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Series Feature #4 – Life in The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – Koo-Koo the Bird Girl (Minnie Woolsey and Elizabeth Green)

Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit.  The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.

In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue on our journey to future modern circus entrepreneurs. Last week we visit with the most prominent entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, a name the at is recognizable to the world.  P.T. Barnum, the name, the myth the legend, a showman who I would consider very controversial if alive today with his display of freaks and wonders.

Aside from that part of his life he was an opportunist keeping his name in the public especially in public service.

Recently watching “The Greatest Showman” I often wondered how close in the film did they try to give to his real life and I will say it strives to align pretty close in a way. Although it is my belief that P.T. Barnum was a cruel man to his performers although they made excellent pay at that time.

One of the more interesting people in the film and real life was Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera singer in which he paid her an unprecedented $1,000 per night for 150 nights, incredible in those days and even today which would be the equivalent of millions.

Being a businessman, he suffered from going bust many times but always make some attempt to recover with a new idea. Being a businessman, he had several businesses including a general store owner, book auctioning trade, real estate and statewide lottery network.  

Regardless of his major human faults he did make the circus what it became today and we must give him credit to that because like any business he made it a success and something that the people would enjoy until today.

The Introduction on James A. Bailey

But as it is said the Show must go on and it did when in 1880’s Barnum began to produce shows in partnership with James A. Bailey. Bailey also known as the great promotor of the international circus, which staged successful tours of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand in the 1870’s.

He was regarded as one of the best organizers in the business, making the perfect partner for Barnum, who himself was known as the best showman in the business.

Their circus offered the types of acts that had been established throughout the 19th century, but they had so many acts and operated on such a large scale that required now two rings and then three rings.

Perhaps the most famous attraction of the early Barnum and Bailey Circus was the legendary Jumbo, the largest elephant in the world, which Barnum acquired in 1882.

At the time Barnum and Bailey’s main competition were the Ringling Brothers, who established their first circus in 1884. During this period and early 20th century, he Ringling’s expanded their organization by acquiring several smaller circuses.

As many will remember the name Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus which was the last great circus until it ended recently. Next week we shall go further into the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and how they became one unit which seems pretty obvious. 

Keeping with tradition from previous weeks, we had the great honor of learning about those very special performers that many of us are curious about. We have had the honor to visit with the Bearded Women, Camel girl and the Siamese Twins. I encourage you visit these stories here :

Previous Profiles and Stories

Bearded Womenhttps://josephmeyercreatives.com/2020/08/09/life-in-the-circus-bearded-woman/

Camel Girlhttps://josephmeyercreatives.com/2020/08/15/series-feature-2-life-in-the-circus-from-yesterday-to-today-ella-harper-the-camel-girl/

The Siamese Twinshttps://josephmeyercreatives.com/2020/08/23/series-feature-3-life-in-the-circus-from-yesterday-to-today-siamese-twins-bunker-twins-chang-and-eng/

It’s only natural that we continue with our profiles of those in the circus more commonly referred to as Freaks. This week I think it would be interesting to visit Koo-Koo the Bird Girl.

Not sure why I am so interested in this performer only to think of some representation in the FX show American Horror Stories Freak Show with Meep. There are obliviously so many choices to choose from when it comes to circus freaks or side shows.

Koo-Koo the Bird Girl

Koo-Koo the Bird Girl also known as Minnie Woolsey ( 1880-1960) was an American side show entertainer, also best known for her only appearance in Tod Browning’s film Freaks in 1932.  Born  in 1880 in Rabun County, Georgia.

Little is known about her early life, only that she was recused from a mental asylum in Georgia by a traveling showman and commonly billed as Minnie Ha Ha.

Minnie’s Condition

She had a rare congenital growth skeletal disorder called Seckel Syndrome. It is best characterized by Intrauterine Growth Restriction retardation and postnatal dwarfism with a small head, narrow bird face with a beak like nose, large eyes with down-slanting palpebral fissures, receding mandible and intellectual disability.

Due to her syndrome which caused her to have a short stature, was bald, toothless and either completely blind or very short sighted. She would appear in an American Indian style bodysuit made of feathers with a single feather on top of her head as her costume and would dance and speak gibberish.

Appearance in Film Freaks (1932)

Appearing in the 1932 film Freaks, alongside a cast of sideshow performers from the time. She was not the original Koo Koo; however, the billing was previously used by another performer in the film, a “Stork” or “Bird” women named Elizabeth Green.  

Green was the actual “first” performer as Koo-Koo the bird girl and toured with Ringling Brothers Circus. Hers was mainly a comedy act and involved her dancing around in a feathered body suit with large bird feet and a long feather on her head.

I think its so important to honor both performers as they existed at the same time in history. Green was used at the entrance of the circus being one of the “less weird-looking freaks” to catch the attention of passersby.

Green was an American sideshow performer who was presented to audiences as a human stork during the early 1900’s. As like Minnie, Green had a large, long nose, thin bone structure due to her genetic condition for her unusual features but had no other medical conditions.

In 1942, a news brief in Billboard reported that Woolsey was recovering in Coney islands hospital after breaking her arm while descending stairs. She was hit by a car in the 1960’s. When and how she died is unknown, but accounts show that she was still alive and performing in 1960’s, working at Coney Island in side shows/circus in her 80’s.

What is interesting about some side shows/freaks is that some have little or no history written about them although they were still an important part. I am assuming Koo-Koo wasn’t the most prominent part of Side-shows but in reality, maybe she was because she was featured in film along with Green.

Another form on Exploitations

Koo-Koo or Minnie was a clear example of another form of exploitation for the disabled and surely, she was treated differently which made it difficult to survive on her own leading her the sideshows.

Minnie most likely had major impairment’s both physically and mentally which would have made it difficult to live independently, but really hard to say. If there’s anything I have learned so far is the resilience of those in sideshows/circuses who survive quite well.

Up to this point we have learned about those who suffer physically but still mentally sound who can communicate quite well. Such as in the case of all three side shows we have learned about so far.

Many of these performers go on to have families, spouses and live somewhat normal lives while others would probably never be able to live like you and me.

I think it’s still important to note these incredible unique lives even though there may not be a lot of information they deserve honoring continuously. I will continue to bring you new side-shows/Freaks performers.

Again, I don’t like the work freaks it basically makes them sound unhuman and they were all human beings with minds, thoughts and feelings. Most of us will probably never know what it would be like to live like them but I would love to get in the mind of many of them and see how they struggled, what they thought about and if they were generally happy in their lives despite being gawked at for entertainment.

18 thoughts on “Series Feature #4 – Life in The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – Koo-Koo the Bird Girl (Minnie Woolsey and Elizabeth Green)”

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