Circassian Beauty in the American Sideshow
Among the “human curiosities” in P. T. Barnum’s American Museum was a supposed escapee from an Ottoman harem, a figure marketed as both the pinnacle of white beauty and an exoticised other. Betsy Golden Kellem investigates the complex of racial and cultural stereotypes that made the Circassian beauty such a sideshow spectacle.
September 16, 2021
If you happened to wander the puzzle-box warren of exhibit halls and saloons that made up Phineas Taylor Barnum’s American Museum in the mid-1800s, no one would have blamed you for feeling bombarded. Frankly, that was sort of the point: this five-story destination in lower Manhattan was a living, thrumming organism that strove to do nothing so much as overwhelm the senses. For a quarter’s admission, visitors could take in fine portraiture and exotic taxidermy, live theater and a lemonade stand, antiquities both real and imaginary, wax sculptures, stereographs, a Canadian beluga whale in the basement aquarium, and — capitalizing on an American strand of the Victorian-era “deformito-mania” — a rotating assortment of human, biological rarities, whose unusual bodies demonstrated the breadth and depth of creation.1
Some of these “living wonders” walked the venue’s halls, speaking with guests and offering souvenir carte-de-visite photographs for sale. Other performers were presented to the public in grand staged receptions known as “levees”. Alongside the likes of conjoined twins, a seven-foot “giantess”, the bearded lady, and the celebrated General Tom Thumb in his Napoleon costume was an act that endured through Barnum’s era and into the twentieth-century sideshow: an enigmatic, captivating woman known as the Circassian beauty, whose only “deformity” was her lack of imperfection.
A staple of dime museums and traveling shows throughout the nineteenth century, Circassian beauties were alleged to be from the Caucasus Mountain region, and were famous for both their legendary looks and their large, seemingly Afro-textured hairstyles. The Circassian beauty was an attraction that required audiences to hold a number of ultimately unresolvable stereotypes in tension with each other. These women were presented as chaste, but were also billed as former harem slaves. They were supposedly of noble lineage but appeared as sideshow attractions. And they were displayed to predominantly white audiences for an exoticism that traded on hair associated with Black women, which came coupled with the paradoxical assurance that, being Caucasian, Circassian beauties represented the height of white racial “purity”.
The pseudoscience of race in the nineteenth century, the development of mass media and entertainment venues at that time, and the employment of women who performed race as though it were a theater role all combined in a jarring and beguiling mix of stereotypes that kept the Circassian beauty attraction going for decades, and has had a lasting impact on how we think about race, class, and gender today.
This particular conception of Circassian beauty can be traced to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840), a German theorist who used craniometry — the measuring of human skulls — to address the then-pressing scientific question of whether racial variety was evidence of separate species within humanity. Blumenbach firmly dismissed this idea, writing that the color of one’s skin was “an adventitious and easily changeable thing, and can never constitute a diversity of species”.2
This is not to say that everyone was equal in esteem according to the German craniometrist. Blumenbach advocated for a hierarchy that considered people of his own race to be humanity’s poster children. Assessing and comparing the contours of various human skulls, Blumenbach ultimately arrived at a taxonomy of five racial groups, among which he considered persons from the Black Sea region to be the physical ideal.3 He coined the term “Caucasian” to describe this group, writing that
I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian; and because all physiological reasons converge to this, that in that region, if anywhere, it seems we ought with the greatest probability to place the autochthones of mankind.4
Blumenbach considered this Caucasian population, spread across Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa, the “primeval” (or “autochthonous”) human race, which branched into four other categories: Mongolian (Central Asian), American (Native), Malay (Southeast Asian), and Ethiopian (sub-Saharan African).5 It was, he argued, environmental conditions that caused a “degeneration” of the fair Caucasian original into peoples of color.
