When Beth Macy moved to Roanoke, Virginia nearly thirty years ago, a newspaper colleague told her about the best story in town, one that had then gone unwritten: in 1899, the Muse brothers, African American and albino, had been snatched from the tobacco fields of Truevine, Virginia by a promoter and exhibited in sideshows against their will. Known as Eko and Iko, the pair traveled across the United States as a sideshow act in numerous circuses including, eventually, the Ringling. Thousands of Americans flocked to gawk at the two brothers, eager to see the two men whose skin color was a curiosity, particularly in the era of Jim Crow. And yet, in their first decades of work, the brothers saw none of the money. Back home, their names were whispered warnings to young black children—warnings more about the dangers of white people as much as anything else.
It took Macy over twenty years to track down the story. The brothers, who retired in Roanoke, were under the care of their niece, Nancy Saunders, a restaurant owner who was skeptical of reporters and protective of her family. Eventually, Nancy warmed to Macy and, in 2001, Macy co-authored an article series on the brothers for the Roanoke Times. In Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, Macy expands on those stories, contextualizing George and Willie Muse within the difficult histories of the circus, the sideshow, southwestern Virginia’s particularly vicious brand of racism, and the region’s black community.
At its core, Truevine is a book about the Muse family, particularly George and Willie’s mother, Harriet. Family legend has it that the brothers were taken by Candy Shelton, a promoter with an eye for circus “freaks,” and told their beloved mother was dead. Shelton proceeded to steal the Muse brothers’ earnings, keeping their money for himself. The story, Macy finds, is more complicated than family lore (life usually is) and what unravels is a story about two brothers, exploited and forced into a twentieth-century iteration of slavery, and the emotional endurance of Harriet, a woman trying to eke out a life for herself and her sons. Harriet is perhaps Truevine’s most compelling character—she was reunited with her sons after decades worth of dogged and tireless pursuit, defying institutions designed to work against her to ensure that her sons were paid for their labor.
Truevine has been included on nearly every “best of” list in 2016 and the book has already been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio. Macy’s book is worthy of the accolades. It’s a nuanced journey through sideshow culture as well as the Jim Crow South, grounded in first-hand accounts of those who lived and suffered under the discriminatory system. But it’s also a story about how broad legal and cultural systems have lingering impacts on individuals and their families with the Muse family at its heart.
I spoke to Macy via phone. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
JEZEBEL: What initially drew you to the Muse brothers and this subject?
MACY: I was driving around with a photographer on an unrelated story and he told me the bones of the story, that two young brothers had been kidnapped and sold to the circus. He said to me, “This is the best story in town, but no one has been able to get it.” That really piqued my interest, particularly because one of the brothers was still living. This is a story that black people for generations had passed down quietly. When I started asking around, a lot of people from Roanoke had heard the story.
There’s a “whizz-bang” factor that attracted me, too. It’s an interesting story and I had never heard anything like it. I didn’t know much about the circus and I certainly didn’t know much about sideshows. There was this great history waiting to be told.
When I went to the Goody Shop [the restaurant owned by the Muse brothers’ niece, Nancy Saunders], I was definitely the only white person there. Nancy just captivated me. She’s funny and tough and I became more interested in her then I was in her uncles. At the time, it was clear that she was never going to let me meet Willie (George was already dead) and I enjoyed spending time with her. It was a challenge…it was kind of like boxing sometimes, or sparring. It’s still like that, in some ways. I wanted to understand what made her who she is, tough and protective but with a sweet underside.
When I started working on the book, I found all of these parallels between Nancy and her great-grandmother, Harriet Muse. That’s when I really understood how brave Harriet was. The first time I wrote about the family, I didn’t realize just how harsh a racial climate Roanoke was in the 1920s; I didn’t understand the grittiness of it or what the neighborhood was like. The chief prosecutor of Roanoke was the head of the Ku Klux Klan and had just rallied in the fairgrounds…the same place where Harriet goes to reclaim her sons from the man who took them. It took me a long time to put that context together.
These parallel women are the heart of the story, these underestimated women who managed to fight for justice and win.
