Freak shows are public displays of human “freaks of nature”—human being with rare or unique biological characteristics. Dating back centuries, freak shows became especially popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when promoters, hucksters, and quacks turned them into an extremely profitable commercial enterprise in America and Europe. One of those who excelled at presenting freak shows was showman P.T. Barnum. After the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution, freak shows would often feature people who purported to be “missing links” between modern humans and their ape-like ancestors. Freak shows demeaned people who were different and dehumanized them for profit.
Three months after Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species, American showman P.T. Barnum unveiled a new attraction at his popular museum in New York City. It featured what was described as “THE WHAT IS IT? or MAN-MONKEY.” Visitors were told that the creature had been captured by hunters in Africa who discovered “a race of beings roving among the trees and branches” like apes and monkeys. Museum staff declared that the creature had been pronounced by scientists as a “connecting link” between African blacks and lower animals. In reality, Barnum’s so-called “MAN-MONKEY” was an African-American man named William Henry Johnson. Thanks to Barnum, Johnson spent much of his life on public display as an evolutionary “missing link,” sometimes in a cage.
“Krao the Missing Link” was a young woman from Southeast Asia who was publicly displayed in the late nineteenth century. Promoted as “living proof of Darwin’s Theory of the Descent of Man,” Krao was described as “a perfect specimen of the step between man and monkey.” Actually, she suffered from hyper-trichosis, a rare genetic condition that produces excessive hair.
“Congo—the Ape Man” was an African American man publicly exhibited as a “missing link” in the early 1900s. He was usually exhibited in a cage next to a chimpanzee.
Percilla Bejano was a young woman with hyper-trichosis, which causes the production of excessive hair. She was exhibited during her freak show career as the “Monkey Girl,” half human, half monkey.