn’t let go of her that easily. He had her autopsied and sold tickets to patrons willing to attend. When the doctor performing the autopsy clarified that Heth was not more than 80, Barnum claimed he had given the doctor a different body and that the real Heth was alive. Heth was the first person ever paraded by Barnum, and the lies and controversies he created around her helped cement him into the spotlight.[5]

6 Annie Jones
Oddity: Heavy Beard

Photo credit: Charles Eisenmann

Annie Jones was born in 1865. Her chin was covered in hair, which caused her parents some concern. However, they quickly realized she could be a money-spinner and met with P.T. Barnum, who offered to pay them $150 per week for a three-year contract. Unfortunately, the deal was too good to be true, and her parents quickly took the offer and moved to New York.

Jones was the most famous of all the bearded ladies from the Victorian era. Not only did she sport a heavy, full beard, but she also had exceptionally long hair, more than 1.8 meters (6 ft) in length. She was a good singer with exceptional etiquette. Jones continued to tour as a bearded lady for 36 years, until she suddenly fell ill and died in 1902 at 37.[6]

5 Isaac W. Sprague
Oddity: Extraordinarily Lean

Photo credit: Wikimedia

Born on May 21, 1841, Isaac W. Sprague lived like a normal child until 12, when he started mysteriously losing weight. He lost weight so fast that his parents stopped him from performing any strenuous tasks. Unfortunately, that did not mitigate the problem, and Sprague continued to lose weight as he grew. By the time he was older, he had lost so much weight that he could no longer work. Finally, in 1865, a promoter spotted him at a carnival and offered to take him on tours for payment.

Sprague initially refused the offer but later accepted. He was nicknamed The Living Skeleton and became so popular that he soon joined Barnum’s American Museum. On several occasions, he was “married” to a fatter lady for promotional purposes. At 44, he was 168 centimeters (5’6”) tall and weighed 19 kilograms (43 lb). Sprague’s unique condition required that he constantly eat, so he always moved around with a flask of milk that he drank at intervals.

Sprague left Barnum’s American Museum in 1868, after he was almost killed in a fire. He got married to Tamar Moore and sired three sons during this period, but money problems drove him back to the museum. He died on January 5, 1887. His condition was never identified, though it is speculated to have been severe muscle atrophy.[7]

4 Wild Men Of Borneo
Oddity: Dwarfism And Super Strength

Photo credit: Morris

The Wild Men of Borneo were two brothers: Hiram and Barney Davis, who possessed exceptional strength despite being mentally challenged, weighing 20 kilograms (45 lb), and standing at just 102 centimeters (3’4″) tall. The brothers entered show business in 1850 when a showman renamed them Waino and Plutano and claimed they had been captured in Borneo. The showman said that both brothers were the very definition of violence and had been captured after a serious encounter that required guns and nets.

Both brothers lifted heavy weights and spectators during shows. They also held mock fights between themselves and members of the audience. They joined P.T. Barnum in 1880 and became instantly popular. They remained in show business until Hiram died in 1905. Barney himself followed in 1912.[8]

3 Fedor Jeftichew
Oddity: Excessive Facial Hair

Photo credit: Charles Eisenmann

Fedor Jeftichew was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1868. He suffered from hypertrichosis, which caused excessive growth of hair on his face. His father took him on tours until his death. Thereafter, Fedor signed up with the Barnum circus, where he was nicknamed Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy. The circus often made references to Fedor’s resemblance to a rel=”noopener” target=”_blank”dog, with claims that he barked and growled when worried. Fedor himself kept up with the act by barking and growling.

Fedor was also given an exceptional history. Barnum claimed he was captured after a hunter tracked him and his father into a cave. The father was reported to have been exceptionally violent, unlike Fedor, who was calmer.[9] The part about Fedor being calm was true, as he was known for his intelligence and levelheadedness. He spoke English, German, and Russian, and there are claims that he could speak two more languages. He died of pneumonia in 1904. (Some sources state 1903.)

2 Prince Randian
Oddity: Totally Limbless

Photo credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Prince Randian was born in British Guiana in 1871. He was totally limbless. He was called different names, like The Snake Man, The Living Torso, The Human Worm, and The Human Caterpillar. The last name was about the striped clothing he wore and the fact that he moved around by wiggling on the floor.

Prince Randian performed at several shows and museums but spent most of his time with P.T. Barnum’s circus, where he performed unbelievable tasks like writing, painting, shaving, and lighting cigarettes. Prince Randian didn’t just light cigarettes without his arms. He also rolled the cigarettes and removed the matchsticks he used to light the cigarettes from matchboxes.[10]

1 Charles Stratton
Oddity: Dwarfism

Photo credit: Wikimedia

General Tom Thumb was one of P.T. Barnum’s most popular and well-known oddities. He was born Charles Stratton on January 4, 1838, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to a carpenter and a housewife. Both of his parents were of normal height and stature, but young Stratton was not so fortunate. He stopped growing when he reached just six months old and would not begin to grow again until much later. In 1842, Barnum sought the legendary four-year-old boy who weighed as much as an infant—he weighed just 15 pounds and stood 25 inches tall. The showman wanted to add some new attractions to his already-famous Hall of Living Curiosities in New York City. Barnum offered $3 a week to Charlie’s parents, and then it was off to New York.

Barnum advertised Stratton as an 11-year-old boy named Tom Thumb from England. He would often dress as Napoleon or a Scottish Highlander. Within a month, Tom Thumb was a major hit, and Barnum increased his pay to $50 per week—a considerable amount in the 1840s. When Stratton was six years old, Barnum took the child to England, charming the crowds. Even Queen Victoria came to see him—twice. In 1856, Barnum and Stratton, who was now at his full height of 3 feet, toured the U.S.

Tom Thumb continued to draw crowds to the museum, and, in 1863, Barnum arranged the celebrity wedding of the century. General Tom Thumb married another of Barnum’s curiosities, Lavinia Warren. Many people saw Barnum’s wedding as a publicity stunt, but the couple insisted that they were in love. Following the wedding, they honeymooned at the White House and performed for Abraham Lincoln. Stratton died in 1883 at the age of 45 from a stroke.


Read about more unique human beings on Top 10 Human Sideshow Freaks and 10 Lesser-Known Circus Sideshow Freaks.

fact checked by Jamie Frater