Rare story of the Man with a Lion's face

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Stephan Bibrowski, who had gorgeous blonde hair that covered his entire body from head to toe, was born in Bielsk, Poland in 1890.

His mother abandoned him because of his condition and handed him to a businessman who displayed him throughout Europe as a circus attraction before bringing him to America in 1901.

As soon as Bibrowski arrived in the country, Barnum & Bailey picked him up and displayed him as "Lionel the Lion-Faced Man," referring to him as "half-man, half-lion."

Bibrowski was shown as a "freak" for 20 years, and spectators seldom knew that the person hidden behind the hair was a kind, soft-spoken man who spoke five languages and harbored a secret wish to quit acting and become a dentist.

The first organized “freak” shows and human abnormality exhibits date back to Elizabeth I of England’s reign in the 16th century, but the Victorian era is when these sideshows really took off. The phenomenon of sideshow “freaks” would spread throughout the United States and England as a developing public interest in health and science attracted crowds to view the bizarre — and even grotesque — demonstrations of our various anatomies and biological curiosity.

Anyone with a marketable disability, deformity, or otherwise oddity was added to his menagerie. Fairgrounds provided the most popular venues for sideshows and animals of extreme size or a human-like talent became the main draws.

Barnum opened a human curiosities exhibit in 1841 at the American Museum in Manhattan. After a fire destroyed it, he founded P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Circus and in 1881, James Bailey and James Hutchinson assumed partial ownership.

However, “freak” shows would vanish into a shadowy corner of history as science advanced and the unknown became better understood.

“Freaks” from P.T. Barnum’s sideshow
Famous American circus owner P.T. Barnum expanded his traveling show in 1835 by including alleged “freaks” or biological oddities.

George Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, standing on a chair between two guards. 1860.
Portrait of American Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker sitting on two wooden chairs. 1865.
English freak and sideshow performer Horace Ridler in 1946. Extensively tattooed, he exhibited himself as “The Great Omi” or “The Zebra Man.”
An undentified sideshow performer brings in the crowd to Coney Island’s Dreamland Trained Wild Animal Arena for a show in New York, New York. Early 1910s.
Daisy and Violet Hilton, a pair of British Siamese Twins who toured the US sideshow in the 1930’s, celebrating their 17th birthday.
Duke, the jungle tiger trained by George Carresello a famous animal trainer, playing the saxophone. 1925.
Dwarves and the tall man on stage at a sideshow. Date unspecified.
At a Coney Island “freak” show an albino is photographed with the Fat Lady. A Flea Circus poster is in the background. Date unspecified.The performance was known as Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth by 1887. They made famous figures including William Henry Johnson, well known as Zip the Pinhead, Annie Jones the Bearded Lady, General Tom Thumb, the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who stood about three feet tall when fully grown, General Tom Thumb, a distant relative of Barnum’s, and many others.

The Freaks and Those Who Showcased them
Experienced showmen like Barnum understood that the narrative surrounding an attraction or sideshow “freak” was more vital to draw audiences than the attraction or “freak” itself.

“In those days, you could exhibit anything. Yes, you could present anything as a whale, including a bloater, an elephant, a flea, and an anchor. It was the story you told, not the performance,“Tom Norman, an English performer, wrote.

Some well-known sideshow entertainers, such as the dwarf General Tom Thumb, later separated themselves from their performances. Others, like Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, had deformities that made life quite miserable for them even though they received a fair amount of the money they helped Barnum make.

Barnum included, managers undoubtedly took advantage of their performers, despite the vehement denials of some performers like Tom Norman.

The vast majority of performers treat their novelty acts more like people than like animals.—
Norman, Tom

In fact, performers in traveling sideshows frequently claimed to view their bosses and other performers as family. Although accounts differ, most seemed to earn a good wage—probably more than they would if they were employed in the regular world. Trading cards of well-known “freaks” were in circulation in England and the United States as early as 1851, with all proceeds going directly to the performers.

The Sideshow “Freak” Has Come To An End.
However, the exhibition of sideshow “freaks” was abandoned by the 1940s. The sideshow had virtually disappeared by the following decade due to a number of circumstances, including perceived exploitation (despite the fact that Barnum had a reputation for paying his performers well) and the rise of television.

Both their brave spirits and their painful tales continue to draw attention to the performers of the past.



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