The List: Five sideshow curiosities

Next week Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow, the recreation of a lost world of original vintage circus sideshows, arrives in north London complete with original stalls and sideshows from the 1930s-1950s. The event has been put together by Prof Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield Library.

Here she picks five of her favourite attractions and curiosities:

1. Pavilion of the Gigantic Whale

A 95ft blue whale skeleton, salvaged with difficulty from the North Sea, was displayed in a giant tent at Charing Cross, London, in 1831. For a shilling, visitors could look at the whale and for two shillings they could walk in “and sit in the belly of the whale” while reading free copies of natural history publications.

2. The Industrious Fleas

There have been many performing flea sideshows but this one, presented by Signor Bertolotto at 238 Regent Street, London, in 1832 was the first to be recorded in Britain. His troupe of 100 trained acrobatic fleas “after the most unwearied perseverance, have been taught to go through a variety of feats truly wonderful”. Later flea shows included the Educated Fleas, who were given the names of the politicians of the time.

3. General Tom Thumb

Charles Stratton (1838-1883) was an American dwarf and a distant relative of PT Barnum who became famous when the great showman took the six-year-old on a tour of Europe in 1844. At that date the boy was just over 2ft tall (as an adult he grew to 3ft 3in). Barnum taught Stratton to sing, dance and banter on stage, and, exhibited under the stage name of General Tom Thumb, he made his London debut at the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly. When in 1863, Stratton married Lavinia Warren, who was shorter than he was, this sensational celebrity news knocked the civil war off the front pages of US newspapers.

4. ‘The British Edison’

Walford Bodie (1869-1939), calling himself the British Edison, started his electrical magic act at fairs. He would pass 27,000 volts through his body and then light up electric bulbs with his bare hands. Bodie was still running his electric show in Blackpool when he died in 1939.

5. The Great Omi

One of the most famous sideshow performers of the 20th century, the Great Omi, was born Horace Ridler in 1892. A soldier in the first world war, he underwent a transformation on leaving the army and was decorated by the tattooist George Burchett between 1927 and 1934 in the style of a zebra, using black dye that turned the curved stripes cobalt blue when inserted under the epidermis. It took more than 150 hours to decorate head, neck and face and other parts of the body, requiring an estimated 500m needle pricks to his torso. Omi first appeared in London in 1934 with the Bertram Mills Circus, and performed until the end of the 1950s before retiring to Sussex, where he died in 1969.

Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow, 23-29 April,

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