While most die-hard American Horror Story fans have long since moved on to Hotel, plenty of viewers agree that AHS: Freak Show was one of the show’s most captivating series yet. Set in Jupiter (Florida) during the 1950s, it tells the story of the enchanting, entrepreneurial and manipulative Elsa Mars, who is struggling to keep one of the last remaining freak shows in the US afloat.
Set in Jupiter (Florida) during the 1950s, it tells the story of the enchanting, entrepreneurial and manipulative Elsa Mars, who is struggling to keep one of the last remaining freak shows in the US afloat.
Throughout the series, Fraulein Elsa is constantly trying to recruit new additions for her Cabinet of Curiosities. With the introduction of each fascinating new character, we couldn’t help but wonder: which of these intriguing characters were based on real-life performers?
So, we did some digging and unearthed the origins of 9 real ‘freaks’ who inspired American Horror Story.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
1) Grady Franklin Stiles Jr., a.k.a Lobster Boy
One of the most memorable characters from AHS Freak Show is Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), the Lobster Boy.
Jimmy Darling was born with severe ectrodactyly, a condition in which the fingers and toes fuse together to form lobster-esque claws. Despite killing another character in self-defense, Darling is generally depicted as a sweet but misunderstood young man who simply wants to help his fellow ‘freaks’ and start a real life and family away from the show.
The real man who inspired Jimmy Darling, however, is not so lovable and shares several traits with Darling’s father, the hot-tempered and violent Dell Toledo.
Grady Franklin Stiles Jr. worked the freak show circuit almost from birth, as he came from a long line of afflicted family members. Unable to walk, he utilized both a wheelchair and his hands to get around, the latter resulting in unusual upper body strength. This wasn’t great for those around him, as Stiles was both a raging alcoholic and a serial abuser.
Those who bore the brunt of his abuse were his family, and on the eve of his daughter’s wedding in 1978, he famously shot her fiancé to death. Because of his condition, despite his open confession, no prison or institution wanted the burden of his care. He instead received 15 years probation, which angered the community.
In 1992, justice found Stiles, who was shot and killed. Rumors rage on, but no one knows for certain who did the deed. Suspects range from his dissatisfied wife, Teresa, to a concerned neighbor who’d heard Stiles threaten her.
Needless to say, we much prefer the fictional version
2) Madame DeVere, a.k.a The Bearded Lady
Another iconic AHS character is Ethel Darling (played by Kathy Bates), the bearded lady with a very questionable Baltimore accent and a bottle of whisky always to hand.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which famous bearded woman Ethel Darling is based on, but she looks visually quite similar to Madame Jane DeVere, an American woman who was known for her impressive 14 inch beard.
Like Ethel Darling, she kept her relationships in the freak show circuit, eventually marrying her own manager. Her unusual facial hair growth would probably be explained today by either hirsutism or polycystic ovarian syndrome.
3) Minnie Woolsey, aka Koo Koo the Bird Girl
Meep (Ben Woolf) was arguably one of the most tragic character of American Horror Story: Freak Show. Framed for murder, the misunderstood performer, who dressed as a bird and suffered from pituitary dwarfism, was sent to jail and then brutally killed by unsympathetic prisoners.
The real life individual who inspired this unfortunate character was actually female. Minnie Woolsey was born with Virchow-Seckel syndrome, also known as ‘bird-headed dwarfism.’
Woolsey’s affliction rendered her bald and very nearly blind, which explains the large glasses. The freak show life might seem bleak, but for Woolsey, it was her escape from life in Georgia Asylum.
For her act, she often dressed in an American Indian costume and spoke gibberish to audiences.
4) Schlitze Surtees, aka Pinhead
Pepper’s (Naomi Grossman) story is another one that really tugged at viewer’s heartstrings, as it spanned through both the Asylum and the Freak Show series.
She’s depicted as a simple but completely loyal performer who saw Fraulein Elsa as a mother figure and delighted in child-like amusements. Her strange appearance, mostly characterised by an abnormally small head, can be blamed on Microcephaly syndrome.
Schlitze Surtees, the real ‘Pepper,’ spent his life on the entertainment circuit, even performing in the famous 1932 movie Freaks. Although he sometimes struggled due to a moderate intellectual disability and could only speak a few words, he recognized most of what was said to him and was remembered by colleagues as someone who was always laughing and cheerful and who loved to dance and socialise.
He relished the attention afforded to him by performing in several high-profile circuses and enjoyed the ‘freak’ lifestyle more than most.
5) Lucia Zarate, aka The Smallest Person who Ever Lived
One of AHS: Freak Show’s most endearing characters is Ma Petite (Jyoti Amge), a small Indian girl who acts as an assistant to Fraulein Elsa. She also participates in shows and is occasionally seen playing a tiny violin. Her kindness and innocence makes most characters treat her not as a small woman, but as a child who must be protected at all costs. Her death is a huge blow to the Freak Show, not due to the crowd she drew, but because of the hearts she filled.
