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Wild, Weird, and Wonderful—
The Lost World of the Midway
by Bob Brooke

 

The old-time carnival midway, with its freak show offering illicit thrills and games that looked easy but seemed impossible to win isn’t the same as it once was. Loud music and flashing lights have replaced the carny's shouted come-on. Government regulators have cracked down on the shady games. And the freak show has been shut down by politically correct attitudes.

The American midway as it’s known today had a rather circuitous beginning. The bizarre world of freak exhibits and games began just after the War of 1812 with a farmer from Somers, New York, known as Hackaliah Bailey. His brother, a sea captain, bought a female African elephant for $20 and sold it to Bailey for $1,000.

The captain brought the elephant over from England and deposited her at Sing Sing, the nearest river town to Somers. Bailey walked the animal, which he called Old Bet, to his home 56 miles away. He exhibited the elephant in tavern yards and barns for a small fee and began to make a profit. His success encouraged others to invest in unusual animals for exhibition and take them on tour, thus beginning the traveling menagerie, a forerunner of today’s midway.


P.T. Barnum
P.T. Barnum, the master of the humbug, was the next to bring the midway closer to fruition. Born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, only 20 miles from where Bailey exhibited Old Bet, he eventually met Bailey while running a fruit stand in Bethel. And Bailey’s inventiveness with Old Bet made a lasting impression.

In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway in New York City. He exhibited “500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe” and kept traffic moving through the museum with a sign that read, “This Way to the Egress”–“egress” was another word for exit, and Barnum’s patrons would have to pay another quarter to reenter the museum.

Some of his most famous attractions were Joice Heth, billed as George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse and the “Feejee Mermaid,” a monkey's body grafted onto a fish and embalmed which a Boston seaman purchased near Calcutta. Even though belief in the mermaid’s authenticity was mixed, no one doubted Barnum’s ability to capture the imagination of the public. Barnum knew how much people wanted to see the rare and exotic in their own species as well as others.

By 1865, Barnum was the biggest promoter of individual attractions the world had ever known, but he was at heart an exhibitor of curiosities, human and otherwise.

The Beginnings of the Modern Midway
The modern midway began in the U.S. with the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago with the invention of electricity. The midway, with its wide array of rides and concessions, was a huge success. The following year, Capt. Paul Boyton borrowed the midway concept and opened the world's first modern amusement park, known as Paul Boyton's Water Chutes, on Chicago's South side. Unlike the primitive trolley parks that sprang up outside towns and cities across the nation, the Water Chutes was the first amusement park to charge admission and use rides as its main draw rather than picnic facilities or a lake. The success of his Chicago park inspired Boyton to open a similar facility at the fledgling Coney Island resort in New York in 1895.

The midway grew tremendously over the next three decades. Royal American was the biggest and best, traveling the continent to all the major fairs and festivals. Traveling midways, known more commonly as carnivals, set up in vacant lots throughout the country.

Games of Chance
The idea for games of chance came from Europe. There, outdoor gardens featuring live entertainment and games had entertained people for centuries. Huge gaming wheels, featuring fancy mirrored decorations became the centerpieces of the modern midway.

The "Roman target" game, created by Carl Woodin of Joplin, Missouri, in the early 1940s, evolved from the old wheel of fortune. A Roman target player would aim a cork gun at a moving target on the wheel to try to stop the arrow at a particular prize, such as a comb, a squirt gun, a whistle, or perhaps a $10 bill.

Another popular midway game was the “6-Cat” game. Here the customer would throw balls at six stuffed cats standing on a rack. Sound simple? It wasn’t, for nothing was a simple as it appeared on the midway. If a player hit a cat too hard, it would fall off the rack onto a shelf, and it didn't count. The trick, it seemed, was to hit the cat right on the nose, and not too hard. What the player didn't know is that the operator controlled a floating shelf behind the rack, and he had a lot of practice catching cats on that shelf. This type of game became known as an alibi game. The operator always had to come up with an alibi why the player didn't win. These have been outlawed in most places.

The Scissor Bucket was a throwing game in which the ball had to rebound from a target just right to fall into a bucket or circle. Hidden from the player was a second operator, watching the sucker from behind a two-way mirror, and controlling the tension on the target surface. The hidden operator would make the ball bounce away or drop short, depending on the strength of the throw.

Lee Moss of Hot Springs, Arkansas invented a type of gaming machine called the Dragline. Using a claw, players could dig into trays of dimes and silver dollars, but the government said a money-for-money game constituted gambling, so it outlawed cash prizes. Also, the crane would stop at a random spot and grab whatever was underneath. But the government called that a game of chance. Originally, a person pulled a cord to get it started, but later, coin slots replaced the operator. And in the original, the prizes rested in seed corn, but carnival people eventually grew tired of mice invading their machines during winter storage, so they replaced corn with carpeting.

The Sideshow
Freak shows or sideshows are all but gone on the midway. Early versions of these shows had their beginnings at English fairs of the early Renaissance. But it was P.T. Barnum that made them popular in America.

People accused him of trickery, which brought Barnum notoriety. He exhibited increasingly diverse oddities, such as giants, dwarfs, and albinos. By the 1870s, museums like Barnum’s American Museum in New York, sprang up across the nation, making human oddities the chief form of entertainment. Soon these exhibits went on the road, becoming the forerunners of the “sideshow.”

