Tag Archives: Carnivale HBO

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.

The cooch

12 Mar


Coincidence. Here I am still in the midde of Carnivale, working my way through the first series on DVD. The last few days I’ve been particularly interested in its depiction of carny cooch, being, ah, rather taken in by Rita-Sue. This week I also met historian Robert Allen from the University of North Carolina, out in Australia on a whistle-stop lecture-tour. (He gave an extraordinary paper on cinema history yesterday, which will perhaps form the subject of a future post). And here, in his 1991 book, Horrible Prettiness, a cultural history of American burlesque, is a chapter on cooch and carnival.

From the 1890s, Allen tells us, circus sideshows regularly exhibited freaks and cooch shows, often accompanied by a band of black musicians. By the 1920s, however, the circus was a waning theatrical form, losing out to movies and amusement parks. It was during that decade that the more mobile, cheaper-to-run carnivals began taking its place. They essentially took the circus sideshow and rides and dispensed with the big top and expensive equestrian display (trick riding being the most distinctive element of the circus as an entertainment form). “By 1937, 300 carnival units toured the US”, Allen tells us, and they were still working small-town America in the 1960s.

The freak show was always “an important if not central attraction” in the carnivals. And so, of course, was the cooch. Actually (so far as one commentator in the 1960s was concerned) it was the cooch that the boys really came to see:

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise… Carnivals that hit the rural South or the Pennsylvania Dutch country … have to carry as many as three girl shows to handle customers who spend the whole night going from one to the other and returning to the first and starting it all over again.

The smaller and more cash-strapped the carnival, the “stronger” the cooch show. In metropolitan clubs in the 1920s, performers had segued from the cooch to the shimmy, a dance set to jazz rhythms, all frenetic movement, fancy costumes, bright lights. The carnival shows were much more up-front, so to speak, about the fact that it was nudity that the marks came to see. “This is a dance that you don’t tell your mama about’, says Stumpy in Carnivale. Most other talkers of the era advertised the strongest cooch dances as something the marks “would never see at home”.

Such acts didn’t necessarily just end with the blow-off, when the dancer took off her G-string for the gawping multitudes. Some ended with the rubes coming forward with flashlights to really get a good clinical look between the splayed legs of the dancer. By that time, the sequin-studded satin-and-fringing routine had been reduced to fumbling with a torch in the halflight, a gynaecological exhibit got underway.

Robert Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of Nth Carolina Press, 1991), pp. 232-36

Carny grift

11 Mar


Not much has been written about circus grift, says historian John Hammers, because it doesn’t quite square with the romantic picture of spangles and sawdust presented in the traditional circus history. But “the plain, unvarnished truth is that during the nineteenth and early twentieth centiures many circuses and their side shows were thoroughly crooked and infested with grift, a term that designates dishonest circus practices requiring personal contact between criminal and victim”.

Hammers was obviously writing before HBO’s Carnivale, which in some ways gives us an unusually glamour-free insight into carny grift and hardship in 1930s America. The series presents circus-style deception matter-of-factly, as a daily part of the travelling-show routine, necessary for the survival of the company. Witness the fake evangelist-healer’s show in one of the early episodes, for example, or the ‘shakes’ (anything falling out of a rube’s pocket on a ride) which the characters pocket as casually as kiss-my-hand. Perhaps, with the popularisation of carny history achieved through this show, the stars-in-your-eyes picture of old circus life can no longer be sustained.

Here, by the way, is John Hanners’ catalogue of the most common forms of circus grift:

1) Gambling

The first kind of gambling at circuses was run by managers at their employees’ expense. The managers would keep a “pie car”, usually an old railroad carriage, where circus workers could hang out after work. This car would have booths in which food and drink could be bought and eaten, “and as many gaming devices as the rest of the space would hold”. The idea was that employees would be enticed to gamble away any of their earnings, so that their salary reverted back to the management. Some circus outfits – Cole Bros. Circus during the Depression, for example – would only hire workers with reputations as heavy gamblers for precisely this reason.


The other gambling took place in an inconspicuous ‘G-top’ (gambling tent), with any number of rapid-fire gambling games running, all of them rigged: three-card monte, cologne joints, shapes-and-miss-outs, &c. A sucker would be induced to lose money fast, and if they ever complained, the G-top was long dismantled and squirrelled-away by the time the police arrived.

