Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture (review)
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Reviewed by
Nadja Durbach. Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. xiii + 273 pp. Ill. $39.95 (978-0-520-25768-9).

At first glance, Nadja Durbach's new book may not appear to be of interest to historians of medicine. Durbach focuses mainly on the public "freak shows" that flourished in the United Kingdom from 1847 to 1914 featuring people with fascinating congenital anomalies. Indeed, Durbach persuasively argues that it was not (and is not) at all obvious that such individuals' conditions should be thought of as "medical." These performers were, after all, hardworking men and women who often did not suffer physically from their anomalies; they were healthy, and just as often charged the doctors for a look-see rather than the other way around. Durbach's "book maintains that 'freakery' and 'disability' [a term originally reserved for those who could not work] were radically different ways of dealing with difference that should not be collapsed" (p. 16).

But therein lies the reason historians of medicine should be interested in this extremely readable and meticulously researched book. Walking us through fascinating case studies, Durbach tracks the medicalization of difference. Her chapter on the relationship of Joseph Merrick (the "Elephant Man") and surgeon Frederick Treves demonstrates persuasively that "[a]s a freak Merrick had largely been in control over his bodily display and had used that control to assert himself as a respectable working man. As a permanent resident of the hospital . . . [in] return for this care and support he was required to surrender his right as an independent man to govern his body and to determine its use" (p. 55). In Durbach's account, Treves emasculated Merrick to the glory of his own profession and manhood.

Durbach's chapter on Lalloo, an Indian fellow with a parasitic conjoined twin billed as "the Double-Bodied Hindoo Boy," nicely demonstrates Durbach's theme [End Page 150] that "Freak shows . . . provided a forum for reinforcing, but also for interrogating and sometimes challenging, the classificatory schemata that became central to the making of modern and imperial culture" (p. 184). Lalloo's handlers played with the representations of the sex of the twin, sometimes suggesting the pair to be opposite sexed (and thus hermaphroditic). Like Lalloo, "Krao" and other oddity performers drawn from abroad did not just function as sites for cultural debates on sex, childhood, and propriety but also served as living proof of the reach of the British Empire and the moral and physical superiority of the British race. Managers were happy to draw on the emerging scientific fields of evolutionary biology, ethology, and anthropology as they drew on medicine to add respectability and pizzazz. And the show managers shared with medical and scientific men narratives of "rescuing" their subjects, stories that washed over any hint of self-serving exploitation and that made audiences feel a part of the alleged great philanthropy of the empire.

In a masterful chapter on the performance of racial otherness, Durbach evidences how the Irish and Africans were often lumped together, not just in terms of rhetoric and racial theory but even literally in cheap exhibitions: Irish men and women, once hired to play "Red Indians," were by the late nineteenth century hired to play Africans. As Durbach notes, "[T]he Irish were often constructed in the same terms as the Bushmen: as a dying race that had only themselves to blame for their own extinction" (p. 163).

I wish that this book's index were more complete, that I came away with a better understanding of what "freak shows" were called by Durbach's subjects, that Durbach shared more of the pictures of which she writes, and that she explored more explicitly the place of the eugenics movement in this history, particularly in the decline of these shows. But all in all, this is a marvelously researched and engagingly written work of history that I highly recommend to historians of medicine, of modern British culture, and of the body.

Alice D. Dreger
Northwestern University
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