Freak show raised eyebrows

The first time the carnival rolled into town to occupy Washington Avenue more than 100 years ago, citizens of the city were concerned about whether the human oddities and shocking exhibitions would taint the wholesome community.
Kevin Collier
Jan 14, 2013

 

After all, a girl who bites heads off rattlesnakes is not something every parent would want their children to see.

But the show went on.          

Train cars carrying the Robinson Carnival Co. with personnel and talent numbering 146 arrived in Grand Haven the morning of Monday, Aug. 11, 1902.          

The carnival set up that afternoon on Washington Avenue from Third Street to the river as a large crowd gathered to watch.          

City officials brought the carnival to town to generate business for downtown merchants and retailers. The city would pick up the tab for extra police and ticket takers at a cost of $45-$60 per day and receive a small percentage of receipts from shows. By the end of the spectacle the city barely broke even with the venture.          

The carnival featured a Ferris wheel, said to be the largest portable one in existence at the time, standing 50-60 feet high and capable of carrying 40 patrons.          

Daredevil diver Kid McComb, whose act was situated at the rear of the post office, climbed a 60-foot ladder then dove off into four feet of water in a tank situated below.          

One famous act of the sideshow was George Williams, known as the Turtle Boy. Born in 1859 in Arkansas with a rare form of dwarfism, Williams was only 18 inches tall and his bones were twisted into spirals. Despite looking nothing like a turtle, Williams was often depicted wearing a shell in advertisements during his heyday 20 years earlier.          

Williams was not content to simply allow patrons to view him; he preferred to earn his money by performing on harmonica and flute and possessed a rich and wonderful baritone singing voice.          

Another sideshow attraction, Millie and Christine, were often billed as “the eighth wonder of the world.”          

Millie and Christine McKoy, conjoined twin sisters born into slavery on July 11, 1851, were professionally known as “The Two-Headed Nightingale.” They presented themselves as being of one body with two heads — which was untrue — the pair was joined to the rear at the waist.           

The McKoy twins, notably articulate and fluent in five languages, entertained Grand Havenites with song and dance.          

Hannah the Wild Girl was also a sideshow attraction. The feral child Hannah was said to have been captured in Australia 11 years earlier by a party of sailors. Reportedly, with a head no larger than a coconut, and the running speed of a deer, she possessed the strength of two grown men.         

The sideshow act attracting the most public outrage was Osco, a “female snake eater,” who was actually a 16-year-old boy named Frank Crosby from Mobile, Ala. Osco bit heads off of live rattlesnakes and appeared to eat the snakes, as well. He also let the serpents bite him repeatedly within his fabricated snake pit.

The Robinson Carnival Company packed up and rolled out of Grand Haven by rail Sunday afternoon, August 17.          

“While the carnival brought no increase in trade to the merchants generally, in fact, some say there had been a reduction of business,” the Grand Haven Tribune reported. “The morals of the town have not been injured particularly. The snake-eating exhibition was the only one approaching vulgar.”          

A citizen's letter to the editor complained that the city had footed the bill for appointing “half the town” as the carnival-week police force.          

“Perhaps we will never have another carnival,” the Tribune stated on Aug. 15, 1902.

          

 

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