To support his assertion that white skin had to be humanity’s default starting point, Blumenbach needed little more data than the fact that European ladies who spent their winters indoors exhibited “a brilliant whiteness”, while those who “exposed themselves freely to the summer sun and air” quickly ended up with a solid tan. “If then under one and the same climate the mere difference of the annual seasons has such influence in changing the colour of the skin”, he reasoned, ad absurdum, “is there anything surprising in the fact that climates. . . according to their diversity should have the greatest and most permanent influence over national colour”.6 The Ethiopian and Mongolian races Blumenbach considered “extreme varieties”, with Native American and Malay, respectively, as “intermediate” classifications between these extremes and the Caucasian ideal.7
Blumenbach may not have become especially famous, and craniometry (along with phrenology, a sister pseudoscience devoted to divining personality from the bumps on one’s skull) only had a short period of dubious fame, but the stereotype of idealized Caucasian beauty caught on fast. Circassia, a region of the Caucasus Mountains, became ground zero for Western notions of white beauty. Throughout the nineteenth century, books and magazines extolled the virtues of fair, buxom women in draped gowns and peasant jewelry; stout, bearded soldiers with daggers at their belts, and a certain warmly exotic way of mountain life.8 A smattering of nineteenth-century “Circassian” branded products promised women they could achieve Circassian beauty in their own home: hair dye to turn light-colored tresses into a “soft, glossy & natural” brown or black, Circassian fabric to achieve the right gauzy look, and various skin products promising “that whiteness, transparency and color so highly prized by all civilized nations”.9 The endorsement of “the elite of our cities, the Opera, [and] the stage” was supposed to be reassuring, but the promise of removing freckles, acne, sunburn, “Moth”, and roughness suggests such lotions were little more than a chemical belt sander for one’s face.10
Circassia was more than the rugged, simplistic paradise one might have imagined from cosmetics or travelogues. The target of invasion and ethnic cleansing throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as Russia and Ottoman Turkey encroached by land and sea, Circassia was invaded during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus and formally placed under Russian control following the end of the Crimean War in 1856. During this period (just before Barnum’s Caucasian beauty appeared on the scene), the Russian Empire carried out systematic murder and expulsion against the region’s predominantly Muslim communities.11 By the middle 1860s, the remaining population was largely and forcibly evacuated to the Ottoman Empire, where overcrowding, price-gouging, and enslavement were enduring risks for Circassian refugees.
There was, concurrently, a mid-century Western fascination with melodramatic narratives of white slavery, popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-nineteenth century. Art and drama explored the horror-movie allure of brute men trafficking in the doom of innocent, blushing virgins (suffice it to say that the reality of human trafficking was far broader, harsher, and less discriminating). In the U.S., this manifested in many ways. The sculptor Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave, a statue of a nude woman chained at the wrists by Turkish captors, was adopted as an emblem by abolitionists and seen on tour by more than one hundred thousand Americans in the 1840s.12 Race and slavery were explored in plays like Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, the 1859 story of a young southern white woman whose marriage plans are thwarted when it is revealed that her mother is one of the plantation’s enslaved workers, and who, despite passing for white, is then put up for sale with the assets of her father’s estate. (British audiences got a happy ending, but in American performances the girl commits suicide, avoiding even staged approval of mixed marriage.)13 These audiences liked to raise their collective heart-rate in a safe environment, playing out histrionic fears of subjugation and integration through entertainment.
It was against this backdrop that, in 1865, P. T. Barnum introduced American Museum patrons to Zalumma Agra, the “Star of the East”, the first “Circassian beauty”. Her face framed in a halo of frizzy hair, this alluring young lady appeared in levees at the American Museum dressed in a trimmed, three-quarter-length dress with blousy sleeves, a swath of stocking visible above her mid-calf boots. She occasionally completed the outfit with a sash of luxurious fabric or a moon-shaped headdress.
A biographical pamphlet sold to patrons laid out the story of Agra’s childhood flight from Russian incursion into her native land, and how that path somehow brought a woman who claimed royal descent to the sort of New York entertainment venue that also offered pet taxidermy. Agra was said to have been orphaned by invaders as a child, and discovered by John Greenwood Jr, Barnum’s right-hand man, on the streets of Constantinople among masses of refugees. “Her marvellous beauty and pleasant, intelligent manners at once arrested his attention”, declared the nameless pamphlet author, “while the extraordinary peculiarity of her hair challenged his interest and his admiration”.14
Greenwood, captivated by the child and hoping to save her from “the beautiful but ignorant habitat of a pagan’s harem”, negotiated with the girl’s friends and Turkish authorities to become her guardian, providing tutoring and accommodations to help her grow into the “thorough and lavishly educated woman” of eighteen then entertaining at the American Museum. No one was especially encouraged to inquire in further detail: Agra’s promoters insisted that, since she had left Circassia as a child, her homeland existed in her mind as “an imperfect and confused dream”, and she remembered little of her native language.15
As one might expect, the true story was a bit different, and Agra’s promoters took full advantage of the interpretive space afforded by imperfect details and confused dreams. John Greenwood had indeed gone east on a scouting trip in 1864, looking to engage an allegedly horned woman. Greenwood found no one worth exhibiting, and Barnum instructed him via letter to instead look for “a beautiful Circassian girl if you can get one”.16 Barnum, in his autobiography, says little about what followed, except that Greenwood disguised himself as a slave-buyer and saw “a large number of Circassian girls and women” in Constantinople.17 In private correspondence Barnum was more frank about his willingness to conveniently ignore the evils of the Ottoman slave economy if it got him a guaranteed hit: “If you can also buy a beautiful Circassian woman”, he wrote Greenwood, “do so if you think best; or if you can hire one or two at reasonable prices, do so if you think they are pretty and will pass for Circassian slaves . . . if she is beautiful, then she may take in Paris or in London or probably both. But look out that in Paris they don't try the law and set her free. It must be understood she is free”.18 The Circassian beauty made her debut not long afterward, presented as the result of Greenwood’s expedition. An alternative origin story, uncovered by the disability scholar Robert Bogdan in his 1988 book Freak Show, offers an explanation that seems far more likely for the sort of Circassian lady who spoke in a perfect American accent, and the sort of showman who was not exactly known for his infinite patience: Greenwood came back empty-handed, and the American Museum (not wanting to waste a good story) decided to cast a “Circassian” beauty from the local talent roster.19
