c1860s Circus Freaks CDV, “Siamese Twins” Millie and Christine McKoy

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We sold this item at auction for $250
 in November, 2023.

From Slaves to Circus Performers

The antique CDV photo of “Siamese Twins” Millie and Christine McKoy, published by J. Wood, New York, c1860s, sold for $250 at Britannic Auctions.

Photographs like this one were produced for various reasons, primarily to satisfy the public’s fascination with the unusual and to capitalize on the popularity of circus sideshows and exhibitions. Photographers often collaborated with circus owners and showmen to capture images of their performers, including circus freaks, to be sold as souvenirs to audiences.

“Siamese Twins”, Conjoined at the Lower Spine

Millie and Christine McKoy, conjoined twins born in 1851 in North Carolina, were joined at the lower spine, a condition known as pygopagus twins. Initially born into slavery, they were later purchased by showman J.P. Smith, who exhibited them as a curiosity.

Their unique condition made them objects of interest, and they were exploited for profit by showmen like J.P. Smith, who exhibited them in circus sideshows and other venues. In this context, they were often referred to as “circus freaks,” a term that reflects the exploitative nature of their public display.

Despite their challenging start in life, Millie and Christine rose to fame as entertainers during the 19th century, entertaining audiences with song and dance. Their performances took them across the United States and Europe, where they earned a substantial income.

The Lives of 19th Century Circus Freaks

“Circus freaks” were people with unique physical characteristics or conditions who were often exhibited as attractions in circus sideshows during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

These individuals, often marginalized by society due to their differences, found employment and a degree of fame within the circus industry.

Among the many types of circus freaks were bearded ladies, dwarfs, giants, and individuals with unusual medical conditions or deformities. Each had their own unique appeal to audiences, who were drawn to the spectacle and novelty of their weird appearances.

Despite the exploitative nature of their work, circus freaks could earn decent salaries compared to other occupations available to them at the time. Some became quite well-known and achieved a level of fame within the circus world, with their names becoming synonymous with their unique attributes.

Famous Circus Freaks

Among the most famous circus freaks of the 19th century was Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton), a dwarf performer who toured extensively with P.T. Barnum, becoming one of the best-known entertainers of his time.

Lionel the Lion-Faced Man (Stephan Bibrowski), born with hypertrichosis, gained fame for his unique appearance and toured with various circus shows, achieving financial success despite his condition.

Similarly, Josephine Myrtle Corbin, born with dipygus resulting in two pelvises and four legs, became a sideshow attraction, touring with circus shows and exhibitions, and attaining a degree of financial success and recognition during her career as a circus performer.

Famous African American Circus Freaks

In addition to Millie and Christine McCoy, there were a few other famous black circus freaks and performers.

One notable example is George and Willie Muse, also known as the “Eko and Iko” or “Sheep-Headed Men.” These brothers were African American albino twins who were kidnapped and forced to perform in circus sideshows. Despite their exploitation, they became well-known attractions, captivating audiences with their unique appearance.

Another example is William Henry Johnson, known as Zip the Pinhead, who had microcephaly and was showcased as a sideshow performer. Despite the derogatory nickname, Zip achieved fame and toured with various circus shows, garnering attention for his unusual appearance. These individuals, among others, contributed to the rich history of black circus performers and served as reminders of the complexities of race, exploitation, and entertainment during that era.

Collecting Circus History

Items such as vintage circus posters, handbills, programs, tickets, costumes, props, memorabilia, and antique photographs of circus performers, including “freak show” performers, are highly sought after by collectors.

We provide complimentary valuations for unusual portraits of circus freaks, and for collections of circus memorabilia. Please submit a consignment inquiry to get the process started.

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