A Visit to the International Independent Showmen’s Museum in Riverside, Florida

We recently visited the Independent Showmen’s Museum, which was entertaining and educational, and worth it’s very own blog post.

The museum is over 54,000 square feet of artifacts, relics, art, and ephemera documenting the diverse and fascinating history of sideshows, spanning over a century. It is completely wheelchair accessible, with the exception of an example of the manager’s office, which has several stairs, and is an extremely small part of the exhibition space.

The view of the museum from the second floor, with a large carousel and ferris wheel, and many displays.

An interesting part of sideshow history that doesn’t get discussed often is how it was a way for minorities to make a living and avoid being confined to institutions during a time when disabled people, fat people, people of color, intersex people, transgender people, and other people in nonconforming bodies were expected to remain out of the public eye. Many disabled performers were European immigrants who came to the U.S. to escape Nazi concentration camps. While there is plenty of documentation of sideshow owners taking advantage of disabled people and people of color, there are also many performers who managed their own acts and didn’t answer to anyone but themselves. As Ward Hall was reported to have said, “If people are gonna stare anyway, why not make them pay for the privilege?”

Wax figures of a 4-legged woman, a woman with no legs, and Ward Hall, on a stage behind a display with a photo of a very fat man and the new hampshire license plate FATMAN.

Sideshows were popular entertainment of the time. Some people saved their spare nickels all year to spend when the carnival or circus came to town. However, doctors and nurses sometimes received free admission due to the pseudo-educational nature of the performances.

a sideshow booth advertising "nature's mistake" with free admission for doctors and nurses.

These junction boxes were fascinating. In the early days of harnessing electricity, they were still learning about the best safety features. (To be fair, safety is a never-ending process!) But could you imagine having one of these powering your RV?

A junction box which supplied power to the sideshows.

Legislation that would become know as the “ugly laws” made it a crime for visibly disabled people to show themselves in public, which was the beginning of the end for sideshows.

Fatman Tom Ton pictured over another picture of a large group of sideshow performers.

Legislation about displaying human remains also put an end to the practice of displaying “pickled punks,” or formaldehyde-preserved human fetuses that were sold by unethical coroners and hospitals to traveling shows. The shows continued, but with latex replicas.

A sign for the two-headed baby, with a $500 guarantee of authenticity.

The Showmen’s Museum is near the town of Gibsonton, Florida, where many performers spent the winter months, because of the nice weather and relaxed zoning laws which made it easier for performers to store and repair their campers and equipment, and practice their acts outside. Most of the performers have since passed away or moved away, but if you’re in the area, please stick to the museum in Riverside and don’t play tourist in Gibsonton. The locals are just trying to live their lives, not put on a free performance!

This museum was well worth spending a few hours on the weekend (it’s only open on the weekends!) and $10 admission.

If you’re interested in learning more about sideshow history and sideshow culture, here are some interesting links:

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