2) Short changing: the crimp and the slide

This grift was carried out on the rubes by any of the circus workers selling wares: ticketsellers, balloon men, popcorn and cotton-vendors. Hanners gives an example of one kind of silver shortchanging called “crimp”, drawn from the memoir of an anonymous circus grifter. “A candy butcher tells a sucker he needs some larger change, perhaps half or silver dollars. For this favor to the butcher, the sucker is promised a free cup of pink lemonade… Let’s say the sucker gives the butcher two silver dollars. The butcher gives the man in return $1.90 in change and makes him count it. When the sucker discovers the dime shortage, the butcher takes the money back, the two count it together, and the butcher admits his error. He adds the dime to the change, gives the money back to the sucker with one hand, while simultaneously handing him an overfilled cup of lemonade with the other hand. When the sucker tries to juggle the lemonade without spilling it, the butcher calmly palms all the quarters”. A good shortchanger could apparently make as much as $100 to $150 a day (!) by this technique.

The other common shortchange was the slide, carried out exclsuively by ticketsellers, “most of whom received no salary and whose livelihood depended entirely on what they could steal”. The ticket booth would be set up higher than a patron’s eye-level. “The seller never put the change directly into the patron’s hand, but spread out the correct change on a high mantle”, so the patron couldn’t reach all the paper or coins. If they later discovered they’d been shortchanged and came back, the seller would apologise and return the money, saying he’d tried to get the patron’s attention, but they’d already left. And if the sucker didn’t come back, of course, they kept the money. 

3) Picking pockets.

This was so rife at the travelling shows that some managers demanded forty per cent of everything stolen.

Circus manager Will Irwin estimated that his shows in the first decade of the 20thC earned eighty per cent of their profits from grift, a large part of which came from straight-out theft. When you consider this figure, the Carnivale lot seem positively Pollyanna-ish by comparison. And they are also presented as a kind of misfit family, all in it together, with none of this management-trying-to-dupe-the-workers with the pie-car caper that most carny outfits practised at the time. So perhaps the series presents a glamourised view of the grifters after all.


First image above is of Steve Meah (Times photo: Carrie Pratt), the old-time carny worker who educated the Carnivale team in the ways of travelling-show chicanery. For more info on Meah, see here.

Image of Cole Bros. circus wagon from the Circus World Musuem site (a classic example of the romantic view of circus history, in which any evidence of carny grift has been carefully expunged).

John Hanners, “Larceny in his soul”: The Circus Grifter”, in his “It Was Play or Starve”: Acting in the 19thC American Popular Theatre (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993): 131-46.

History and timelesssness in HBO’s Carnivale

10 Mar


I’m still working my way through the early episodes of Carnivale’s first season. Since HBO only ever made two, I’m glad I’m doing it slowly, prolonging the pleasure, shall we say. Each episode also leaves such a residue of images and sensation that I want to take time to absorb it.

At this early stage, what perhaps intrigues me most about Carnivale is its simultaneous sense of being out of time and acutely inside it.

On the one hand, the series trumpets its historicity. You have the sepia photographs and documentary footage from the 1930s which assail you in the opening credits (especially that scary one of the kiddie KKK). You have the immaculate period clothing and accoutrements – the vehicles, the slang, the carnival rides, the ramshackle buildings passed along the way. And of course you breathe in the Dust Bowl grit and the Depression-era sweat admixed with despair every time you watch the show.

At the same time, though, Carnivale is also about dreams and magic. It’s about being transported from the here and now into an otherplace independent of history. The opening credits alone make that clear. They constantly move between grainy “real” photographs and timeless pictures from tarot cards, zooming in on actual footage of a woman dancing and then transforming her into a static image of occult paraphernalia. The idea that stock tarot-figures might give insight into a person’s character – or that the future is out there, that one possesses a destiny – are profoundly ahistorical. And so there is always there is rubbing-up-against each other of the timeless and the historical in Carnivale, which I am still looking to interpret. I have the sense that this is in large part what makes the show so unsettling: the intermingling of two modes of being in such a promiscuous way.