James H. McKenzie (1862 -1952): Freak Shows and The Fair

“It did not take much to amuse those in the country in those days.”

James H. McKenzie P. 178

The fairs of the 19th century were huge. They were widely popular and a big hit with many people. Everyone was looking for a sense of relief and entertainment to distract themselves from the troubles of their everyday lives. The fairs did this. They were the only amusement in the countryside and were performed mainly in rural areas. James was very interested in these old shows, the main amusement of the past days, the fairs that created the entertainment of James’ time.

Harvard Theater Collection – John Harris, Bartholomew –
Bartholomew Fair as illustrated in 1808

One of the first fairs created was the Bartholomew Fair, in London, a fair created in the year 1133, that went on till 1855. The fair originally was a cloth fair, a chance for people to come together and trade cloth as well as other goods. It was known internationally and attracted people from all classes. Eventually, the fair stopped selling cloth and started to entertain with acts such as sideshows, prize-fighters, musicians, wire-walkers, acrobats, puppets, and wild animals taking part.

A big part of the old fairs was the ‘freaks’. The ‘freaks’ were introduced after the leaders noticed a loss of popularity in their shows. The shows lost their energy, and amusement declined. The showmen and their audience began to crave something different, something new. The shows came to struggle financially, with people lacking the same enthusiasm as they once did for the once marvellous acts. The audience needed a new excitement, something that could freshly amaze them. The showrunners began their search and worked hard to find something that would bring people running to the stands once more.

Princess Lena Living Doll Show, 1900

“What a show.”

James H. McKenzie P. 187

Oxford St Giles, 1900

JoJo the Russian Dog-Face Boy.

This is where the ‘freaks’ came in, the “Marvellous Freaks”. They were a sight to see. The people of the nineteenth century were both amazed and horrified by these creatures, their unordinary skills and talents making them a fascination to those around them. They were different. People were transfixed by their appearance and mannerisms and hastened to see them perform. Amongst the ‘freaks’ of those days were The Little Lady, “A woman with three sucking breasts all functioning” (187), people dressed as a King and a Queen with rats and mice swarming all over them, The Hairy man, Two-headed females, A man with horns and The Bearded Lady, as well as a strong man who would lift one ton and fourteen and a half pounds. These individuals were marvellous and in came the audiences in their hundreds, eager to see the freaks, and fascinated by their differences.

James remarks in his work that the new ‘freaks’ of his days could not compare to these old ‘freaks’, who had come and completely changed the fairs with their uniqueness. The fair had humming booths which displayed long pictures and flying machines in which all the actors flew. The fair also had dancing booths, where nineteen dancers would perform and a turkey ram with had a lot of wool on its tail. The fairs had its appeal without the ‘freaks’, but with the ‘freaks’ they were unstoppable. The word spread and tickets sold out fast. The fairs provided something the outside world could not.


McKenzie, James H. ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, 1:473

‘James H. McKenzie’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:473

Other Reading 

Historytoday.com. (2019). London’s Last Bartholomew Fair | History Today. [online] Available at: https://www.historytoday.com/archive/london%E2%80%99s-last-bartholomew-fair [Accessed 13 Apr. 2019].

19th Century Freak Shows

Bogdan, R. (2009). Freak show. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Durbach, N. (2010). Spectacle of deformity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

The University of Sheffield. (n.d.). Freak Shows. [online] Available at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca/researchandarticles/freakshows [Accessed 13 Apr. 2019].

The Vintage News. (2019). Famous 1800’s photographer had an obsession with freak shows and the people who worked there. [online] Available at: https://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/03/26/famous-1800s-photographer-obsession-freak-shows-people-worked/ [Accessed 13 Apr. 2019].

Tromp, M. (2008). Victorian freaks. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

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