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 V.17 No.39 | September 25 - October 1, 2008 

The Radford Files

Fear, Pity and Loathing at the State Fair

One of several “World’s Smallest” women at a state fair in New York, circa 1999.
Benjamin Radford
One of several “World’s Smallest” women at a state fair in New York, circa 1999.

Apparently, the New Mexico State Fair doesn’t want my kind.

When I go to the fair, I can take or leave the funnel cakes and the barbecue. The prize-winning goats and bunnies—no matter how cute—hold no more than a passing interest for me; likewise the clanky, vomit-spackled midway rides.

No, one of the main reasons I go to the State Fair is to see something different, like exhibits and sideshows. I want to see somebody juggling fiery bowling balls on a unicycle; I want to meet this season’s World’s Smallest Woman. But I can’t.

This year, before I could get to the fair, came the news: “Fair Shuts Down 2 Freak Shows,” said the Albuquerque Journal headline. “Two midway attractions were shut down Thursday by the order of State Fair management.” It all started when State Fair spokesperson (and ex-Alibi Editor) Michael Henningsen went to see the "World’s Smallest Woman” and what he saw disturbed him: a very short woman on a small couch.

The horror!

Someone get the smelling salts. I do believe Mr. Henningsen has the vapors. His sensibilities were upset. “There was a real person that was being exploited,” he said in the article, and he immediately contacted the fair’s lawyers. Sure enough, as Henningsen pointed out in an e-mail after the fact, the contract between fair management and Murphy Brothers Exposition “explicitly states that there shall be no displays that can be construed as blatant exploitation of humans or animals (e.g. diving mules, conjoined twins, dwarfism, etc.).” Thus, virtually any animal superlative is banned from the fair midway, including, for example, the world’s smallest horse, the fattest hog, etc.

“The State Fair Commission and Management decide what’s appropriate and how they want the State Fair to be represented to the public,” Henningsen wrote. It’s not clear why a dwarf—human or horse—is “inappropriate,” but Henningsen is entitled to his opinion, and the fair is entitled to enforce rules and contracts. Murphy Brothers complied and shut down the show.

These are fascinating people who are happy earning a living in sideshows.

But there’s another side to the story. Henningsen himself created the issue by deeming the exhibit “exploitation” and seeking its removal. Yes, it turned out to be a violation of the contract, but it was Henningsen’s judgment that the exhibit was (or could be) “construed as blatant exploitation” that triggered the legal review.

Exploitation is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a shame Henningsen or another fair official didn’t actually speak to the World’s Smallest Woman, as they might have gotten a different perspective. Friends of mine have worked in sideshows and carnivals for decades, among them: Poobah the Fire-Eating Dwarf; Matt “The Tube” Crowley of the Jim Rose Circus; and Bruce Snowden, the fat man who made a cameo in the film Big Fish. These are fascinating people who are happy earning a living in sideshows. Performers who work in the small stand-alone shows (called single-o’s in the trade) can average $30 to $50 per hour or more. The fairs are a good way to earn extra money, and the biggest problem is not exploitation but boredom.

Far from being exploited, the woman is an independent, self-employed contract performer who can quit any time she wants. But why would she? She’s getting paid $40 an hour to sit on a couch and watch television or read a book while waiting for people to look at her for a minute or two. How many other jobs can a 29-inch tall woman do that will earn her as much money? All she does is greet people, answer a few questions and maybe sell an autographed pitch card for three bucks. If she’s out in public, people will look at her anyway—for free. Why not do the state fair circuit for a season and earn a lot of money for doing almost nothing? Oh, that’s right: The State Fair is concerned about its public image.

Thanks to the State Fair’s politically correct policies, the Smallest Woman is now off the midway. Instead of sitting on a couch earning $40 an hour, she’s sitting in a trailer 200 yards away earning nothing, waiting to move on to the next town where she can work without running afoul of the local morals brigade.

Free Angel Snake Girl!

Adding to the absurdity, someone (it’s not clear who, but not Henningsen) apparently felt that not only are people of short stature being exploited, but so too was a half-human, half-snake woman. Yes, they also shut down “The Strangest Illusion of All Time”—“ Angel Snake Girl: The head of a lovely woman and the body of an ugly, scaly, 200-pound snake!”

Why? Perhaps someone thought it was real: I can almost hear protesters working up an indignant lather, shouting, “Free Angel! Let the poor woman slither her way to the freedom of a Florida swamp, or at least the shade of the Rio Grande bosque! For the love of God, free the poor woman from her caged exploitation, feed her some frozen mice and let her be with her own kind!”

Or perhaps Murphy Brothers was skittish about the fair’s lawyers and assumed even the illusion of a half-snake woman might “be construed as blatant exploitation of humans or animals.” As a fair patron, I should have the right to choose whether to see sideshows. Those who don’t want to see the World’s Smallest Woman can walk right past the show; no one is forcing them to see it or spend the dollar. But I and other New Mexicans won’t have that choice.

The State Fair should pick on someone its own size instead of threatening the livelihood of a woman trying to earn a living in any way she sees fit. Circuses, sideshows and carnivals toured the world centuries before cable television and video games. Families used to go out together to see amazing live acts and entertainers, including freaks. The rise of midway rides began the demise of sideshows, and today the historic sideshow is nearly dead, thanks in part to the New Mexico State Fair.

Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Lake Monster Mysteries , available at his website: RadfordBooks.com. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

 
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