Waxworks Part 2: Conjoined twins, a half-man-half-elephant and a giant schoolboy, early Edinburgh waxworks brought freak shows to Royal Mile

In the second part of his look at the Capital’s early waxworks museums, Jan Bondeson uncovers a darker side to the attractions as freak shows are employed by owners as a means to keep visitors returning.

The Brighton United Twins, conjoined sisters
The Brighton United Twins, conjoined sisters

Frederick Stewart, owner of Stewart’s Waxworks at 164-166 the High Street, was a clever and enterprising man who realised that waxworks had their limitations when it came to attracting the paying customers. His solution was to open a freak show at the Waxworks and to make sure that there was always some curiosity on show. Stewart regularly advertised for ‘living novelties’ for his establishments in Edinburgh and London and bearded or moss-haired ladies, elastic-skinned men, giants and dwarfs were invited to come to Edinburgh.

His advertisements in the Edinburgh Evening News of the day were wholly devoid of political correctness, such as this one from September 1898: ​'​To be seen alive, Bunce, a remarkable freak of nature and the ONLY HUMAN BEING bearing the blend of Pig and Seal.​'​

Magnetia the Accurate Palmist was a veteran at the Waxworks, telling people’s fortunes for a small extra fee; other regular performers were Miss Flo Riley the Tattooed Lady and Herman Johnson the Giant Schoolboy. Fasting artists, who fasted locked inside a cage while on show to the curious, were also considered a great novelty at the time and in 1907, the Swiss Victor Beauté set a new world record by completing a 47-day fast at Stewart’s Waxworks and around the same time Agnes McDonald the Fasting Woman was performing at the premises.

Agnes McDonald, The Fasting Lady

Occasionally, however, some rather sinister types were at large at the Waxworks: Castania the Human Ostrich, Mephisto the Human Gasometer and Herculine the Premier Lady Samson. And what about, ​'​To be seen alive, the Greatest Phenomenon of Human Nature in Existence – Fish, Pig and Man combined in one​'​ or ​'​The Greatest Living Freak on Earth, Half Man and Half Elephant. First visit to the City.​'​In the early 1910s, Stewart’s Waxworks in Edinburgh were still going strong. Stewart collaborated with showmen in Glasgow and Aberdeen, ‘sharing’ the freaks on show. For a short while in 1910, there was even a branch of Stewart’s Waxworks at 293 High Street, Kirkcaldy, quite probably equipped with some of the older and less attractive wax models from the Edinburgh establishment.

Stewart ​meanwhile ​was still on the lookout for new ‘living novelties’ to exploit. In January 1911, the Brighton conjoined twin babies, Violet and Daisy Hilton, were on show at the Waxworks, without any person suggesting that it was degrading to exhibit such small​ ​children before the curious.

Indeed, the Edinburgh Evening News wrote that​,​ ​'​The twins are of attractive appearance, with bright, intelligent faces and pretty golden hair; and they make a pleasing picture as they play together with their teddy bears and picture books.​'

But by this time, the business prospects for the Waxworks turned freak show were no longer looking bright, and Stewart’s Waxworks closed its doors, for good, in late 1911.

The premises of Stewart's Waxworks today

The following year, Stewart attempted a comeback in new premises at Ann Street, exhibiting the Bear Woman and the Half Lady, or Human Bust, but he failed once more and the establishment was shut down after a couple of months.The original Stewart’s Waxworks at 164-166 High Street still stands today. It was the fashionable Bay of Bengal Indian restaurant when I saw it first, before becoming the Best of Scottish shop; it is today the Royal Mile Factory Outlet, selling fashionable wool, tweed and cashmere clothing to the tourists.

It is well-nigh incredible that this Edinburgh house of horrors is not haunted today: the wax models of celebrated murderers coming to life at the stroke of midnight and joining the Human Gasometer and the other ghostly freaks in an endless dance macabre​... ​

Jan Bondeson is the author of Murder Houses of Edinburgh, published by Troubador, available from www.troubador.co.uk

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Author Jan Bondeson

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