The first sideshow ever dates all the way back to mid-seventeenth century England. But this cruel form of entertainment– which was ignorantly coined a “freak show” during its rise– would not reach its height of popularity until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
During that time, freak shows became a very lucrative avenue for exhibitors. They capitalized by ostracizing people with physical, behavioral, or mental rarities since such differences were viewed as taboo.
And along the way, most sideshow stars were also subjected to brutal treatment– one of whom was Julia Pastrana.
“The World’s Ugliest Woman”
Julia Pastrana was an Indigenous woman born in 1834 with two rare diseases, which resulted in her having atypical facial features and hair covering much of her body.
And according to reports about her birth, Julia’s mother apparently believed that supernatural forces had somehow interfered. In fact, Julia’s mother allegedly even whispered “naualli” after seeing her newborn– a word that refers to mythical shapeshifting werewolves that were frequently blamed for physical differences in babies.
Still, the first few years of Julia’s life were spent with her mother in a small Mexican community. Then, while Julia was still very young, the pair left town and reportedly lived in a mountain cave.
This move ultimately led Julia and her mother to be discovered by Mexican herders– who took Julia and put her in an orphanage. And once there, Julia became a sort of local celebrity who fascinated community members.
George Wick, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; pictured above is Julia’s embalmed body