Most midways often had several sideshows, located in tents. One of the main types of sideshow, popularly called a “freak show,” since human oddities were usually among the exhibits, became known to “carnys” as a “Ten-in-One.” This featured a number of acts, often arranged along a platform, with the crowd moving from one to the other in sequence. Because the show ran continuously, if a spectator entered the tent during the magician’s act, for instance, the guide or “lecturer” would lead him or her through the remaining nine acts and when the magician appeared again, that was the signal to exit the show.

At the end of each act or exhibit, the lecturer would offer spectators a true life booklet or photograph. Frequently giants sold huge finger rings and midgets offered miniature bibles. Such an extra sale became known as an "aftercatch."

Meanwhile, outside, a "talker" or barker drummed up a new crowd, usually with the assistance of one or more of the acts to provide a taste of what was inside. He did his pitch on a bally platform, coming from the word ballyhoo, meaning to promote sensationally.

Oddities and exotic acts featured in the Ten-in-One varied according to the show and availability of performers. These can be divided into categories: “born” human oddities, “made” freaks, “gaffed” or fake freaks, those with a special skill, illusions, exotic animals, and inanimate objects.

Carnies subdivided “born" human oddities into two types–those with an obvious disfigurement and “anatomical wonders.” Midgets, like Barnum’s Tom Thumb, giants, conjoined twins, like Barnum’s Chang and Eng, bearded ladies, those with skin abnormalities, are good examples of the former. Sideshow owners often imaginatively interpreted exhibits such as “The Caterpillar Man” and “Dickie, the Penguin Boy.”

An "anatomical wonder" was a sideshow performer, usually perceived as a human oddity, who did an act. James Morris, known as “The Elastic Skin Man,” could stretch the skin of his cheek eight inches and pull his chest skin to the crown of his head. Charles Tripp, "The Armless Wonder," teamed up with Eli Bowen, "the Legless Wonder," to perform amusing stunts like riding a bicycle built for two.

Tattooed people are good examples of the category of “made” freaks. One of the most famous was Horace Ridler, a British ex-army officer who decided to get tattooed all over with zebra-like stripes. Known as "The Great Omi, The Zebra Man,” he claimed to have been forcibly tattooed by New Guinea savages and became one of the highest paid sideshow performers.

Other "made" freaks include a Mortado, the “crucified man,” who had his hands and feet pierced surgically. In the holes he concealed capsules of red liquid that spouted forth when a men pounded spikes through them. He eventually became “Mortado, the Human Fountain” at Coney Island, utilizing a specially designed chair with plumbing fixtures.

When the real thing wasn’t available, sideshow owners turned to “gaffing” or faking freaks. Fake alligator men or women could be produced by painting their bodies with a weak solution of glue and, after it dried, having them twist to create the cracking effect of a real skin condition called ichthyosis.

Sometimes owners gaffed a “born” oddity to enhance it. Through the use of makeup, William Durks, who had an eye and nostril on either side of a growth in the center of his face, enhanced the effect by using makeup to add an extra central "eye" and two "nostrils," becoming "The Man with Three Eyes." Sideshow owners often exaggerated claims and fabricated backgrounds. For instance, they subtracted inches from the height of midgets and had giants wear lifts and tall hats.

Midway crowds loved performers with special skills, such as sword swallowers, fire eaters and fire breathers, snake charmers, contortionists, strong men, and torturists, who stuck themselves with pins or lay on a bed of nails.

Illusionists
Illusions also drew spectators. Transformations, such as girl-to-gorilla or skeletal-corpse- to-living-vampire, tempted spectators’ curiosity. An illusion that was especially popular around the end of the 19th century was an effect known to magicians and carnies as the "blade box." A young woman would lie in a box intersected with a number of blades. Often for an extra charge, spectators could come up on the platform and peer inside.

The same oddities that affect humans also affect other animals--three-legged sheep, natural hybrids such as a dog/racoon or a zebra/donkey. These hybrids usually didn’t match their banners, which showed the rear of one animal attached to the front of another, when, in actuality, they were merely crossbreeds.

Sideshow owners also exhibited “curios”–a photograph of the world’s largest horse or the world’s smallest preserved in a jar. Banners distinguished the live exhibits from the curios with the word “Alive.”

People also paid to see inanimate objects, such as preserved human or animal specimens, for example Barnum's "Feejee mermaid.” Various sideshow mummies, including the alleged body of John Wilkes Booth, appeared from time to time. And then there was the bullet-ridden car of fugitives Bonnie and Clyde.

Midway collectibles span the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Handcrafted wheels used in the games of chance are some of the larger items. Some of the most elaborate came from the 1930s to 1950s, the heyday of the carnival midway.

Collectors also seek out chalkware prizes, hand-decorated horses, dogs, ships, cartoon characters, risqué bikini figurines and more. Rare ones can fetch $200 to $300 each in fine condition, but chalkware is notoriously fragile and easy to chip, so the few that do turn up are often damaged. Some have cross-over interest, because they're knock-offs of pop culture characters such as Superman or the Lone Ranger.
 

Midway Art
Midway art is also popular. Decorations from carnival rides, known as "monkey faces," are one of the more unique midway collectibles. And, of course, there were the sideshow banners.

Since these were large, it’s more difficult for an individual collector to display them. Fred Johnson of O. Henry Tent & Awning, Chicago was one of the best banner artists. His sideshows banners depicted such human oddities as The Rubber-Necked Lady in minute detail.

The old-fashioned midway catered to the curiosity seeker in everyone. Often a spectator would ask of an exhibit, “Is it real?” Showman Ward Hall responded, "Oh, it's all real. Some of it's really real, some of it's really fake, but it's all really good."
 

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How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

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