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Secrets of the SideshowsSecrets of the Sideshows

Joe Nickell

Narrated by Scott Carrico

Available from Audible

Book published by University Press of Kentucky

On small-town ballfields and county fairgrounds, the sideshow performers set up their tents and trailers in the shadow of the Ferris wheel. There they amazed us with daring feats such as fire eating and sword swallowing, intrigued us with exhibitions of human oddities and various “anatomical wonders,” and yes, deceived us with illusions such as “Atasha the Gorilla Girl” and even outright fakes. These bizarre spectacles engaged the mind as well as the eye. Was the human blockhead act, in which the performer pounded a large nail or ice pick into his nostril, real or fake? Was the so-called alligator boy genuine or a “gaffed” oddity, painted with glue to produce a scaly simulation of reptilian skin? While the sideshows have now all but vanished from the American landscape, they leave a fascinating legacy of romance and mystery. Many of their secrets remain, only grudgingly given up, if at all, by aging showmen and “bally talkers.” Joe Nickell—once a carnival pitchman, then a magician, a private detective, and an investigative writer—has pursued sideshow secrets for years. He has interviewed the showmen and performers, collected carnival memorabilia, researched the published literature, and even performed some classic sideshow feats, such as eating fire and lying on a bed of nails while a cinderblock was broken on his chest. Secrets of the Sideshows reveals the specific methods and tricks behind the performances, the showmen’s tactics for recruiting performers and attracting crowds, and more. Nickell also examines the behind-the-scenes secrets of sideshow life, including details of the remarkable personal lives of those men and women billed as “freaks.”

Joe Nickell Ph.D. is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) - an international scientific organization - and investigative columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.


“Using history, real carny language, stories from former sideshow workers and owners, and from Nickell’s own archives, Secrets of the Sideshows is a wealth of information for circus fans or anyone who’s wondered how those seemingly-impossible illusions are created.”

Brookings (SD) Register

“Nickell offers first a history of sideshows ... then presents a comprehensive analysis of sideshow performers, skills, and illusions.... Recommended.”


“To find out how it’s done, and other carnival minutiae, browse Nickell’s comprehensive Secrets of the Sideshows.”

Entertainment Weekly

“A widely researched and splendidly illustrated history of the bizarre world of the exhibited abnormal and the demonstrated impossible.”

Foreword Magazine

“A book that gives you the straight lowdown on the acts and the people behindthem. A clear-eyed look into a vanishing bit of Americana. Intriguing andunique.”

—Joe R. Lansdale, Edgar Award winning author of The Bottoms and Freezer Burn

“The author, lifting up the back flap of the tent show, reveals, informs, and presents a range of human oddities from the ’real’ to the ’created.”

Linking Ring

“Ever since I saw Penn and Teller ’eat’ fire and pontificate on the circus sideshow, I have been curious to learn more about it, not only the history and culture of the sideshow, but the secrets themselves! Nickell delivers brilliantly.”

—Michael Shermer, author of Why People Believe Weird Things

“Simultaneously provides an insider’s glimpse of that world on the skirts of the main event and an excursion into a vanishing feature of North American life.”


“An enjoyable read.... Nickell has encyclopedic knowledge of sideshow history.”

Roanoke Times

“Nickell takes us inside the world of fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, jugglers, snake-handlers, and magicians to explain the illusions and oddities we may have puzzled over but never fully understood. ”

—Robert A. Baker, author of They Call It Hypnosis

“To be sure, he gives plenty of secrets away here, most of them open secrets, but the book works best as a tribute to the imagination of the performers and organizers of the exhibits which were meant to provoke and satisfy that admirable old human characteristic, curiosity.... If you want the lowdown on sideshows, step right up, ladies and gentlemen, Joe Nickell presents the best show on the midway. ”

Times of Acadiana

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University Press Audiobooks