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DISPLAYING SLAVES, FREAKS AND MONSTERS In 1861, P.T. Barnum was the first to put a captive whale on public display for profit. As an ambitious and crafty entrepreneur who became famous for his promotion of carnival sideshows and for his ability to dupe the public, Barnum was always on the lookout for new “curiosities” that would attract paying customers. Barnum made his start by purchasing an enslaved African-American woman, Joice Heth, and putting her on display as “the world’s oldest woman” until her death in 1836 (Barnum also turned her death to commercial advantage, arranging for a public autopsy to determine her age). In his sideshows and at his American Museum in New York, he made a lucrative business from exhibiting various human “freaks” as well as exotic nonhuman animals. These human “freaks” included the midget Charles Sherwood Stratton (“General Tom Thumb”), hirsute individuals such as Josephine Fortune Clofullia (“the Bearded Lady”), Feodor Jeftichew (“Jojo the Dog-Faced Boy”) and the conjoined “Siamese Twins” Eng and Chen Bunker; William Henry Johnson, an African-American man with an oddly shaped skull (sometimes reported to be microcephalic or mentally disabled) was displayed, sometimes in a fur costume, as the “Missing Link,” the “What-Is-It?” and as “Zip the Pinhead.” In addition to the commercial gains to be had from placing human freaks on display, Barnum also recognized that he could turn a tidy profit from the public’s appetite for viewing large, unusual nonhuman animals. Having learned that Québécois fishermen had captured beluga whales at 195 9 Monsters The Case of Marineland john sorenson Isle aux Coudres at the mouth of the St.Lawrence River, Barnum determined that these “monsters of the deep” would serve to profitably augment his existing attractions. A trap was built and two whales were penned in until the receding tide allowed the fishermen to capture them. The whales were taken by railway to New York. An early master of advertising, Barnum ensured that large, excited crowds met the train at its every stationstop . When the “marine monsters” finally arrived, “anxious thousands literally rushed to see the strangest curiosities ever exhibited in New York.”1 Their captors had no idea of the animals’ needs. There was no supply of ocean water for the whales in the small tank constructed for them in the museum’s poorly ventilated basement; Barnum’s crew used fresh water, to which they added some quantity of salt in an effort to duplicate ocean water. Both whales were dead within a week. Not wanting to allow the death of these individuals to interfere with a profitable idea, Barnum tried again. He captured a second pair of whales and installed them in the basement tank, this time using a steam engine to pump in water from New York’s bay. Although this second pair of whales also died soon after their capture, Barnum was not deterred and captured a third pair. Recognizing the probability that his new prisoners faced a similar fate, Barnum turned this liability into a marketing strategy: “As it is very doubtful whether these wonderful creatures can be kept alive more than a few days, the public will see the importance of seizing the first moment to see them.”2 Today, Barnum’s activities seem alternately amusing and appalling. While we may laugh at the gullibility of those who flocked to view the “Feejee Mermaid,” which combined the shrivelled head of a baboon and an orangutan’s body, attached to the tail of a large fish, many of Barnum’s other activities strike us as being cruel, exploitative and racist. Of course, Barnum was not alone in exploiting the idea of monstrous human “others” and playing on images of savagery and primitivism. For example, Carl Hagenbeck, one of the key figures in the development of modern zoos, organized anthropological-zoological exhibitions in Germany in the late nineteenth century to show Africans, Indians, Lapps and assorted “wild men” from various parts of the colonized world, while in 1906 WilliamT. Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, arranged for a “pygmy” from Congo named Ota Benga to be placed on public display in one of the cages. We now reject the idea that people of “inferior races” would be suitable subjects for public exhibition, and we find the connections between such displays and the institution of slavery as clear as they are morally wrong and reprehensible. We now believe that it is ugly and mean...


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