This digital collection is comprised of 19th century photographs of sideshow and dime museum “freak show” performers from the Special Collection Resource Center's (SCRC) Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs.


The majority of the photos are by American photographer Charles Eisenmann and his successor Frank Wendt, with many others by their contemporaries. The use of costumes, set pieces, and the composition of the photos all serve to create the roles and characters that the performers are embodying. Information written on the photos exaggerated the physical qualities of the performers and often described fictionalized life stories that better suited the performed role; sometimes, the photographs themselves were doctored for more extreme effect. These so-called “freak shows” and performers had a profound influence on the developing understandings of diverse bodies and the medicalization of difference in 19th and 20th century Europe and the United States.


This collection has recently undergone remediation of the language used in the descriptions in order to focus on re-centering these performers and describing their performed roles respectfully.


Historical records are evidence of the time in which they were created and may contain language and images that are racist, homophobic, sexist, ableist, or otherwise derogatory and insensitive. This collection is presented for its historic and research value. Viewers may find some content objectionable.


Thumbnail image: Bertha Ritchie, undated. Syracuse University Libraries Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs.

Bertha Ritchie, Sideshow Performer