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American Sideshow Paperback – September 21, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

From the bearded women and half-men of the P.T. Barnum era to the bug-eating denizens of contemporary Coney Island, Hartzman leaves no circus tent unexplored in his history of freakish sideshow performers. The human curiosities, many of whom made a good living, are listed alphabetically within each chronological section and are accompanied by brief bios-based on sensationalist publicity for the older cases, and interviews with those still living-that include everything from anatomical details and medical explanations to minutiae about performers' social lives: Myrtle Corbin, the four-legged woman, for instance, "had five children-three born from her own body, and two from her twin's." "Insectavora," Coney Island's resident facial-tattooed bug-eater, "walks up a razor-sharp ladder of swords and is currently working on a whip-cracking act. During the off-season she works in a tattoo and body-piercing shop, and probably eats a more balanced diet." Hartzman's book succeeds as a curiosity-quencher, but not as a reference, as his source material, particularly for the early performers, is sketchy, but the book-and its marvelous collection of photos-will shock and amaze offbeat voyeurs.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Marc Hartzman has been writing professionally since 1996. He is the author of Found on eBay: 101 Genuinely Bizarre Items from the World's Online Yard Sale.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Tarcher; Reprint edition (September 21, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1585425303
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585425303
  • Product Dimensions: 7.5 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (32 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #60,938 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

According to, Marc Hartzman is "one of America's leading connoisseurs of the bizarre." His passion for the unusual began at an early age, influenced by Ripley's Believe It Or Not and the annual Guinness Books.

In addition to his books about weird things on eBay, sideshow performers, and unorthodox messages from God, Hartzman is also a Weird News blogger for The Huffington Post (and formerly and writes for Bizarre magazine. He is well-known in quirkier circles as the founder, writer, and publisher of Backwash zine -- an award-winning humor magazine that has been exhibited in New York's New Museum for Contemporary Art.

When not writing about life's oddities, Hartzman writes about various goods and services in the advertising industry.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book makes fascinating reading. It's mainly done in an encyclopedia style, with entries for many, many people who chose to exhibit their unusual features or talents. The author obviously feel strongly that they have a right to do so, and shows much caring and respect for them. I really liked how he followed their lives all the way through if he could find the information, so they were presented as people and not just shows.

However, I would have really liked a little more context with the listing---more information about sideshows in general and more perspective on the listings. I did like the sidebars here and there, but it would have been great to read more about life in general for all the performers--what it was like to travel with a sideshow, what the people watching the shows acted like, etc.

I also found the humor inserted in almost every listing a little forced, and not in keeping with the general respectful tone of the book. There were lots of little puns and silly jokes, which didn't add much and were a distraction.

I found the last section of the book, about present day shows and performers, to not really fit with the rest of the book. These performers almost all just do odd and bizarre things, as opposed to having odd and bizarre things thrust upon them. I think it's a very different thing to CHOOSE to be odd and bizarre as opposed to making the best of a life where you already are.

It sounds like I liked this book much less than I did. I really did find it an interesting and caring survey of a group of people political correctness often prefers not to talk about. It's ironic that this same attitude probably keeps many people on public assistance, instead of making them extremely rich as many of these performers became!
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Ses Carny on December 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Hello. My name is Ses Carny. I am only one of the many modern day sideshow performers that Marc interviewed for this book. When I got my copy I was very happily surprised at the fondness found in the pages. Most books about the sideshow performers are somewhat degrading to the acts. BUT NOT WITH AMERICAN SIDESHOW! Marc really went above and beyond to bring out the truth about the performers, both past and present. We are not monsters, or people to feel sorry for. Marc has certainly brought a level of dignity, that has not been found published before, to the acts of the sideshow. Thank you Marc for writing such a fantastic book! I am looking forward to your next venture greatly!

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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By James G. Mundie on November 26, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Marc Hartzman has undertaken an ambitious project: a chronicle of those showfolks who performed in America's sideshows from circa 1830 to the present. Starting with the golden era under P.T. Barnum, Hartzman gives the reader brief biographical introductions to these unusual performers. Hartzman's prose offers a good humored look at the place where truth and hype converge in the lives of these human oddities. The text is accompanied by rare photographs from the author's and other collections (including that of yours truly).

I find it gratifying that whereas most books focus on sideshow's illustrious (or dubious) past, Hartzman also takes time to acknowledge the contemporary performers and showmen keeping the tradition alive out there on the sawdust trail.

The short, the tall, the fat, the tattooed, the conjoined, the hirsute, the limbless: they're all here to discover inside Hartzman's tent.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Billy Howard on December 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The first things that come to mind when looking at a book on sideshow freaks wouldn't be dignity, but that is what comes off the pages of Marc Hartzman's documentary.

The stories are wonderous and show both the fascination for these people and the oddness of their lives and careers but what you leave with is respect.

Not only is this a fun book, it is a social document that reaches into what it means to be an American, and in broader terms, what it means to be human. Quite lofty stuff, but done grandly.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Andy Wood on February 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is informative, thorough and makes a lively read.

Hartzman obviously has a lot of passion and affection for his subject. He has detailed the lives of many odd, strange and unique human beings in a refreshingly straight forward manner. He has a light touch and a wry sense of humor that pokes through from time to time. It is apparent that this was a labor of love and the author brings the book right up to date with a review of contemporary performers who are bringing various aspects of the sideshow to modern audiences.

The book opens in the 'golden age' of the sideshow, from the 1830s, through the Barnum years up to the early 1900s. A time when the only way rural working people could be 'amazed and amused' was when the circus or the fair blew in to town. Hartzman documents some of the most famous performers and human exhibits of that period. He continues through the 'silver' age, around the end of WW1 through to the Vietnam era. And finishes with the 'modern' age. The three sections document nicely the rise, decline and subtle rebirth of this unique corner of American theater.

In a world where reality TV rules supreme, it is gratifying to read a book that is dedicated to celebrating those who truly kept it and continue to keep it very real.

Highly reccomended. The pictures alone are worth the price of the book, stop reading and order it.
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