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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.

References

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.