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What constitutes an early American freak show?
In my dissertation, “Freaks, Beasts, and Gadgets: Performing Order and Disorder in Early America,” I examine displays of anomalous bodies, exotic and wild animals, and electric gizmos between the 1730s and 1830s. Some were exploited for profit, including the animals, of course. Others derived power through their performances.   

How would someone be empowered by their performance?
In 1796, there was a man named Harry Moss, who put himself on display in a tavern in Philadelphia. He was black. He was free. He had what we would probably diagnose as vitiligo today; parts of his skin had turned white. So here was this black man who was turning white, putting himself on display, while taking money in this tavern that was around the corner from Philadelphia’s largest slave market.

Can you explain your argument that these shows were a way for Americans to understand their new world?
In the instance of animals, they can fight back in a very limited way, right? As opposed to [Moss], who puts himself on display, a moose doesn’t necessarily derive power from that.

Bison were on display. It was this massive animal from the interior of the country that you could go out and conquer. There was this idea that if they could conquer this big animal, they could conquer the land.

Foreign animals were also brought in, like camels. The first elephant came in 1796. This was happening as the Age of Empire was dawning. It shows that not only can Britain, our old enemy, go out and conquer the world, but so can we.

Did the people performing also challenge ideas of what’s American?
During the first decade of the United States, there was great anxiety about who’s a citizen. The idea that a black man could turn white really troubled the notion that the races were so distinct. There was also a strongwoman who performed in the 1730s in a tavern in New York. Advertisements described letting two men pound on her with large sledgehammers and lifting up her husband. That could be quite a profound statement about the “weaker sex.”

So there’s this idea that not only are European settlers in danger of the land and nature, but they’re now outside of Europe physically, culturally, and politically. They needed to figure out what kind of people they would become, and all the people who were strange and freakish [to them] just made it that much more difficult to decide.

Is there anything we can learn from your research that’s still relevant today?
I think it’s important not to overlook what was very important and very popular in the lives of people who have come before us and try to understand the link between then and now. If you think of a show like My 600-lb Life, which people watch for the freakery of it, it’s presented as a medical show, and we’re going to watch these people get help. There are all sorts of those shows, right? So we still have freak shows, but they’re under the banner of education.

There’s a lot of scholarship that talks about people that we want to see on display, that it essentially makes us feel better. It reinforces our own supposed wholeness. Of course, the flip side of that is, these people really are getting help, and it’s help that they would not get if the TV show wasn’t there. It can get very complicated when you start getting into the ethics of who displays and who goes on display.