The Wonders: The Extraordinary Circus Performers Who Transformed the Victorian Age

John Woolf. Pegasus, $27.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-64313-220-4

Historian Woolf’s lively debut asserts that the height of the West’s 19th-century study of disease and public health reforms was also the “heyday of the freak show.” The European aristocracy’s long-standing interest in people with rare conditions was, Woolf notes, a kind of live Cabinet of Curiosities, and the Victorian fixation on categorization fed into audiences’ mixed disgust and fascination over acts featuring “freaks.” He paints portraits of the bigger stars, including Siamese twins Chang and Eng; humbug master P.T. Barnum and his exploitation of Joice Heth, the supposedly 161-year-old former slave of George Washington; and the diminutive Charles Stratton (aka “General Tom Thumb”), who became the toast of European high society after being feted by Queen Victoria in 1844. Business took a tumble in the late 1800s and early 1900s with increased competition (sports, movies, vaudeville); and eventually, social Darwinists “turned freak performers into a national menace.” Woolf balances his colorful, detailed storytelling with sharp-eyed cultural unpacking, such as discussing how the traveling freak shows were exploitative and demeaning but also provided income and social networks for outsiders with limited employment opportunities. This rich, resonant cultural history takes a solid look at the oft-explosive intersections of commerce, wonder, ethnicity, and morality. (Nov.)