A radical new history that rediscovers the remarkable freak performers whose talents and charisma helped define an era.
On March 23, 1844, General Tom Thumb, just 25 inches tall, entered the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace and bowed low to Queen Victoria. On both sides of the Atlantic, this meeting marked a tipping point in the nineteenth century, and the age of the freak was born.
Bewitching all levels of society, it was a world of curiosities and astonishing spectacle—of dwarfs, giants, bearded ladies, Siamese twins, and swaggering showmen. But the real stories—human dramas that so often eclipsed the fantasy presented on the stage—of the performing men, women and children, have been forgotten or marginalized in the histories of the very people who exploited them.
In this richly evocative account, John Woolf uses a wealth of recently discovered material to bring to life the sometimes tragic, sometimes triumphant, always extraordinary stories of people who used their (dis)abilities and difference to become some of the first international celebrities.
Through their lives we discover afresh some of the great transformations of the age: the birth of show business, of celebrity, of advertising, and of “alternative facts” while also exploring the tensions between the power of fame, the impact of exploitation, and our fascination with “otherness.”
Dr. John Woolf is a researcher, writer, and historian specializing in nineteenth-century cultural history. Having read history at the University of Cambridge, he went on to obtain a PhD on Victorian freak shows and currently works across TV, radio, and film. He has most recently co-written the bestselling Audible book Stephen Fry's Victorian Secrets and has developed and featured in a number of BBC series and documentaries on freak performers and the Victorian period. In 2017, The Wonders was awarded the Biographers' Club Tony Lothian Prize for the best proposal for an uncommissioned first biography.
"A promising young historian with a taste for the exotic."
– Stephen Fry
"Fascinating and though-provoking. A marvelously researched account of an extraordinary side of Victorian life which has been ignored for too long."
– Jane Ridley, author of 'Bertie
"Woolf writes about this paradox with transparency, always quick to identify sources and the biases or fictionalizations they might contain. Curious but dignified history."
"A wonderfully rich, compassionate and pungent potpourri of the extraordinary, the unusual and the rare. Turns our notions of Victorian prudery, propriety and voyeurism upside down. Brilliantly researched and written with great verve."
– Neil McKenna, author of 'Fanny and Stella' and 'The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde'
"John Woolf's book will dazzle you with details of extraordinary lives, long underestimated by history."
– Matthew Sweet, broadcaster and author of 'Inventing the Victorians'
"The life stories of those paid to be gazed at and ridiculed have been deftly teased from the archives, providing a sympathetic account of these amazing individuals."
– Sarah Wise, author of 'Inconvenient People'
"Explores with subtlety and consideration the many facets of humanity’s strangeness. An excellent book and an important study of the physically marginalized and neglected."