Fairground attraction: See the amazing headless woman!

THEY were the celebrity sensations of their day, and acts like Madam Electra, who could withstand the electric shock of 27,000 volts, left fairground audiences stunned.

For years sideshow performers toured the country, but the popularity of the Girl in the Goldfish Bowl and Yvette, the Headless Lady, began to dwindle as TV and cinema took over.

By the 1960s, Gloria the Living Half Lady and the Great Omi – the most tattooed man on the planet – were forced to pack up their tents and their secrets were locked away in dusty storage.

But their shocking and occasionally macabre performances are being revived, and they will soon be seen in Yorkshire after being rediscovered by an academic from Sheffield University.

Prof Vanessa Toulmin ran the enormously successful Admission All Classes event in Blackpool last year, which saw the recreation of variety and burlesque shows with a modern twist.

She now plans to give Madam Electra and associates their first 21st century run out in the Lancashire seaside resort, before bringing them to Yorkshire later in the year as part of a bigger variety festival.

In the old days the sideshow acts would have been called "fairground freaks" – but Prof Toulmin is keen to stress that each one is actually an illusion and is not exploitative in any way.

She added: "They have been recreated by Hull-based Jon Marshall, who has restored the original sideshows which were last owned by a fire-eater and magician called Jon Gresham.

"In their heyday, these shows went all over the country, and spent a lot of time in seaside resorts like Scarborough. Mr Gresham, who was also from Hull, has died, but his wife Pat, who used to perform in some of the shows, has allowed us to use them."

Prof Toulmin's day job is the director of research at the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University, although she comes initially from a Lancashire fairground family.

At the Blackpool event, Showzam 09 which begins this weekend, the sideshows will be accompanied by a collection of photographs held by the Sheffield-based archive, which have never been seen by the public before.

The scenes, captured by little-known photographer and fairground enthusiast Lionel Bathe, show 1950s Britain in vivid colour and include a series of bizarre and sometimes surreal circus subjects.

Prof Toulmin said: "Bathe was an obsessive photographer and was experimenting with colour pictures very early on. He took around 2,500 photos and when he died left them to the Fairground Association.

"They were then passed to us and we spent a year cataloguing and working on them. They show a fantastically British side of showbusiness, where the performers aren't really that glamorous."

Prof Toulmin said she hoped to use the photographs in her Yorkshire event, which will also include a burlesque and variety shows. The sideshows will be on display at the Rotherham Arts Festival, which takes place in the first week of October, and will then go to Sheffield for the city's Fright Night festivities around Halloween.

Entry to the Blackpool events is free, and more details can be found at www.showzam.co.uk or by calling 01253 478222.


Madam Electra's Electric Chair – This sees Madam Electra "the voluptuous lady of lightning" defy death as she sits in a chair charged with 27,000 volts by her stage companion Professor Voltini.

Yvette: The Headless Lady – Involves the star of the show, Yvette, sitting on stage in a chair, apparently headless, while doctors explain how she is kept alive by the "miracles of modern science".

Cleo: The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl – Was designed as a risque illusion which featured a girl in a bikini. The show makes the performer appear to be just five inches tall and able to swim in a goldfish bowl.

Gloria: The Living Half Lady – Gloria, who is apparently half a woman from the waist up, sits on top of a table and explains to the audience how she managed to find herself in such a predicament.

The Mummy – Has not been seen since going into storage in the late 1950s and tells of Dr Sidney Fairweather, from Blackpool, who discovered a terrifying reincarnated Mummy during an excavation in Egypt.