As part of its "Bodies of Knowledge" series, the British Library offers a fascinating online gallery of posters and handbills used to publicize Victorian freak shows.
"Titillating publicity was crucial, as the people described in these adverts often bore little resemblance to what lay behind the curtain or turnstile," the site notes. "Exaggerated and stylised illustrations lent age to dwarf acts, stature to giants, and plausibility to mermaids and bear boys. The advertisers of these shows aroused the curiosity of the audience by overplaying, often entirely inventing, 'true life' stories. The public thirst for stories of adventure, struggle, and hardship was quenched by the story of how each 'anomaly' came to be. The new and different had strong appeal; difference was often judged according to popular fantasies of racial and imperial hierarchies, adventurous exploration, and scientific discovery."
A new scholarly treatment of the subject, Lillian Craton's The Victorian Freak Show: The Significance of Disability and Physical Differences in 19th-Century Fiction, analyzes freak show imagery as it appears in Victorian popular fiction, including the works of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Guy de Maupassant, Florence Marryat, and Lewis Carroll. Craton finds that images of radical physical difference are often framed in surprisingly positive ways by these writers, ultimately helping Victorian culture move toward more inclusive and flexible gender norms.