Interpretation, Taboo and Climbing Mountains: the Problem of Frieda Pushnick’s Obituary

The source I have chosen to analyse is the obituary of Frieda Katherine Pushnik, ‘Freak Show Artiste’, published in the Daily Telegraph on 24 April 2001 and held in the Sheffield National Fairground Archive.[1] The genre of the obituary as a source presents several unique problems about how the dead are presented to the public within the newspaper framework, and these concerns in turn shape the history of the life described within the source, and its potential use to a historian. In addition, the very nature of the subject of Pushnik’s life – that of the freak show – is one wrought with its own problems of interpretation. How can a modern historian engage with a source document that, in turn, is written with perhaps anachronistic concern for political correctness and even polemic about the potentially emotive subject of disability? How far can we place the past away from modern concerns and within its own context, in order to garner more use from a source?

            The obituary is a commemoration of Pushnik’s life and asserts her historical place as ‘among the last surviving freak show artistes to have worked for the Barnum & Bailey circus’ (1943-1956). It also outlines her previous work at Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” (1932-1938), and her retirement.[2] Billed as an “armless and legless wonder” in the show, the obituary emphasises that she “showed true grit” in carrying her performances “beyond the realm of mere oddity” and while she worked 16 hour days within the Freak Show “she was never resentful of her condition.”[3] For the historian, the obituary gives us an outline of a remarkable single life within the history of the American freak show, and therefore might offer a more personal insight of the individual’s experience. However we are restricted: the source offers no voice to Pushnik or her family but for a brief quote, and while the nature of the obituary is concerned in glorifying her personality, and touching upon the historical character of her occupation, it is clear that the (anonymous) author within the British newspaper has no connection to the American Pushnik or her family. We might then ask why the British daily paper would choose to publicise the death of a foreigner who had been out of the public eye for half a century. This answer is key to the concerns and problems of the source genre and cannot be ignored by historians if we hope to interpret the document.

            The New York Times anthology asserts that obituaries should serve as “Stimulants to the...discovery of life’s richness, variety, comedy, sadness, of the diverse human imaginations it takes to make this world”.[4] Steeped in narrative, focused on memorialisation, the obituary serves a social purpose as well as an informative one, and this should be taken into a historian’s account whenever interpreting this genre of document. Fowler and Esperanca emphasize the “mountain climb” image of the individual’s biographical trajectory, which is present within all obituaries in some form or another, be it socially via career ‘distinction’ or, in Pushnik’s case, through overcoming the adversity of disability.[5] An individual’s choice for celebration is determined socially, appealing to modern concerns and thematic events, as well as modern conceptions of the value of lives ‘well lived’, and any historical facts therein are inevitably inserted into this framework. It is noteworthy that Hume, in his study of the obituaries of Amerindians in the nineteenth century, discovered that they were crafted to socially contribute to their subjection.[6] When subjection was no longer required, the Amerindians all but disappeared from the obituaries.[7] It is clear then, that the supply of lives offered in the obituaries are subject to the demand of the public and its social concerns, and it is important to contextualise each source within this demand. Pushnik, as we shall see, was no exception. However, before a researcher can address the problem of this issue s/he must be educated in the house style of the source’s newspaper in order to make full use of it.

To be of potential use to a historian, an individual obituary source must be placed within the context of its newspaper’s house style. Many newspapers’ obituaries of the 21st century were largely concerned with featuring artists and academics: manual workers were virtually unseen.[8] The host of our source, the Daily Telegraph, focused on the dominant representation of individuals who had gained temporal power, especially military subjects, yet it still retained an enthusiasm for the performing arts which is clearly represented in the inclusion of Pushnik with the author’s delegation of her in the subheading as an ‘artiste’.[9] On this subject, it is also worthy of note when identifying obituaries, that while newspapers are notoriously competitive, within this sector they are more relaxed: for example the Guardian commented that it was pointless to compete with the Daily Telegraph for representation of military subjects.[10] Consequently a historian must be careful not to give more significance to the absence of the military figures from the Guardian than this simple reality of style or, more fatally, designate it as national trend of exclusion. However, with knowledge of these issues of house styles, a historian is offered new potential for interpretation though assessing whether their source breaks the house conventions and why. The obituary sector is generally not as restricted for time as the rest of the newspaper, and the Daily Telegraph in particular has been known to delay up to 108 days from the death of an individual to the publication of their obituary and delays of a month are common.[11] Therefore only individuals of significant public interest are published, rather than there being a concern to simply advertise deaths as they happen. With this in mind, a historian must also be aware of the gender bias within newspapers as well as the class bias. In the Times in 2001 women accounted for only 17% of obituaries, therefore an inclusion of a woman in an obituary gains a heightened significance, because the minority of her inclusion asserts the significance of her perceived interest and achievements.[12]  Reinforced by all of these points, we can therefore understand that Frieda Pushnik’s obituary was chosen to be featured because of its exceptionality. Pushnik defies the Daily Telegraph’s conventions: she was not a British citizen, but a foreigner of minor fame; she was a female of lower or middle class, in a modest career; with no interesting cause of death. Her interest for the paper lies then, we can conjecture, in the sheer novelty of her career and the unusual nature of her life: as a subject of the Freak Show. Through acknowledging these frameworks the historian can discern the modern public’s interaction with the past.

