Freaks on the Fringe – The Project

After our individual meeting, I am feeling much better about my project. While it doesn’t seem as if it would be, my topic is very broad. Freak shows span almost the last two centuries in the U.S. alone.

I will be developing a network analysis of freak show performers using Gephi, looking at how individual performers are related to one another, and determining possible chronological trends in regards to gender, type of physical anomaly, natural-born vs. self-made “freaks,” etc. At some point, I would also like to attach media to this data, such as photo, video and audio files, as well as oral history interviews.

While considering a starting point, I keep going back to Percilla (Lauther) Bejano (1911-2001). One of my fascinations with Percilla is that she’s one of the performers that seems to bridge the gap between what I’ll call the old and new guard of the sideshow. There have not been many performers with hypertrichosis since Percilla, and she was born after  public opinion about freak shows had already started to change. By the late 1800s, for various reasons I will not go into here, the display of human oddities was beginning to fall out of vogue. Most interesting to me is that Percilla is a part of such recent history, that there are still other side show performers around who knew her well.

Percilla as a child
Percilla with husband Emmitt the Alligator-Skinned Man

I can imagine that a large part of this project will be crowd-sourced. I already have a network of performers and historians on Facebook who I know will be able to help identify performers, troupes, and pinpoint dates. Other than that, though, it will involve a lot of research and data input on my part.

My biggest concerns at this point are the time involved in both doing the research and learning how to use Gephi, which I understand has a pretty steep learning curve. However, I’m encouraged by the fact that this project does not need to be complete in order for me to present it, either as my final project for class, or at conference. In fact, I realize that a project of this magnitude may never be entirely complete. I think the best strategy will be to stay focused, on specific performers and/or within a specific time period, in order to be thorough and ensure that what is included is complete and accurate.

What I am most excited about is

  • the originality of this project (I haven’t happened upon anything like it in my research thus far),
  • the fact that I don’t have to choose (this potentially – eventually – could encompass the entire history of the sideshow, and continue to grow, because the sideshow is far from dead),
  • and, in the spirit of DH, the utility of this data for other researchers.
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