The Circassian Beauty

15 Apr

Fears of “white slavery” were rife in England during the 1880s, when William Stead published his sensational revelations of white girls captured and forced into Continental brothels in the pages of his Pall Mall Gazette. Any of the Londonites reading his “Maiden Tribute” series could not only glut their interest in stories of English roses trafficked into sex-slavery – they could also go to any circus sideshow and see for themselves a “Circassian beauty” said to have escaped sexual servitude in Turkey.

Circassian beauty in England, image from Sideshow World.

Any freak show worth its salt in the 1880s included a Circassian Beauty. She was invariably a pale-skinned young woman kitted out like a hippie from the 1970s: puffy silk pants, sheer-flowing coats, and most importantly, a nimbus of frizzy, Afro-style darkish hair. Usually these women had names beginning with ‘Z’: Zana Zanobia, Zoe Meleke, Zula Zeleka, Zalumma Agra, Zoberdie Luti. Often they would seat themselves cross-legged on stage, holding a water-pipe, and looking demurely at the audience as the pitchman presented them as the purest example available of the Caucasian race. Once! (he would say), once this beauty had lived in the Caucasus, that region on the shores of the Black Sea which formed the cradle of all white peoples. She had been crooooooo-elly stolen from her home during a Turkish raid, and afterwards sold in the white slave markets of Constantinople as the member of a harem to an evil Turk. Beautiful as she was, she had been kept veiled from the rest of the world, and made to do her harem-owner’s bidding before being dramatically rescued.

Zoe Zolena, image from Sideshow World.

The Circassian beauties were of course a hoax. Zoe Meleke, who appeared on the P T Barnum circuit in the States, was American-born. According to the circus press agent Dexter Fellows in the 1930s, one of the most famous Circassians – ‘Zuleika, The Circassian Sultana’ – was an Irish immigrant from Jersey City. Women tricking themselves up as these beauties would create the trademark “mossy hair” by using beer as shampoo and an artful use of the comb. The only real requisite was pale skin and a certain round-faced vacant beauty – that and a willingness to be gawped at by rubes pruriently imagining her in congress with a Turkish overlord. The whole phenomenon says a great deal about the voyeuristic fantasies that accompanied notions of the Orient and cross-racial sexual encounters in this period of British New Imperialism and eugenic theories across the West.

PS For the Carnivale fans out there, Adrienne Barbeau’s character Ruthie (above) is surely based loosely on the image of the Circassian beauty. Her hair is almost frizzy, her clothes redolent of the Turkish harem, and her snake-dancing act has just the right amount of sexual titillation to make a commentary on the 1880s craze. Indeed, according to this blog post (although it does not indicate what its source was), Circassian beauties turned to snake-dancing or charming once they started losing their novelty.


Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 235-40.

Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 81-134 (on W T Stead’s “Maiden Tribute” series).

For more images, see the Circassian Beauty archive.

24 Responses to “The Circassian Beauty”

  1. Lidian 15 April 2008 at 9:13 pm #

    This is fascinating – and that photograph is quite wonderful.

    I seem to be logged on here in my WordPress incarnation, but I am also here (whence my offering for the History Canival) –

  2. Melissa Bellanta 16 April 2008 at 2:29 am #

    Ah, so you do kitchen kitsch as well as familial musings and historical mystery-hunts… Wish I had thought of ‘The Virtual Dime Museum’ as this blog’s name, by the way – wonderful.

  3. Lidian 21 April 2008 at 1:55 am #

    Thank you. You know, I just found an ad in one of my old almanacs for “Circassian Hair Oil” – I might write aout it tomorrow on the Dime Museum (or in the Dime Museum, I suppose) and would like to link to your post. It inspired me to pick up on the hair oil ad, actually.

    I quite like your blog name too – very evocative!

  4. Rachel 28 October 2008 at 6:41 pm #

    My great great grandmother was billed by PT Barnum as The Star of the East and given the name,
    Zalumma Agra. Are there any of Mr. Barnum’s records that would give her real name?

    • Sarah 30 August 2009 at 5:47 am #

      That’s amazing. I’m actually writing my doctorate at Yale on the Circassian Beauties and I’m finding that some historical newspapers did list their real names, but mainly in wedding announcements, (even then, sometimes not). Do you know much more about your great great grandmother’s work with Barnum? I’d love to interview you for the book!

      • Rachel 22 October 2009 at 7:16 pm #

        Zalumma Agra was our grat grandmother’s stage name given to her by PT Barnum. A relative has a photograph of her in her attire as a Circassian Beauty. She was PT Barnum’s first Circassian Beauty. The family said that she had flaming red hair. On the back of the card are written what she claimed to be her real name, Johanna Nolan and slightly above and between her first and last name ia ‘Agra’. She also recorded that her parents were Michael Nolan and Mary Riley. While she was married to John M. (Murdoch)Bruce she gave birth to two sets of fraternal twins: John Henry Bruce (our grandfather) and his twin, Mary. No information is known about Mary.
        John M.(Murdoch) Bruce and his twin Daisy (she died 8 months after birth and is buried in the Bruce Family plot at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, PA. John M. was ‘kidnapped’ by his mother in 1899 (she was divorced from John M. (senior)sometime around 1885-86. He was not a nice person according to a niece of his who died last year at the age of 99.(approx.)This is written by Rachel’s Dad

      • John Morden 5 April 2010 at 6:06 am #

        Hello Sarah

        I noticed that you are writing your doctorate at Yale on the Circassian Beauties. I am working on the same topic as part my doctorate at York University (Canada). I would like to talk about the approach you are taking.

