he man with the world’s biggest nose was granted an entry in the Guinness Book of Records as a performer in circus sideshows also known as freak shows and a wax station of his head in Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. His 20 cm long nose was a symptom of an unknown disease that also caused his intellect to stop developing at the age of five. Thomas Wedders aka Thomas Wadhouse, was considered a freak and an idiot and was, therefore doubly funny. Researchers suspect that his parents were siblings. He was born around 1730 in Yorkshire, England, and died around 1780, shortly before the first circus tent was built in London, where performances were held throughout the year. The newspapers of the time wrote of Wadhouse:
‘If noses ever reflected a man’s importance, this worthy should have amassed all the money in Threadneedle Street and conquered all Europe, for his enormous nose was a mixture of possessiveness and pugnacity. But either his chin was too weak or his forehead too low, or Nature had so exhausted herself in giving this prodigy a nose that she forgot to endow him with brains; or else the nose supplanted the latter. In any case, the Yorkshire man died with his nose as he’d lived – in a state of mind best described by the word ‘idiocy”.
The Circus Is in Town
There are many reasons to join the circus. Performing tricks, stunts, and illusions in bright, hypnotic, and dreamy sound and vision for people from all walks of life, entertaining the unfortunate, the poor, and the disillusioned in the open air with open arms and laughing away the sorrows for others and for oneself is certainly a different way of life.
For many circus artists, the nomadic life meant an alternative to a system-based society and an opportunity to experience poetic and true freedom along with its limits. Unless you were born a freak, as people with physical deformities and/or disabilities were called in the 18th and 19th centuries, and joining a circus was their only chance to be taken care of.
Freak shows or creep shows originated as a social consensus in dealing with the less fortunate members of society who were born with extreme biological rarities and were therefore called “freaks of nature” in times when medicine knew little about their condition, and if they weren’t happy enough to be sold as infants to the traveling ringmaster, they were brutally killed as demons.
Just like gladiator fights in ancient arenas, freak shows gain traction by exploiting human curiosity, ignorance, lack of empathy, and shock politics. Thomas Wadhouse was one of the many victims of the cruel, ignorant, and drunk society.
Madame Geneva raises the survival rate
Life in 18th-century England was brutal. The cities were dirty, noisy, and overcrowded. Many families were forced to live in single rooms in dilapidated tenements or in damp cellars, without sanitation or fresh air. Drinking water was often contaminated by sewage and rubbish rotted on the streets. Problems with the disposal of the dead often added to the stench and decay.
According to records, more people died in London each year than were baptized, and without the constant influx of migrants coming to the cities from rural areas, London’s population would have died out. Every second child died before they were two years old, mostly due to malnutrition, bad water, dirty food, and poor hygiene. The poor subsisted on bread and potatoes. The meat was a rare luxury and many had difficulty finding their next meal or a warm place to sleep. Work was hard, poorly paid, and on the eve of being replaced by machines.
Traveling zoological exhibitions, so-called menageries, acrobats, animal acts, and showmen with physical disfigurements exhibited in freakshows were the only entertainment for the poor, hungry and unfortunate. And without the new drink, the secret of the survival rate of 18th century Britain – the beautiful Madame Geneva – life wouldn’t be bearable.
Thanks to low corn prices, the Gin Craze dominated the first half of the 18th century and demand was so great that by the 1730s more than 6,000 houses in London were selling gin openly to the public. By the 1740s, gin consumption in Britain reached an average of over six gallons per person per year. And by 1750, almost half of Britain’s wheat crop went directly into gin production.
Gin was available everywhere: street markets, grocery shops, merchants, barbers, brothels, and freak shows. People were getting so out of control that in the 1750s Parliament passed a series of laws restricting both the sale of spirits and their production.
Nevertheless, it’s a comforting thought that Mother Gin helped Thomas Wadhouse and his 5-years old heart at least a little and brought some joy and warmth to his “state of mind” and his lonely, mocked life dictated by his large nose.
Writer and director who thinks different and does everything differently. Art enthusiast. Wandering and wondering. Until the end of meaning.