That the woman in question had distinctively abundant hair was, as best the historical record can tell us, initially incidental.20 As the act grew in popularity, though, her style created a stereotype for all subsequent women performing as Circassian beauties (completely divorced from the style of actual Circassians): frizzy hairdos, the larger the better. Whether or not “Circassian” performers were originally from the Black Sea region was generally irrelevant, and in truth the role was a character fiction, played by women — often lower class and recently arrived to the U.S. from Europe — who washed their hair in beer to achieve the desired look. Soon enough, a succession of women appeared in public performance as Circassian beauties, with a carefully crafted foreign allure and a particular visual script: voluminous Afro-like hair, exoticized peasant costumes, a bit of skin (more as time went on: dresses eventually gave way to ruffly shorts and tights), and a name that usually began with the letter “Z” — Zula Zeleah, Zoe Zobedia, Zuruby Hannum, and Zobeide Luti, to name a few.
The Circassian character — and she was a character, to be sure, as much as any dramatic role — was presented as the pinnacle of beauty and evolution. But this ideal white woman was also an unfamiliar curiosity from a foreign culture with hair that connoted exoticism and minstrelsy. We have no idea if Barnum retained the hairstyle part of the act on purpose, in a direct effort to imitate Black hair or parody Black identity; nevertheless, the retention irretrievably linked the Circassian Beauty with the racist associations and biases circulating in American society. This entertainment effectively took the prior vogue of Circassian beauty, which had far more conventional aspirations (selling glossy brunette hair dye and flowery journalism), and added a thick layer of Circassian whiteness. In using large textured hairstyles and suggestive poses, Circassian beauties called forth cultural myths about promiscuity, tribalism, and social worthiness, borrowing qualities from other racist stereotypes, like the “Jezebel”, a lascivious seductress. “The ethnic kink”, wrote author Charles D. Martin in The White African American Body, referencing the Circassian beauty’s hair, “supplied a visible bridge between the normalized, exalted whiteness that conferred citizenship and the distinguishing marks of racial difference that facilitated slavery. The emancipated white body still bore the evidence of its dark-bodied captivity.”21 The idea of white beauty relying on non-white stereotypes — that whiteness, taken to its archetypal extreme, blends Black and Caucasian features — is perhaps the strangest, most puzzling, and cunning facet of the Circassian beauty act.22
Within the sideshow ecosystem, the Circassian beauty was more complex than her colleagues. She was not celebrated in her individual identity like Anna Swan the giantess,23 nor was she exaggerated into racialized or ableist inhumanity like many “ethnic curiosities” of the day. Audiences could view her as morally upright, having escaped the harem for a Western lifestyle, but still gasp at her past proximity to prostitution and “pagan” sensuality. Rescued from a life of indentured, sexual slavery (so the story went), the woman began anew in the United States at the very moment that this nation, built on chattel slavery, passed the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.
At the time Barnum debuted his Circassian beauty, it was an entertainment consistent with a general culture of racial anxiety. In show business, as in science and in the explosive political sphere, matters of race held a particular charge. In the middle 1860s, the increasingly violent politics of abolition and its detractors added a menacing edge to life in New York, which, despite its northern location, was conspicuously unfriendly toward President Lincoln and his refusal to make peace with the South. New York mayor Fernando Wood had suggested in 1861 that the city secede from both New York state and the Union — a “venal and corrupt master” — entirely.24 That did not happen, but New Yorkers rioted in reaction to the federal draft for four days in July 1863, and Confederate press threatening to burn the city in response to Union offensives in the South assured readers that “The men to execute the work [raze New York] are already there”.25 The city remained so staunchly hostile to Lincoln administration policy and abolitionism that Union general Benjamin Butler, nicknamed “The Beast”, was posted to the city along with thousands of soldiers to ensure peace during the 1864 Presidential election. And all manner of then-current arts and “sciences”, from phrenology to miscegenation theory, attempted to explain and reinforce a scheme of racial hierarchy that overlaid itself onto warring political agendas.26
The public’s guilty fascination with white slavery narratives only boosted the Circassian beauty’s popularity, and further crowded the inseparable braid of historical concerns and contemporary biases involved in her exhibition. No one interpretation seems sufficient, yet all, taken together, do not arrive at clarity. In addition to the politics of American slavery and the pervasive social fear of miscegenation, there was the romanticized supposition that enslaved harem women were engaged in a “luxurious and mindless” state of posh lounges, scanty clothing, and day after day of idle indulgence, while Circassian men had to be rough primitives who “value their women less than their stirrups” despite the women’s legendary beauty.27 These stories invoke questions about Orientalism, making enemies of foreign sultans, and showing Circassian ladies as subjects in need of colonizing influence; and they glorify non-intellectual domesticity in a thumbs-up to conventional Victorian-era womanhood. This entertainment was a mixtape that suited the current mood: enough truth about Circassian slavery to ground the story in feasibility; enough of a racialized visual language to invoke race and slavery in American politics; Orientalist harem stories to justify white colonialist hierarchy; and re-education narratives to reinforce female subordination and norms of conduct.
