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Secrets of the Sideshows

by Joe Nickell
The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 2005
401 pp., illus. 177 b/w. Trade, $32.95
ISBN: 0-8131-2358-5.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
School of Arts and Humanities, The University of Texas at Dallas


Throughout history, entertainers, either individually or in groups, have vied for attention and approval by offering impromptu or organized shows. Ancient Egyptian art depicts jugglers, acrobats, and clowns, along with exotic animals. The Romans built large roofless arenas called circuses where they held chariot races, various games, and public shows. Medieval crowds gathered at the tents and booths set up by traveling fairs. Eighteenth Century Londoners visited Philip Astley's Amphitheatre Riding House and enjoyed daily entertainment given by horseback riders, musicians, acrobats, tightrope walkers, and clowns. Since then the circus has grown and evolved at the hands of various promoters around the world.

One feature of this growth was the advent of the sideshow, literally entertainment placed to the side of the main walkway between the entrance and the central performance areas. There, in booths and tents, performers amazed us with feats like fire-eating and sword-swallowing, intrigued us with exhibitions of human oddities, and deceived us with illusions and outright fakes. In recent years, sideshows have fallen victim to the economics and logistics of traveling around the country, competition with other entertainment forms, and perhaps political correctness. As a result, sideshows have all but vanished from the American cultural landscape. Their legacy of romance looms large, however, as does their mystery, since many of their secrets remain unknown beyond the immediate sideshow community.

Secrets of Sideshows by Joe Nickell is an engaging exploration of these secrets, as well as the history and marvels of the sideshow. Nickell, a senior research fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, reveals the structure of a sideshow, explains specific methods behind the performances and the showperson's tactics for attracting and then dismissing crowds. He also discusses the behind-the-scenes secrets of sideshow life, including details of the men and women billed as sideshow freaks and performers.

Nickell devotes several chapters to the human oddities one might find in a typical sideshow: giants, dwarfs, fat people, living skeletons, Siamese twins, armless-and-legless individuals, "animal" people, hirsute men and women, contortionists, as well as created oddities like tattooed and pierced people. In each case he provides not only a thorough history of the role of each human oddity in the sideshow, but also incorporates information from the performers themselves. From this first-hand knowledge we learn not only about the lives and careers of sideshow performers but also the secrets of their performances. As a result, Secrets of Sideshows, is a heretofore unavailable look behind the curtain, an intimate examination of the nature and allure of sideshow life and legend.

Historical information and accounts aside, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Secrets of Sideshows is the revelation of the secrets behind sideshow acts like fire-eaters, sword swallowers, blockheads, snake charmers, and knife throwers. In each case, there is no trick, but rather several techniques upon which the performer relies. For example, fire eating involves tilting the head back, moistening well the lips, mouth, and tongue with saliva, breathing out gently and steadily as the flame approaches the mouth, and finally closing the mouth extinguishing the flame. Sword swallowing requires mastery of one's gag reflex. Specifically shaped and cleaned swords, with blunted tips, can help.

Human pincushions make use of areas of the body where nerves for reporting pain seem to be sparser, the shoulders and the inside of the forearm, for example. Knowing when the piercing will occur also seems to help, much the same as a diabetic who must self-inject with insulin often seems unaware of any pain associated with the needle piercing her skin.

Blockheads, performers who seemingly drive spikes, nails, and other objects into their heads, take advantage of the fact that the hole in the human nose goes over the roof of the mouth rather than up between the eyes. With careful manipulation, blockheads can present a convincing illusion. Snake charmers use the swaying of their bodies, not the sound of their flutes, to lead deadly snakes. Sometimes the snakes' venom sacks are removed, or their mouths sewn shut. Knife throwers rely on perfectly balanced knives, proper wrist technique, special trick blindfolds, and lots of practice for their shows. Magicians, escape artists, psychic marvels, torture boxes, living heads, and headless people all rely on illusion, concealment, mirrors, or misdirection.

In the end, Secrets of Sideshows, is an engaging and captivating look at the world behind the sideshow, its performers, and their tricks, real or illusionary. Nickell provides good entertainment and continues to keep alive the tradition and wonder that was the sideshow.




Updated 1st May 2006

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