        Drop me an email if you would like.


      • cynthia 28 November 2010 at 7:21 am #


        I’m fascinated that you are writing about Circassian Beauties. I expect you are somewhat of an expert.
        I wonder if you would be willing to share information ?
        For instance, there is an image of a Circassian Beauty photographed by Mathew Brady. I wonder if you know what her real name was or anything about her ?

        thank you and good lick with your project !

      • Mal Bruce 6 December 2010 at 2:14 pm #

        My grandfather was Robert Dale Bruce, a son of Johanna Nolan (aka Zaluma Agra). My family has stories about Zaluma- including whether her real name was Johnanna Nolan or May Lyons.

        I too would be interested in any information you have about this.

    • Mal Bruce 6 December 2010 at 2:18 pm #

      Rachel, my grandfather was a son of John M. Bruce and Johanna Nolan (Zaluma). His name was Robert Dale Bruce. Perhaps we should compare some notes about our common ancesters?

  5. Melissa Bellanta 29 October 2008 at 11:33 pm #

    Rachel, I’m afraid I haven’t done any primary research into Barnum’s records to be able to answer that question – Circassian women are something of a side interest for me, and I have only read about them in the history-books listed above… The Harry Ransom Research Centre at the University of Texas in Austin has some of Barnum’s original correspondence, however, so it may be worth contacting their staff with this question.

  6. circassian 19 July 2009 at 6:17 pm #

    very good
    you can see old circassian photos

  7. Cloud Ten 5 January 2010 at 1:05 am #

    My background is actually Circassian and Egyptian. I can remember my father and grandmother speaking the language and telling me the old stories. So wonderful to find this site!

    • Darial. Kaghdou 14 March 2010 at 4:40 pm #

      Reading your post I’m assuming that you are Circassian from the Mamaleek erra that ruled Egypt in 13 Centry. I my self a Circassian moslem born in Syria in 1955. Emigrated to USA New Jersy State in 1969.I speak Arabic& Circassian. I’ve been in my homeland Kavkasia 5 times married a Circassian Christian from Kavkas. to find out more check the Internet about Circassians or in our language we are Adyghas. Look up MRBNK.COM. I love to know more about Egyption Adyghas such as the Actors Rushdi Abaza & Ahmad Ramzey. check my brother’s site :

  8. Melissa Bellanta 16 January 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    Here’s another recent blog post on Circassians:

  9. circassian view 25 February 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    hey, i was wondering how you came to know about circassians and whether there are any places in the U.S. that have detailed archieves on the people

  10. Melissa Bellanta 25 February 2010 at 11:20 pm #

    Well, I can’t answer that, Circassian View, as I am not an expert in the field and not based in the US. But can any of you others reading this provide a more detailed response?
    – Melissa

    • Nesli 23 March 2010 at 8:18 pm #

      Hi I am from Michigan, but I came here from Turkey. And I am cercassian
      Or Adigey. If you are interested in Adigey life, language, food, dance and history you can visit KOCAELI UZUNTARLA on the facebook. Many of them are still speaking adige language. The village name is “Uzuntarla” located in Marmara region.

  11. Thomas Bollinger 28 March 2011 at 11:40 pm #

    To our cousin, Mal Bruce,
    I have to apologize for ever implying that May Lyons was/is Zalumma Agra. If you were to take, and there are computer programs that allow this to happen, an outline drawing of May Lyons and superimpose it over a picture of our greatgrandmother, Zalumma Agra, you would see that May Lyons never had the beauty that Zalumma had. But you really don’t need the superimposing, all you have to do is look at the picture of May Lyons and know that there is no comparison between the two womwen. I suppose that it will take an actual visit to every circus archive until the informtion is revealed.
    I have searched page by page through the US Census’ for 1860 and 1870 for Liverpool, NY and surrounding area and have found no trace of any Lyons.

  12. Thomas Bollinger 28 March 2011 at 11:52 pm #

    Mal Bruce,

    You will also remember that while Zalumma was married to John M. Bruce that she gave birth to two sets of fraternal twins-John Henry (my grandfather) and his sister, Mary and John M. and his sister, Daisy. Daisy died after living 8 months and is buried in the Bruce Family plot at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. I have a photocopy of those who are buried in the plot with the dates of burial.

  13. Allister Hardiman 2 December 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    I could not help but noticing your header image, the Zavistowski Sisters! The one on the left I do not recognize…the two right are Emmeline. Wow, I thought no one knew who the Zav’s were. I have a two page chronology and pics of the girls, Mom and even Dad, Antonio. I love the Zav’s to death and here they are! What a surprise! Please contact me if interested in exchanging notes on the Z’s.

  14. z 13 May 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    This is very funny to read, especially that I’m Circassian, my name begins with the letter “Z”, and I’m married to a Turk! Hehehe.

    In case anyone’s interested, this is an article on authentic Circassian dress 😉



  1. The good oil, & other things Circassian « The Vapour Trail - 22 April 2008

    […] April 2008 For anyone interested in Circassian Beauties, the subject of a post I wrote last week, this offering on the Virtual Dime Musuem adds a great postscript…  Posted in Victorian […]

  2. This holocaust of ballet girls « The Vapour Trail - 20 February 2010

    […] Picture of Russian ballerine, Pierina Legnani, in Le Corsaire (St Petersburg, 1899), a ballet with  similar themes and costumes to Revolt of the Harem. The vogue for these ballets in the 1840s was an obvious precursor to the one for Circassian slave-girls in late-Victorian freak shows. […]

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