Horror Vacuo

Interview with Marc Hartzman, author of American Sideshow

Marc Hartzman is the author of Found on eBay, American Sideshow, God Made Me Do It, and The Anti-Social Network, a contributor to Bizarre magazine and was a weird news reporter for AOL News. He has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, ABC News, Ripley’s Radio, Coast to Coast AM, and in the LA Times. When not documenting odd characters and occurrences, Hartzman works as a creative director at a New York City ad agency. We had the opportunity to meet him in New York. Marc is an illuminated novelist and storyteller.


 Legless acrobats, four-legged women, human telescopes… How would you describe the Freaks culture and the passage from the early 1800s to today?

The freaks were always sideshow royalty. They attracted the largest audiences and earned the most money. In the 19th century, many human anomalies gained great wealth, found love, and supported families by exhibiting their deformities. This was a time when these people had very limited options. Being a star, enjoying the camaraderie of other freaks, traveling the world and earning money was certainly preferable to being institutionalized, hidden away at home, or stared at for free. Freaks such as Charles Tripp, the armless wonder, sought out this life by traveling to Barnum’s American Museum and demonstrating his remarkable dexterity with his feet. He later paired with the legless acrobat, Eli Bowen, to create one of the most memorable sideshow photos—the duo riding a tandem bicycle: one peddling, one steering. Success carried into the early twentieth century through dime museums, sideshows and Ripley’s Odditoriums. But as the 20th century progressed, additional forms of entertainment, such as movie theaters and television, began to compete with the circus and sideshow—as did rides at the carnival. The rise of political correctness led many to feel bad about paying to see someone they considered less fortunate. Do-gooders thought freaks were being exploited by managers and tried to save them, but often succeeded only in taking away their opportunity to earn a living.

Was that your idea to write “American Sideshow”? What is about Freaks that you like so much?
I’ve been fascinated by sideshows and human anomalies since I was a child. The human body is capable of such wondrous things, from reaching extraordinary heights, such as Robert Wadlow, who stood 8 feet,11 ½ inches, and creating marvelous miniatures, from Tom Thumb and even smaller people, like Lucia Zarate (who weighed 4.7 pounds at age 17 in 1881). Legless wonders adapt and learn to become self-sufficient with their arms and hands, while armless wonders perform everyday tasks with their feet. These people are inspirations and testaments to the power of the human spirit. I loved reading their stories, but often found them buried in sociological studies, or scattered through Ripley’s and Guinness books. So I decided to create an encyclopedia of sideshow performers—one that would tell as many stories of who these people were, detailing the struggles and triumphs of their lives, from the mid-1800s to today.


Do you have any Freaks friends? How are they in real life?
Yes, I’ve been friends with Vivian Wheeler, the bearded lady, since doing the book. I’m currently her booking agent. We went on a talk show, Maury, after I wrote a story about her finding her long-lost son after 30 years. A maternity test on the show proved she was truly the mother. She’s a very nice woman with deep faith. I’ve enjoyed spending time with Jim Goldman and Danny Frasier, and armless and legless man respectively, and amazed at their skills—Jim plays softball, uses power tools, hunts, shoots a basketball, and does everything else anyone else can do, and Danny performs as Little Elvis, singing and dancing on stage regularly. After a few minutes chatting with both, you quickly pay no attention to their differences. I’m also friends with several sword swallowers, blockheads, fire eaters, and the world’s fastest knife thrower, The Great Throwdini. He’s shown me how to throw knives, which is really quite fun.

Do you have favorites?
One of my favorite freaks from history is Laloo, from the late 19th century. He had a parasitic twin jutting out from his chest. A little torso with arms, legs, and a functioning penis. As if that wasn’t odd enough, promoters dressed the twin up like a girl and advertised him as “Laloo and his sister.” They took something truly bizarre and made it even stranger for the public.

You’re also the author of Found on eBay, God Made Me Do It, and The Anti-Social Network. Is there a fil rouge in your studies and literature?The bizarre is a common theme connecting all my books. Found on eBay collected the strangest online auctions, God Made Me Do It highlights truly weird alleged commands from the Almighty, and The Anti-Social Network, to a lesser extent, reminds us of the odd social sharing habits we’ve all developed.

What is your relationship with counterculture phenomenon?
If I’m intrigued, I’ll write about it. The books have been a great outlet, as was writing regularly for AOL Weird News for several years.

What are your sources of inspiration?
History’s strangest, most bizarre happenings and characters. I love reading 19th-century literature and history. Oftentimes, one story leads to another, and I discover something weird I’d never heard of, then dig deeper to learn more, which sparks new ideas.

What’s next for you?
I’m working on a few other projects. I recently finished my first historical fiction novel which spans 300 years of European history. It includes many bizarre tales and characters, including the Elephant Man, an armless wonder, curiosity museums, grave diggers, and other oddities from the past.