Carnival Performers

Many of the performers John Pollie corresponded with over the decades were carnival performers.  Some also performed in circus. Many performed in vaudeville or theaters during the winter. Many were also part of family acts, such as aerialist ladder acts and dancers/rollerskaters. A few are famous in circus history such as King Baile, a circus band leader, who wrote promotional ads for the Pollies.



Traveling entertainers had similar problems, such as lack of funds, constantly moving, and being separated for long periods from their extended families and friends. They had to communicated with letters and postcards. This was before cell phones, computers and email, and phone calls were luxuries. Sometimes this lack of communication led to problems, including the breakdown of families.



Carnival and circus life was tough. Cetlin & Wilson dumped their entire staff in the 1932-1933 season on the sidewalk in the deep south. The newly unemployed, such as Francis Francette, a half-and-half freak who pretended to be male on one side and female on the other, then had to find a temporary job in another show or somewhere in order to eat. There were no Social Security payments until 1940 and no medical insurance in the early 20th century. People who were hurt or ill were left in hospitals when the show left for another town or state. Most of the acts John booked were composed of two or three people. When one member of an act got hurt, ill, left town, was thrown in jail, or died, the act could not be performed. This resulted in act members being fired as a group.  Show people sent the few dollars they could afford to other show friends in need. At least among John’s friends, there was a strong network of people who genuinely cared for him and each other.
In the collection there is documentation of two men who corresponded with John from Jackson State Penitentiary for breaking and entering.  Henry C. Hart served time in prison from December 1932 through February 1933. He was sad and repentant about his incarceration, particularly noting its impact on his loyal wife, Ruth. His entire correspondence with John spans 1926 through 1938. Alfred S. Wiser, whose extended family corresponded with John, was in prison from May 1931 through May 1933. He was unrepentant and more of a philosopher. His entire correspondence with John spans 1927 through 1934.


Some of the people John and Henry Pollie and other circus and carnival owners employed were freaks. This is the historic term. There were two kinds of freaks: born freaks and made freaks.

Born freaks were people born with physical conditions not found in the majority of the population: very small or very tall people, joined twins, albinos, people with excessive facial hair, especially women and children, people with bone conditions, or with extra digits or limbs. Today, many of these conditions can be alleviated or cured with surgery or medicines.


Made freaks were people who worked at it, with fake limbs sewn to their clothes, extra fluffed or long hair, who breathed fire, swallowed swords, stuck pins through small holes in their skins (Pincushion man), contorted themselves (India Rubber man), tattooed themselves, or were snake “charmers.”  Some people with mental and physical conditions were advertised as “missing links.”  Some African-Americans born in the U.S. were advertised as members of lost tribes. In the case of psychic Madame Orva, she was really a he. Most people think of freaks with P.T. Barnum. He advertised them on a sensational scale and made them an important part of circus and carnival history.


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Undoubtedly, some freaks were abused. Some were sold like furniture to their owners “managers” who put them on the sideshow circuit, including joined twins Millie-Christine. Other freaks, such as Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, willing exhibited themselves, earned money, and were glad that they had a job off the streets away from thugs. Freaks sold photographs, cards, and pamphlets of themselves to supplement their wages. There were no handicapped accessible laws or equal employment opportunities in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. For most freaks, there were no other employment options. Due to changing public sentiment in the late 1930s and because of the extermination of mentally and physically challenged people during WWII, the exhibition of freaks was largely outlawed. Today, FL is the only U.S. state which legally allows the exhibition of freaks and some people do exhibit themselves.
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Carnival performers, like all workers wanted to be paid. Included here is an account of carnival staff paid in Albion in 1935. In winter quarters staff ate, but weren’t paid. There are examples in the exhibit of the Pollies’ winter quarters account book for season 1926-1927, wintering in Savannah, Ga. Also, opened is Marie’s “Tab” Inn, for the Pollies’ winter quarters Click to Huntington, W.Va., 1932. Breakfast and dinner were each 15 cents, lunch 10 cents. It lists who ate which meals. There is also an account of cash paid for groceries and gas.
While there were many freaks over the years exhibited in MI, such as the Giant Girl in Detroit in 1843, two internationally known examples were Tom Thumb, who was exhibited in Detroit in 1852, and joined twins Millie-Christine, who were exhibited in Houghton in 1900.