From bearded ladies to contortionists to sword swallowers, circus performers brought feats of strength and oddities that ordinary people had never seen. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey made clowns and acrobats a normal experience during a circus performance. I mean, we are talking about “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (And no we aren’t referring to the Hugh Jackman movie, okay maybe we are a little). Anyways, we’ve compiled photos from the circus that you probably haven’t seen before. Brace yourself.
Nope, this is not some kind of optical illusion. You really are looking at a trainer working with a leopard so that the feline will perform tricks for circus audiences. 1906 is when this photo was snapped.
This photo is from 1940! As you can see, the trainer Walter McClain is working with his elephants at the Ringling Circus stop in Sarasota, Florida. Elephants are often a crowd favorite.
Meet Alexander Marshal, AKA Strongman, from sometime in the 1930’s. This circus performer lifts two women while holding onto a steel pull gripped in his teeth. That sounds incredibly painful and even harder to pull off! We don’t recommend trying this at home.
In 1918, George Anger and Pygmie Klik-Ko were Barnum & Bailey’s most popular performers. Can you take one guess as to why? We know, it’s a doozy.
You’re looking at the contortionist Salm the “elastic wonder of the world” as he sits atop a flower vase. Oh, and this photo is from the early 1900’s.
In 1930, people from a nearby rooftop watched as the family members of the Otaris aerial troupe did their balance upside down on a high-wire in Sarasota, Florida. If you have a fear of heights, this trick definitely isn’t for you!
And we thought the family in the last photo were daredevils. We have a lone daredevil walking the tightrope as circus attendees hold their breath. This photo is from the early 1900’s.
We’re not sure when this photo was taken but we don’t think that’s the point. This is definitely a cute Lion King moment. Olga the lion tamer is only armed with a chair and a stick as she tests the patience of three male lions. GULP.
We know that practice makes perfect but this is one family activity I would like to avoid. However, in 1944, this is just what the Flying Wallendas did! Often you would see them perfecting their tightrope walking routine.
Strike A Pose
1899 is when Adije, a young lion tamer posed for the camera with her feline performers. Don’t think we’d ever try something like this but Adije seems to know something we don’t. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be in a cage with three lions, right?
If you’re not a fan of clowns then we recommend you skip this page! The photo below is of a clown from the Cole Bros Circus as he chats with actor Spencer Tracy during a circus performance in Hollywood, California.
In 1910, four performers from Hanneford’s Canadian Circus posed for the camera. What their role was in the circus is not something we know. Although we’ll let you fill in the blanks.
Behind The Scenes
1928 is when this photo was taken. It shows the area directly behind the circus tent – that’s where the performers prepared and staged their entrances. It was known as the “back door” which was then later called the “backyard.”
Hear Me Roar
I definitely would not want to trade spots with this female lion tamer. She is working with a group of lions from the Bertram Mills Touring Circus, but that doesn’t really ease my apprehension.
Berlin 1921 is when this photo of a woman brushing a circus hippo’s teeth was snapped. We’re not sure if that’s more or less dangerous than dealing with lions. Maybe they’re on the same level?
Jojo, aka the Dog Face Boy. Taken in 1900, the circus used to feature many people with abnormalities.
The Bearded Lady
Taken in 1907, this image shows Clementine Clatteaux Delait, a bearded lady.
German strongmen Eugene Sandow and Goliath showing off their skills and wrestling with a fake bear in 1910.
The Living Doll
Anita, who was known as ‘The Living Doll’ poses for a portrait. Taken in 1912, Anita is all dressed up to take her photo.
Taken in 1920, here we can see a circus elephant balancing on its front legs on bottles. We must say, it looks very nervewracking to be standing next to it, in case it loses its balance and falls.
Here we can see a female contortionist from 1925. Being a contortionist takes some serious skill, and clearly, this woman had it.
Daredevil Gladys Roy does not mess around with her training! She trains for her flying acrobatics by balancing on the rooftop of a Los Angeles skyscraper. This picture was taken in 1925.
Taken in 1940, this picture shows a member of Sir Robert Fossett’s Family Circus grooming the show’s boxing kangaroo meticulously.
From 1908, in this picture, Mr. Valenches can be seen holding two of his performing animals: a dog and a fox. Just like the fox and the hound, right?
Two mandrills named Jacko and Bess were dressed up in a fancy suit and dress to make them look like a smart couple in 1931 when this picture was taken. They performed at the Olympia Circus in London.
Dixie The Elephant
This was in 1932, when Dixie, the elephant from Whipsnade Zoo, performed a bit with her keeper, George Braham. How crazy is that?
In 1930, they seemed to think it would be a good idea to place a block on the stomach of a strongman and have someone crush it with a sledgehammer. We don’t want to know how this stunt turned out.
Another example of an extremely dangerous performance, here we have the world’s strongest man, Samson Brown, letting a motorcycle run him over in 1934.
This image is from 1935, showing a man carrying two 36-year-old twins in bags. The twins were part of a circus act.
The Giraffe Necked Woman
The Giraffe Necked Woman is being examined by medical professionals in this image from 1935. These women were members of the Bertram Mills Freak Show.
Here we can see Alfred Hyland Gurning in 1938. He was a face contortionist, here as part of an exhibition in Glasgow.
