please help me find/ID an older book about 'sideshow freaks'
February 13, 2013 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Another fantastic round of "AskMe, Name That Book!" Although I cannot remember the title, author/editor, or what the cover looked like at all, I do remember a great deal of detail about what is contained therein. The book I am looking for gave brief, factual descriptions and synopses of the lives of people who were commonly referred to/treated as 'sideshow freaks' in the late 19th/early 20th century, many of whom were also circus performers with P.T. Barnum.

Along with The Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were, the book I am trying to find basically defined my childhood, blew the doors off of my already-ridiculous imagination, and led to a lifelong obsession with all things generally considered strange, unusual, morbid, and/or off-putting (think: I want to get married at the Mutter Museum). It took what many would consider an odd, uncomfortable, or even humorous subject and treated it with total respect. The book is not directly related to Tod Browning's 1932 movie Freaks, but it does feature many of the same people.

Other facts:
* Not a short book at all, maybe 150-200 pages, plus photos?
* Divided into chapters based on the "type" of "freak" -- unusually hairy people, unusually tall/short people, etc.
* I was reading a not-nearly-new copy in the mid-1980s, so it was probably published more than 30 years ago
* All photos were in black and white
* People who were definitely featured/profiled in the book: Chang and Eng Bunker, Jojo the Dog-Faced Boy, Prince Randian, Zip the Pinhead, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Lucia Zarate, General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, Joseph Merrick, Johnny Eck, Robert Wadlow -- and that's just off the top of my head
* Included a gruesome and depressing story about how Patrick Cotter O'Brien (a/k/a the Irish Giant) made his friends swear not to sell his body after his death, for fear he would be put on display, but someone paid someone off and his body ended up being exhumed from its giant lead casket, boiled to take the flesh off, and his skeleton was put on display anyway

It's been driving me mad for decades that I remember an incredible amount of detail from the book's contents -- like the story of Chang and Eng doing tumbling exercises to lengthen the band of increasingly elastic connective tissue that conjoined them, and the aforementioned Irish Giant tale -- but not the title. All of my searches over the intervening decades have been fruitless. I would just love to track down a copy and re-experience the greatness once more.

Anyone who is able to identify this book with these vague details gets my eternal love and devotion. Thank you!
posted by divined by radio to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Was it Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others by Daniel Mannix? (I know it's got a more recent publication date than you specify, but I'm pretty sure the edition on Amazon is a reprint, because I seem to recall reading for the first time about 30 years ago myself.)
posted by scody at 10:11 AM on February 13, 2013

Yep, it looks like the original for that book was published in 1976 -- as such, particularly when reading the reviews, I really thought it would be The One, but the title just wasn't clicking for me, as I knew it had been something rather unique (which is such a vague descriptor that I didn't even bother mentioning it in the question). However, looking through Amazon's 'Customers Who Viewed This Item Also Viewed' section for Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others led me to the real answer!

The book is Very Special People by Frederick Drimmer, originally published in 1973. I recognized the cover immediately.

I cannot really comprehend that after all of these years of fruitless searching, it's just right there, right now, and I can buy it for one penny! Yay internet!
Bonus, from one of the Amazon reviews of Very Special People: "I would not recommend it to the very young and/or impressionable, as it could be haunting..."

Thank you so much, scody. I would not have found this without your answer and the book you linked is going on my to-read list, for sure.
posted by divined by radio at 10:33 AM on February 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Victorian Grotesque is a similar book I remember poring over as a kid, but I see that's going for megabucks on Amazon now.
posted by vickyverky at 10:47 AM on February 13, 2013

Also possibly of interest: Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (previously) by Ricky Jay (more previously).
posted by ethand at 11:19 AM on February 13, 2013

The wonderful scody is indeed worthy of your eternal love and devotion.
posted by adamvasco at 11:22 AM on February 13, 2013

Further to the answer scodie gave, Memoirs of a Swordswallower by Daniel Mannix is superb - it's his memoir of working in a carnival in the 30's and 40's and may also be of interest to you
posted by thatwhichfalls at 12:08 PM on February 13, 2013

To follow up on the OP, I have since discovered that there are actually two men who were both colloquially known as Irish Giant; the rather horrifying anecdote I was originally thinking of involved Charles Byrne the Irish Giant, not Patrick Cotter O'Brien the Irish Giant.

The more you know!
:shooting star:
posted by divined by radio at 4:59 PM on February 13, 2013

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