Posts Tagged ‘Barnum’s Museum’

Zip the Pinhead at Coney Island

May 27, 2009

If the year was 1925 instead of 2009 and you were planning a trip to Coney Island, you would be able to see Zip the Pinhead, a P.T. Barnum freak show find who by the 1920s displayed himself at one of the boardwalk sideshows.

Zip_the_pinheadLike other freaks of the time, he was very popular; supposedly Charles Dickens and the Prince of Wales visited him, and he had his portrait done by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. He was also heralded for saving a little girl from drowning off Coney Island.

Despite his appearance, Zip wasn’t microcephalic (the medical term for having a pinhead). Nor was he mentally disabled, according to some accounts. He just happened to be born into a poor New Jersey family and then “discovered” by Barnum, who billed him as a “wild man” from Africa.

Apparently Zip laughed all the way to the bank. On his deathbed in 1926, the 80-something’s last words reportedly were “We fooled ’em for a long time, didn’t we?”

Check out more sideshow freaks and curiosities here.

Sideshow freaks and human curiosities

November 18, 2008

Legendary Coney Island amusement park Dreamland burned down in 1911, but that didn’t stop its owners from launching the Dreamland Circus Side Show on Surf Avenue soon after.

This 1930s photo shows some of the sideshow’s most famous performers (plus the newest attraction, “Mortado”). Note the Nedick’s on the right—once a big chain of hot dog and orange juice stands.










The granddaddy of all freak show promoters was P.T. Barnum; his museum on Ann Street in lower Manhattan attracted hundreds of thousands of gawkers each year.

“The Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” toured the country, luring crowds with its “peerless prodigies of physical phenomena,” including a bearded lady, sword swallower, and “Egyptian giant.”



Another bizarro Barnum exhibit: babies. Twins, triplets, “quaterns”  . . . it seems 19th century New Yorkers were as fascinated by multiples as we are today.

When little babies entertained New York

July 6, 2008

New Yorkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries loved babies so much, they paid an admission fee to see them in museums and side shows. Hard to believe, but it was perfectly acceptable for showmen to display infants, especially preemies and multiples, for public enjoyment.

Barnum’s Museum, on Broadway and Ann Street, drew throngs of tourists in the 1860s. They gawked at attractions such as General Tom Thumb, a “Fe-jee” mermaid, and the Baby Show, below. Apparently Barnum had to pay parents to show off their infants, kind of like a pageant.


(From Incredible New York, by Lloyd Harris)

Barnum’s museum burned down in the 1880s, after which he went into the circus business. Taking its place in 1903 was the Coney Island baby exhibit. Run like a hospital, here preemies were placed in incubators, cared for by registered nurses, nursed by new mothers other than their own, and shown off to anyone willing to pay a quarter. Another baby display was built a decade later at Coney Island’s Dreamland park; about 8,000 babies passed through both parks until the practice was discontinued in the 1940s.

The Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children investigated the Luna Park exhibit when it opened. But the promoter, a German doctor, convinced his critics that he was actually helping the babies, as incubators were not used in hospitals at that time. Maybe he was right; more than 80 percent of the premature babies survived.