The source has obvious descriptive use in giving us an idea of what Freak Show acts performed in the thirties, and the relative mobility of the artistes themselves. As we have seen, the obituary’s inclusion at all, in defiance of house style, is a reflection of the editor’s decision that Pushnik is of modern interest, and the way that her life is presented within the source itself is reflective of how modern concerns can implant themselves upon the past. In this case, we can see how the modern notions of disability are summoned in direct commentary to the historical narrative of the Freak Show and how this affects the way that Pushnik’s life is represented. The ‘Believe it or Not’ auditorium she performed in grossed over $900,000 in 1933-34, yet by the 1940s –during her career- the freak show was in decline, increasingly regarded as morally bankrupt as scientists began to study the disabilities of the performers.[13] The obituary reflects this scientific classification, explaining Pushnik’s disability as due to ‘a botched appendectomy on her pregnant mother’.[14] Categorized into a disease, they transitioned from public presentation as an, at times, apparently morally beneficial performance for both education and entertainment, associated with prestigious organisations, and into something viewed as distasteful and exploitative.[15] Indeed, the issue of exploitation is directly addressed in the obituary itself, through Frieda’s response to an interviewer who asked her ‘whether she thought it acceptable to exploit disability for entertainment’.[16] She replied, ‘with a characteristic snap’ of spirit that the author emphasises, “If you’re paid for it, yeah.”[17] Frieda’s attitude is a direct echo of Otis Jordan ‘the Frog Man’s response in 1984 to public complaints about perceived exploitation: he insisted that there ‘wasn’t anybody forcing him to do anything’, and represented himself as a showman and businessman, adding ‘Hell, what does she want for me – to be on welfare?’.[18] While the amusement industry was notorious in cheating its public, within its institution, but for sad cases such as the Hilton twins, to be a ‘Freak’ was a showman’s presentation of a role, and something that many contemporary acts took pride in. Frieda’s presentation was respectable; she displayed skills such as ‘writing, typing and sewing’, ‘all the while she would amuse the audience with her repartee.’[19] She was a showman, and ‘always enjoyed recalling her days as a sideshow star’, and yet her obituary itself is crafted to address the modern anachronistic negative judgements of such a show. 

There is a curious interplay within the source of the modern upon the past that the historian must recognise in order to interpret it. Frieda is presented by the author as a showman; happy and determined and in control of her career, however it never seems to move away from modern notions of exploitation. Its repeated emphasis on her ‘true grit’ and skill are more than descriptive. They are included to paint her as brave and proactive in order to adhere to the overarching ‘mountain-climb’ image that is necessary in obituaries as a source genre. Furthermore, through emphasising these qualities and painting Pushnik as admirable, the obituary seems to offer a subtle apology for its existence at all, concerned that it itself is not seen as exploitative. Unusual in house conventions, it is clear that Pushnik’s obituary was chosen for inclusion because of her career in the freak show, and because of her unusual disability, and the resultant almost guilty curiosity that these inspire in a modern audience. Through subtly criticising Freak Show exploitation, and emotively asserting Pushnik’s independence, the newspaper also defends itself from appealing to the same public desires that birthed the freak show amusements in the first place. The same modern mentality is present in Bogdan’s book on the show as he appeals ‘But don’t leave! There will be exhibits (and it will be okay to look!)’.[20] The freak show and disability is charged with taboo, and this taboo influences how the modern audience interacts with its past to form a collective memory. When approaching such a subject, the historian has to be aware of these issues in order to properly interpret the past, and how they alter the narrative of the source and its presentation.
            In conclusion, when approaching a genre of source such as the obituary, and doubly so when approaching a source regarded as taboo to modern audience, the historian must recognise how these issues affect the historical narrative in order to properly gain value from a source. The present and the past are both framed by their contexts, and when one interacts with another and is called to make commentary upon it, anachronism can blur the superficial evidence presented. However, with careful attention to the house styles and framework of the genre of their source, and with knowledge of the changing public perception to their source’s subject, one can reach a clearer and more detached interpretation of the evidence within the source. To paraphrase John Donne, no (source) is an island.

[1] ‘Frieda Pushnik, Spirited Freak Show Artiste’, The Daily Telegraph,(24 April 2001)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Nigel Stark, ‘Death Can Make a Difference’, Journalism Studies,(2008) vol1, issue 6,p912
[5] Bridget Fowler and Esperanca Bielda, ‘The Lives We Choose to Remember: a Quantitative Analysis of Newspaper Obituaries’, Sociological Review,(2007) Vol 55, Issue 2,p207
[6] Stark, ‘Death’,p.912
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid. p207
[9] Ibid.
[10] Stark, ‘Death’, p918
[11] Stark, ‘Death’, p921
[12] Fowler and Bielda, ‘The Lives We Choose to Remember’,p28
[13] Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, (1990:University of Chicago Press) pp.62-67
[14] Frieda Pushnik
[15] Bogdan Freak Show p104
[16] Frieda Pushnik
[17] Ibid.
[18] Bogdan Freak Show p280
[19] Frieda Pushnik
[20] Bogdan Freak Show p3

Printed Primary Sources
‘Frieda Pushnik, Spirited Freak Show Artiste’, The Daily Telegraph, (24 April 2001)
Sheffield University National Fairground Archive, NFA collection 178Q1.9
Published Secondary Sources
Bogdan, Robert, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (1990: University of Chicago Press)
Fowler, Bridget and Esperanca Bielda, ‘The Lives We Choose to Remember: a Quantitative Analysis of Newspaper Obituaries’, Sociological Review (2007) vol 55 issue 2, pp203-226
Stark, Nigel, ‘Death can make a Difference’, Journalism Studies, (2008) vol 1, issue 6, pp.911-924