American Horror Story: Freak Show
American Horror Story: Freak Show has just started in the US and promises to be a season of horror to trump previous seasons FX

American Horror Story fans will be glad to know that after a year-long hiatus, the horror TV mini-series is now back with its fourth season – American Horror Story: Freak Show, which is set in 1950s Florida.

Each season of the TV series starts with a different plot, setting and series of characters that focus on celebrating some of the most popular tropes in the horror genre, with previous seasons including a traditional haunted house, a mental asylum and a coven of witches.

The new series takes another new direction by seeking to recreate the popular 19th century freak shows of old, where people who were born with body deformities sometimes sought work after being shunned by their communities.

Unlike the previous American Horror Story seasons, which are based primarily on traditional spooky horror films, superstition and folklore, rather than fact, freak shows did exist, and were arguably less horrific than they were visually alarming.

These were real people who, by some quirk of fate, were destined to have a different existence from everyone else, and many of them actually had successful careers as minor celebrities and were able to demand pay rises due to their popularity with the Victorian public.

Join us as we look at some of people who influenced this horror trope, from the two-headed woman (conjoined twins) and the elephant man to bearded ladies, little people and people suffering from myriad medical conditions:

1. Two-headed Woman

American Horror Story: Freak Show - The two-headed woman, played by Sarah Paulson
American Horror Story: Freak Show - The two-headed woman, played by Sarah Paulson FX

We've all heard of conjoined twins, like Chang and Eng (the original Siamese Twins), who have two separate bodies fused together, but sometimes, in very rare cases, conjoined twins can be born sharing one body with two heads, or separate upper bodies with a single one pair of legs.

Millie and Christine McCoy in 1873
Millie and Christine McCoy in 1873 Wikimedia Commons

The closest living example to American Horror Story's two-headed woman Bette and Dot Tattler (Sarah Paulson) are real-life conjoined twins Abigail and Brittan Hensel, 24, from Minnesota, who have starred in several documentaries and reality shows, including Abby and Brittany: Joined for Life, which was shown last year on BBC in the UK.

In history, the closest examples are Millie and Christine McCoy (1851-1912), conjoined twins born into slavery in North Carolina. The twins were born with all their limbs and organs but were fused together at the spine.

They became very successful stage performers and even met Queen Victoria. Before them, in the 17th century, Italians Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo were also hugely popular touring Europe and were guests at the court of King Charles I.

Lazarus was a fully-functioning man, while his brother Joannes had an upper body and left leg sticking out of his chest. Joannes is believed to have had limited mental ability, dangling upside-down from Lazarus with his eyes closed and mouth open.

2. Bearded Lady

American Horror Story: Freak Show - The bearded lady, played Kathy Bates
American Horror Story: Freak Show - The bearded lady, played by Kathy Bates FX

Kathy Bates stars as the bearded lady in American Horror Story: Freak Show, emulating six centuries' worth of performers including Jennifer Miller, Helena Antonia, Wilgefortis and Annie Jones.

These women were real bearded ladies who were famed between the 14th to 20th centuries, growing a significant amount of facial hair due to a hormonal imbalance or use of anabolic steroids.

However, bearded ladies became such a popular circus sideshow attraction in the 19th century that eventually women would take the job and wear facial wigs, or bearded men would dress up as women.

3. Little people

Jyoti Agme, the smallest woman in the world, has joined the cast of American Horror Story: Freak Show
Jyoti Agme, the smallest woman in the world, has joined the cast of American Horror Story: Freak Show FX

Little people, who suffered from dwarfism, a medical condition caused by abnormal growth, were also popular in 19th century circus sideshows, and some shows would employ up to 18 dwarves.

Dwarfism is caused by up to 200 different medical conditions and there are a huge number of recorded famous people with the condition, including Caroline Crachami, (she died in 1924 but there is some confusion as to whether she was nine or three when she died), and is the smallest person in recorded history at 50cm tall.

Crachami was exhibited in London to many distinguished guests and was presented at court by a Dr Gilligan, who pretended to be her father. Unfortunately Crachami died of a respiratory ailment, and despite her real father's attempt to retrieve her body for burial, her corpse was acquired by anatomist John Hunter, who dissected it.

Recognised as the first person to have primordial dwarfism, Crachami's skeleton is on display at the Hunterian Museum in London.

Jyoti Agme, who at 62.8cm currently holds the Guiness World Record for being the world's smallest woman, has joined the cast of American Horror Story: Freak Show.

4. Elephant Man and others with deformities

American Horror Story: Freak Show - Lobster Boy, played by Jimmy Darling
American Horror Story: Freak Show - Lobster Boy, played by Jimmy Darling FX

American Horror Story crowd favourite Evan Peters, who has been in all the seasons of the show so far, returns as Jimmy Darling in Freak Show, the main character who has deformed hands, earning him the stage title of Lobster Boy - and tapping one of the most notorious facets of the freak show.

Joseph Merrick, whose stage name was the
Joseph Merrick, whose stage name was the "Elephant Man" Royal London Hospital Archives

Perhaps the most famous deformed person ever to earn a living as a 'freak' was Joseph Merrick (1862-1890), also known as "The Elephant Man". He was born in Leicester with a condition known as Proteus Syndrome and soon developed growths around his head as well as enlarged lips, hands and feet.

After spending several years in a workhouse, Merrick approached a showman to exhibit him. He toured the East Midlands and London, before going on tour in Europe, where his road manager robbed and abandoned him in Brussels.

He eventually made his way back to London and was allowed to live at the London Hospital for the remainder of his life by a kind surgeon called Frederick Treves. He became well known to London society and even received a visit from Alexandra, Princess of Wales.

The Chinese labourer Hoo Loo, 32, was another famous example. He had an enormous tumour measuring four feet in circumference that hung from his abdomen to below his knees.

He travelled for six months to get to London where he hoped that advanced surgery would be able to cure him. He was accepted as a patient at Guy's Hospital, and although he was only there for a medical procedure, word soon spread around London and hundreds queued up to get tickets to see his operation.

Watched by 680 gentlemen, a famous surgeon attempted to remove the tumour from his body in April 1831, but over an hour later, despite being given blood transfusions, he died on the operating table.

5. People born with "extra" parts

American Horror Story: Freak Show - Three-breasted woman, played by Angela Bassett
American Horror Story: Freak Show - Three-breasted woman, played by Angela Bassett FX

A newcomer to American Horror Story: Freak Show is Angela Bassett, who will start as Desiree Dupree, the three-breasted woman.

Myrtle Corbin, the
Myrtle Corbin, the "Four-Legged Girl from Texas" Wikimedia Commons

Jasmine Tridevil's plastic surgery not withstanding, Bassett's character is likely influenced by famous "freaks" who were born with multiple body parts, such as Myrtle Corbin (1868-1928).

Corbin was born in Tennessee with four legs and two pairs of sexual organs, due to having two separate pelvises side by side from the waist down.

She could move her inner legs, but they were too weak for walking. However, besides that she was quite healthy.

She performed in the circus sideshow circuit for six years before getting married and giving birth to four daughters and a son.

Despite complications in one of her pregnancies, Corbin lived a long, happy life and was considered to be very intelligent, and to be a refined lady who was able to attend to household chores.

In medical journals from the nineteenth century, she is known as "Mrs B".

American Horror Story: Freak Show will air in the UK on Fox HD on 21 October.