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Mommy Musings: Elephants on Parade Then and Now

March 1, 2019
A snapshot of an elephant being unloaded by men and a horse from a wooden Al G. Barnes Circus wagon. 1929. Probably taken near Boulder, by Longmont resident Ethel Springer.

Well, it’s only March and for once I am still clinging to my 2019 New Year’s resolution — to read 52 books in 52 weeks — which so far has led me astray at the Erie Community Library just as I hoped.

Astray in the sense of away from the stacks lined with cook books, parenting books, biographies, and books that attempt to deconstruct where evangelicals in America took a hairpin left turn — at least left so to speak.

I needed a free range reading revival and recently found some good scratch in “The Tattooed Lady” by Amelia Klem Ostrud (Speck Press).

Initially, her story about women who worked beside other so-called circus sideshow freaks hooked me because I know so little about this niche of women’s history.

Typically, scantily clad tattooed ladies followed a pulp fiction script on the “blow off” stage — the last act in a 10-in-1 sideshow so named for restricting audiences to men for the same reason R-rated movies today restrict audiences on age.

On that stage, either the lady or the platform lecturer would deliver a standard titillating story line, such as the captivity narrative in which savages abducted and violated her with sexually charged tattooing torture.

Ostrud quotes one sideshow lecturer describing a tattooed lady to audiences as a “manmade monstrosity” next to the sideshow lineup of people and animals often born with rare physical uniqueness — from conjoined twins to two-headed cows.

Sometimes, the sideshow lecturer introduced the tattooed lady as a girl next door type before exposing the map of tattoos over most of her body.

Betty Broadbent played that role when she joined the Ringling Bros. circus at 17 in the mid 1920s.

“In the summer, I wore a floor-length satin robe and in the winter, a velvet one,” she explained. “The platform lecturer would announce, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, the lady who’s different!’ Up till then, nobody had the slightest idea what was different about me. I’d unzip my robe and I’d be wearing a costume underneath, sort of a long bathing suit that came four inches above my knees.”

The experiences of tattooed ladies performing in circus sideshows for more than a century in this country drove the book’s storyline, kept me turning pages and also helped me see with a clearer eye how this iconic business influenced American life.

In 2017, decades of pressure from advocates for people with disabilities and animal rights activists, along with new laws and the public’s shifting entertainment tastes to television and more, culminated to shutter Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus — once billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth”— after 146 years.

But the circus sideshow model still operates as a template for how show biz on other stages including the political one works by manipulating a culture of attraction and revulsion around the “other” for gain.

In her book, Ostrud explained that the exotic was easy to fake when circuses debuted in the 1880s, given the limited education of most Americans then:

“Shows and museums presented ‘the exotic’ to the uneducated masses as educational examples of foreign savages. This affected not only how Americans viewed those different from them, but it also influenced their perceptions of themselves. Sideshows helped audiences to define themselves and their own humanity in relation to the performer’s inhumanity. Despite the fact that most sideshow performers, especially tattooed ladies, relied on fictional accounts of their lives to impress audiences, these audiences paid to be reassured that they themselves were normal.”

In its circus epitaph, the New York Times in 2016 acknowledged the tightrope the circus managed between ignorance and innocence to charm audiences for so long. Yet, the newspaper called the industry a “staple wonderment of public life” as the country’s oldest form of entertainment.

The next year Time magazine described the longrunning circus industry as the “astonishment industry” — for better and for worse — when it reported that the most famous circus had left town for good nationwide.

Writer David Von Drehle noted that some former circus goers viewed the news with a sense of nostalgia, with a wish that their children could experience the best of the circus scene in person with the sensitivity to appreciate it.

“Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away,” Von Drehle wrote. ”... Meanwhile, the children have been struggling to understand why their parents would care (about the circus closures). Nothing could compete with the circus that they hold in the palms of their hands.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at Mellskog@msn.com or 303-746-0942. For more photos and stories, visit “Mommy Musings” online at http://mellskog.pmpblogs.com/ .