Disturbing Things People Did At Carnivals In The Early 20th Century

By | July 9, 2020

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(San Francisco Public Library)

At the onset of the 20th century, traveling carnivals grew out of the World's Fair and became a beloved pastime for families seeking a fun night out that wouldn't leave them broke. Unfortunately, their enjoyable evening walking the midway was a nightmare for the people working the fair and the animals who had no choice in the matter. From freak shows to racist "games," there was no end to the cruelty that occurred at carnivals in the early 20th century.

Racist Games

The most egregious and horrific carnival attraction was known by a few names, and "African Dodger" was the least racist. Often advertised as "Hit The ------ Baby," this "game" called for a black employee to stick his head through a canvas curtain and try to dodge the objects patrons paid to throw at him, which could be anything from eggs to baseballs to rocks. You might recognize this as a great way to get a concussion at best and a dreadful case of death at worst. A man named William White from Hanover, Pennsylvania died in 1908 after a group of baseball players took turns chucking balls at his head until he couldn't take it anymore.

At some point in the early 20th century, carnival owners decided it was bad business to provide "money for murder" transactions, so they created the "African Dip," in which a black employee perched above a tank built to look like a cauldron and customers paid to throw baseballs at a mechanism that dropped the man into the tank instead of his head. Over time, the racist overtones were stripped away from this midway game. Today, it's simply known as the dunk tank. It's likely that the games of duck pond and ring toss were inspired by African Dodger, too, so there's pretty much no avoiding the midway's racist past at any given carnival.

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The Allure Of The "Far East"

Carnival barons were equal-opportunity racists: One of more damaging aspects of carnivals were their advertisements promising information, artifacts, or people from the "Far East." Through the '50s, carnivals presented the Asian people as either snake charmers and gurus or savages displayed alongside animals and other curiosities from faraway places.