Ma Petite is based on Lucia Zarate, a Mexican native who moved to the US to perform in the 1870s, at the age of twelve. Zarate was the first person to be diagnosed with Osteodysplastic Primordial Dwarfism Type II and was commemorated in the Guinness Book of Records as the lightest recorded adult. Her height was around 51 centimeters. Despite her small stature, Zarate was deemed intellectually typical.
Lucia Zarate worked as part of the “Fairy Sisters” act and was also billed as “the marvelous Mexican midget.” Unfortunately, she died at age 26 of hypothermia after her circus train became stranded in the snowy mountains.
6) Jean Tomaini, aka Legless Suzi
Although she doesn’t get a whole lot of scenes, Legless Suzi (Rose Siggins) is yet another valued member of Fraulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. She has a sketchy past, having killed a fellow beggar out of jealousy, but proves 100% loyal to her fellow ‘freaks’, even helping Penny (The newly dubbed ‘Lizard Lady’) take revenge on her father for her mistreatment. As her name suggests, Suzi’s legs were amputated shortly after birth, due to a condition known as sacral agenesis.
In real life, Jean Tomaini is believed to have inspired Legless Suzi. Born in 1916 without legs and possessing slightly deformed arms (which she used to walk), Tomaini was exhibited on the freak circuit from a young age by an abusive mother and subsequent adoptive mother. She was known for her acrobatic talents and sweet smile. It was through her performances that she met her equally unusual husband, Al Tomaini, billed as ‘The Tallest Man in the World’. The strange match proved idyllic, with the couple later marrying and adopting two children.
Sadly, the actress playing Legless Suzi, Rose Siggins, who suffered from sacral agenesis in her real life, passed away recently at age 43.
7) Daisy and Violet Hilton, aka The Siamese Sisters
When fans first saw the trailer for AHS: Freak Show, it was Bette and Dotte (Sarah Paulson), the conjoined twins that stole the show. The unusual pair has dicephalic parapagus, which results in a single torso and two heads. Bette is portrayed as an innocent, romantic type who is enamored by Hollywood and treats her life at the Freak Show as a chance to step into show business. Dot, however, acts as her cynical counterpoint who finds it hard to trust those around them. They struggle with the idea of being separated, knowing only one will survive. However, the twins eventually find happiness together with Jimmy Darling.
Whilst many people are familiar with the present day conjoined teen twins, Abby and Brittany Hensel, it’s likely that AHS’s twins are based more heavily on the less fortunate Hilton twins. These sisters did not have dicephalic paragus, but were instead fused at the pelvis.
The Hilton sisters were essentially bought from their mother and taken into the care of Mary Hilton, who immediately realized their commercial promise. According to the twins, Hilton and her husband were physically and verbally abusive and forced them to perform, while never seeing a cent of their earnings. Even when Mary Hilton passed away, the twins were placed in the care of her equally money-grubbing daughter.
Finally, in 1931, the Hilton twins sued Mary’s daughter, freeing them from their contract. They received $100, 000 in damages and went into vaudeville as “The Hilton Sisters’ Revue”. Like Bette, Daisy eventually dyed her hair blonde in order to be distinguishable from her sister. When vaudeville went out of fashion, the sisters moved onto burlesque venues. However, the public’s interest in ‘freaks’ waned and the pair had to take a job at a supermarket until their death to pay living expenses. Their fascinating life story is the subject of the documentary Bound by Flesh.
8) Stanislaus Berent, aka the Illustrated Seal
Paul (Mat Fraser) is one of the quirkiest characters on the freak show circuit. With his prominent British accent and heavily decorated body, his phocomelia isn’t even the first thing you notice. Tortured by the idea that he’d be a ladies man if not for his disability, he once covered himself with tattoos in an act of rebellion. Of course, his trysts with Fraulein Elsa and Penny suggest that his charm still shines through.
Stanislaus Berent was an American freak show performer during the 1940’s, often referred to as Sealo the Seal Boy, due to his short, malformed arms, caused by phocomelia. Though he lacked Paul’s eye-catching tattoos, he put on astounding performances alongside a chimpanzee, including shaving with a straight razor and molding animal figures out of clay.
Mat Fraser, who plays Paul, hasn’t been digitally altered for the role. The British actor has thalidomide-induced Phocomelia.
9) Amazon Eve
What Freak Show performance would be complete without a strong man or woman? Enter Amazon Eve. Her roles at The Cabinet of Curiosities involve playing the piano, protecting the rest of the troupe and occasionally performing feats of strength. Despite her large stature, she’s even-tempered and friendly until it comes to self-defense. When Dell tries to force himself upon her, she beats that bastard up like there’s no tomorrow.
Interestingly, the real Amazon Eve is played by… Amazon Eve. In a strange twist, transgender actress and Erika Ervin, stage name Amazon Eve, attended an audition calling for a 7-foot-woman. The role was originally written for a male actor, so Ervin slicked back her hair and dressed as a man for the casting call. Her convincing portrayal landed her the part, with the character even taking on her stage name. So… you could say that the character of Amazon Eve was inspired by herself!
American Horror Story: Freak Show is a truly captivating series, but perhaps even more captivating still are the real stories behind some of the now iconic characters.