Barnum’s American Museum was an arena in which such questions regarding performance, social structure, and racial status could be considered. This sort of museum model, which purported to show the wonders of the wider world to a mass of people who did not have the ability to travel, was helpful insofar as it democratized access to knowledge (the American Museum drew crowds on par with modern Disneyland); but it was a highly curated presentation, in which people and groups could all too easily be fetishized or tokenized.28 And while Barnum’s reputation as an exploitative sideshow huckster is not entirely deserved — he was a reputable employer, paid well, and insisted his employees were “living wonders” rather than freaks — race undeniably mattered in how performers of color were presented to the paying public. The same P. T. Barnum who in 1865 would speak before the Connecticut legislature to lobby for Black voting rights nonetheless continued to rely on the profitable prevalence of lazy stereotype and exoticism in paid entertainment.29 (For Barnum, as with many prominent men of his era, anti-slavery did not necessarily mean pro-equality, and his unwillingness to alienate any paying customer meant that he avoided taking moral stances on the stage that were justly called for.) Zalumma Agra and other Circassian beauties would have been exhibited under the same roof as the likes of the Lucasie family who had albinism, the “Living Chinese Family”, or “What Is It?”, a piece of racist, pseudoscientific theater in which a Black man played the role of a supposed “missing link” between apes and humans. All of this assumed and proclaimed a certain white social standard, and allowed viewers to feel comfortably superior to the humans who were, in their eyes, reduced to “curiosities” on display.
The stereotype of the Circassian beauty continued in sideshows for quite some time. Dime museums and circuses claimed to have the original Zalumma Agra on display for decades, well past the point of feasibility (not that anyone seemed to mind). In the 1880s, when Barnum was enjoying later-life fame as a circus entrepreneur, his “Greatest Show on Earth” typically included a Circassian woman in its sideshow, and one of the most famous — Zoe Meleke — offered a pamphlet that told the same life story that had accompanied Zalumma Agra decades earlier.30 Into the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as the Circassian story had less resonance for audiences, performers often doubled as similarly exoticized snake-charmer acts, or displayed their hair as a curiosity without the romance of a Black Sea origin story: this was the case with the likes of Mademoiselle Ivy, the “Moss-Haired Girl”, and Zumigo, played by a Black performer. While the latter character’s name and hairstyle conjured her “Caucasian” predecessors, Zumigo was billed as an Egyptian, swapping peasant costumes for fancy dresses and fringed leotards.31
The legacy of the Circassian beauty endures, beginning with the fact that the word “Caucasian” is now so common in use as to be completely divorced from its origins. Today, the question of race as performance has further crossed the permeable barrier between the stage and the outside world — the Circassian woman, after all, relied not only on prevalent bias but on the suspension of disbelief that was P. T. Barnum’s stock-in-trade. More recent controversies over assumed racial identity, from Rachel Dolezal to Jessica Krug, Hache Carrillo, and Andrea Smith, have been carried out in the public sphere, where there is no ticket booth or stage curtain to signal a space of malleable truth, and where repercussions touch more than an audience or performer.32 Circassian beauties may seem like a distant relic of the Barnum era, their popularity only hinted at from the quiet of a cabinet card or carte-de-visite photograph today, but, in demonstrating the pitfalls of reducing any experience to a performed stereotype, they still contribute to our ongoing dialogue around race, community, and identity.
Betsy Golden Kellem is a historian and media attorney. A scholar of the unusual, her history writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Atlas Obscura, Slate, and Narratively. Betsy serves on the board of directors of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, regularly speaks on circus and sideshow, and has taught at Yale University. She blogs at her history site Drinks With Dead People.