Since Antiquity, visually unusual beings have been exhibited in public spaces. In parts of southern Europe there was formerly plied a nefarious trade in maiming and mutilating young children for the purpose of producing distressing deformities to excite pity and thus induce alms. An instance of such mutilation is made romantic use of by Victor Hugo in his story L'Homme qui rit.
Later freak shows featuring a number of ‘monsters’ contributed to the success of travelling shows. For more than a hundred years, the sideshow was to become an indispensable appendage of American circus culture.
The first one of its kind systematically organized was contained in P.T. Barnum's Great Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome and the countless imitations which followed in its wake habitually featured the same classic attractions, including the giant, the fat lady, the midget, the three-legged boy, the armless wonder and the thin man.