A Sioux Family
This image was taken in 1930, depicting the director of the Sarrasani Circus posing with a Sioux family in South Dakota. At the time, he was presenting them as part of his circus.
Baron Richard Nowak
19-year-old Baron Richard Nowak is a Czech showman who is 21 inches tall and weighs 17 lbs. In this image from 1940, we can see him nestled inside a tuba while playing the trumpet. This was in the Hamid Morton Circus.
Taken in 1942, this image shows a seal performing while in a harness at the circus with his trainer nearby.
Part of the Ringling Bros and Barnum Bailey Circus, Gargantua the Great was a famous giant gorilla back when this photo was taken, in 1940. His face was scarred due to a sailor throwing acid in his face when on a ship from Africa.
Taken in 1920, we can see here a strongwoman balancing a piano as well as a pianist on her chest, as if it’s no big deal.
A Lion Suit
The date of this photo is unspecified, but we can see here a clown acting out his routine together with another circus performer who is wearing a realistic lion suit.
Taken in 1910, this image shows a clown from Hannefords Canadian Circus showing off his big pants proudly.
We don’t know when this photo was taken, but we can see a young man who was afflicted with Ectrodactyly, also known as Cleft Hand.
A Hoisted Elephant
The date of this photo is unspecified. In the photo, we can see an elephant who was hoisted off a ship with a pulley onto the dock below to make a safe landing.
Minnesota Wooly Baby
Alice E. Doherty, also known as the Minnesota Wooly Baby, was a woman who suffered from a disorder that left her with excessive facial hair. She was one of the circus’ most popular acts as there was no one like her.
Pip and Flip were very odd looking twins who originated from Yucatan. They eventually became the inspiration behind the TV show American Horror Story. They are without a doubt the most famous twins that came out of the circus world.
Unzie The Albino
Unzie the Albino had a disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes. Unzie was regarded as Santa’s illegitimate child, so it makes sense that he was many kid’s favorite.
The Bearded Woman
This bearded woman is none other than Annie Jones. Annie was one of the freak circus’ most famous bearded women. People could not get over the fact that a woman could possibly grow a beard that thick.
Koo Koo The Bird Girl
It was said that Minnie Woolsey, also known as Koo Koo the Bird Girl, was kidnapped from a mental asylum and brought to work at the circus. We do have to admit, she creepily resembles a bird.
The Legless Acrobat
The Legless Acrobat was another member of the circus back in the day. This photo is of him and his family just before a big show in New York. We have to admit, the son has an uncanny resemblance to his father.
The Tattoo Lady
Although tattoos are very common now, at a point in time, they were actually quite taboo. This woman was hired by the circus because her tattoos were considered quite odd as barely anyone had any.
This woman had freakishly big feet, but no one knows for sure the reason why. The best guess is elephantiasis, but it was still never confirmed. We can’t help but wonder how she possibly got around as walking seems out of the question.
The Modern Samson
John Jennings was superhuman when it came to his incredible strength. During his days with the circus, he was regarded by fans and coworkers alike as the modern version of Samson. Just look at that ability!
Albino African American Twins
These Albino African-American brothers were taken forcefully from their home in Virginia in the early 1900’s and brought to the circus. The owners of the circus had never seen anything like them and decided they had to be in their show.
Practice Makes Perfect
All professionals need practice to master their craft, and the circus workers are no different. Before packing up and heading to the next show, this little person is working on his notes in order to achieve perfection.
The Greatest Show On Earth
When the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey merged in 1919, they established an impressive name for themselves. The clowns and acrobats that served as a staple in all of their shows helped them achieve the title of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Marcellus Golden Models
The Marcellus Golden Models were a group of men and women painted gold who did impressive acrobatic tricks. They were all extremely flexible and had amazing balance…we guess this craft wouldn’t be possible without it!
Two Midget Clowns
This photo was taken backstage after a show in the year 1940. It just goes to show that without all of the makeup and costumes (the man on the left), they’re just regular people (the man on the right). The cigarette and the hug the friends are exchanging proves this idea even more.
This old photo was taken as this tightrope walker was risking his life high in the sky. We’re sure his balance and concentration were both top notch as it’s pretty much required for the art. We wonder if the police officer looking on was there in case something went array, or if he was just another intrigued onlooker.
The circus was known for orchestrating boxing matches for the enjoyment of the crowd. They usually paired opposites up against one another, making for a more exciting and engaging match. As you can see here, a very large, short man was paired up against a very tall, thin man.
In 1977 in London, a 14-year-old girl named Zazel was the first person to ever be shot out of a cannon. We find it super strange that the first person to ever be put up to this would be so young! What were those in charge thinking?!
Circus Clown Lou Jacobs
Lou Jacobs was a very famous clown known for his acts in the circus. Kids loved him for his unique character and amicable personality. His crazy hair and fun face makeup only added to his appeal. What’s a circus without a clown, right?
The Animal Psychiatrist
The famous animal psychiatrist Marilyn Biehl was an integral part of the circus. She was hired in 1968 by the Circus Circus Casino to assist in training the animals. She was also in charge of keeping them happy. Without her expertise, the success of the circus would have been very different.
It was not unlikely for the circus to take animals no one thought could be trained, and train them. We’re talking all sorts of wild animals such as lions, tigers, and bears…oh my! As you are probably aware, bears are very dangerous animals, so it is astonishing that this woman is riding one with no care in the world.