When you think of circus sideshows, you might think of relentless businessmen taking advantage of unfortunate disabled people for profit. While this did certainly happen, the exploitation was likely much less common than you might think.
Sideshows provided a way for so-called “freaks” to make a living and succeed in a society that afforded them very few options. Without the institution of sideshows, the story of Sam Alexander, or the “man with two faces,” would have been tragic…
As a young man in Chicago, Sam Alexander was on track to become a well-respected stage actor. He had recently been promoted at the Shubert Theatre when disaster struck.
While the exact details are unknown, somehow Alexander found himself in the middle of a large gasoline explosion. He was able to save his eyes from the blast, but the rest of his face received major burns. As if that wasn”t enough, his wounds became infected during treatment. Doctors were then forced to remove a large portion of his face to save his life.
Alexander”s face was permanently disfigured by the accident.
Doctors believed Alexander had very little chance of living a normal life again. The nurses and his visiting family members recoiled in terror at his appearance. One day, however, Alexander was introduced to a maker of high-quality prosthetics. Together the two of them were able to create a convincing, lifelike mask that hid much of Alexander”s shocking appearance.
But now Alexander had to figure out how he was going to earn a living with his appearance.
After seeing an ad for a sideshow, Alexander met with the ringmaster. He showed the ringmaster his true appearance and was hired on the spot. For the next several years, Alexander toured the country telling audiences his story before revealing his true face to them. The sideshow billed Alexander”s act as “unfit for the weak of heart,” and he was actually paid not to perform in certain cities.
By the mid 1960s, Alexander was in high demand for sideshows all over the country. He even went on to found his own traveling show.
Despite his appearance being his livelihood, Alexander continued working to restore his damaged face.
In total, Alexander had 72 different facial operations. Eventually he ditched his mask, choosing instead to live the rest of his life with his real face. In 1997 Alexander”s legacy as the man with two faces came to end when he passed away peacefully.
(via: The Human Marvels)
The human spirit is a tough thing to break, and the story of Sam Alexander was living proof. Yes, what happened to him was tragic. But instead of wallowing in his misfortune, he made the best of what he had and prospered. I think we can all learn something from him.