Kristan Tetens at The Victorian Peeper points us to an interesting online collection of Victorian Freak show posters at the British Library’s website. Noting the importance of “titillating publicity” to the success of these shows, the BL website emphasizes how the invariably “exaggerated and stylised illustrations” of the posters graphically framed and pathologized the performers’ physical difference.
I find the rhetoric of species-boundary crossing in these posters especially fascinating. For instance, the posters for the “What is it?” act and Krao, “the missing link,” who is described as “a Living Proof of Darwin’s Theory of the Descent of Man,” draw upon Victorian anxieties around the relationship between humans and animals (both before and after the publication of The Origin of Species). Nadja Durbach’s interesting article on Krao explores the widespread rhetoric that yoked “freakery” to a destabilization of the human-animal binary, especially post 1859. As Durbach argues, “throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, popular understandings of evolutionary theory structured audiences’ approach to the freak show, as the anomalous bodies on display were often interpreted as ‘steps on the evolutionary ladder’ or ‘throwbacks’ to earlier forms” (135).
Durbach, Nadja. “The Missing Link and the Hairy Belle: Krao and the Victorian Discourses of Evolution, Imperialism, and Primitive Sexuality.” Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Britain. Ed. Marlene Tromp. 2008.