One of the things that’s striking about the book is Harriet’s character. She seems like a very resilient and bold person. You write a bit about how hard it is to piece together lives when there no first person accounts written—or recorded—by your subjects. How did you tease out Harriet’s boldness? How did you capture personalities when the record isn’t reliable?
It was a slow reveal, to be honest. I had the family telling me about Harriet as early as 2000 and 2001—when Nancy’s mother Dot was still living. I spoke to other relatives, too. I would go and report more of the context and bring it back to Nancy and that would help her remember other things. In some ways, the reporting I was doing was teaching her but also allowing her to remember things she had forgotten. It was tricky, I had gotten to know her well in the intervening years.
I had put together the stuff about daily living in Roanoke, about the lawyers [who represented the Muses during their lawsuit], and court documents. Then I would have the memories of the family members which, to me, was the best part it—it added meat to the bones.
I tried to put it all together to create this past. I also tried to be really careful not to say, “Harriet was thinking this,” instead it was “she was likely thinking.” I try not to extrapolate unless I knew something for sure.
You have these family memories—this family lore—that says that the Muse brothers were unquestionably kidnapped by the circus. But then you find evidence that the narrative is not that simple, that perhaps they weren’t initially kidnapped but sent by their mother who was a washerwoman and incredibly poor. After that, the brothers’ situation turns into something very close to slavery. How do you measure the line between these really valuable resources of memories and family myth and the reality which perhaps isn’t as appealing?
Right. Or, at least, as wrapped up in a bow.
The family still stands by their version of the story. If Nancy were on the line with us, she would say just what she said to me at the end the book: all Harriet had was her children, why would she give them up?
When I found out early in the research the public notice that Harriet took out in Billboard, that she had let her sons go but she wanted them back…that they were supposed to be returned to her, that was a big surprise. It was published with a different last name and we don’t really know if it was her. She couldn’t read and it might have been other showmen who took the ad out. The very beginning of the Muse brothers’ career is unknowable.
My editor helped me suss that out because I was struggling too. He counseled brutal honesty, to put the facts out and let the reader decide. That’s what I tried to do. The story didn’t conflict, except at the very beginning. There’s no doubt that the brothers were trafficked for at least thirteen years, probably longer, but we don’t know exactly.
To put it in context of how the media treated the family, they never put their point of view in any story. I think Nancy can make a good case that the family’s interpretation is correct. Willie Muse himself named his kidnapper, said he was kidnapped, and he wasn’t known to be a liar. The last thing I wanted to do is be one more white person denying him a voice in his own story.
There’s all of this visual culture that remains of the Muse brothers—photographs and circus paraphernalia—and we know so much about the sideshow. But when it comes to articulating their lives, their internal lives, or that of the family, the record is completely absent. You had to confront the long bias in the writing about them that exists in what are supposed to be “neutral” resources like newspapers, even at a newspaper that you now work at. Did that make you more critical of sources?
More critical of the whole time, to be honest. It wasn’t just the Roanoke Times, it was the New York Times and the New Yorker. In 1904, the New York Times supported the imprisonment of Ota Benga [a Congolese man exhibited in the monkey cage in the Bronx Zoo]. The hard thing in trying to illuminate that racist mindset was where upstanding people of the day were raised with these really racist thoughts. I tried to describe this world so that white readers could understand that your own grandparents and great-grandparents thought that way too. The majority of the white population believed that black people were sub-human beings.
To find that in the New York Times and the New Yorker—the New Yorker writes that the Muse brothers rejoined the circus because the “fried chicken had run out”—that was stunning. The brothers were constantly mocked at every turn, part of that was that their promoter was mocking them too, but the newspapers are going right along with it, with a wink, wink and a nudge, nudge. It made me understand the family’s embarrassment and the pain that they lived with for a century.
The brothers were on the front page of the Roanoke Times for about five days. It wouldn’t have been hard to speak to the family, the reporter was clearly at their house with a photographer, but there are no quotes. There’s a long description of Harriet written in dialect but it’s clear that the quotes weren’t from her but rather the writer imitating her. It was a real window into the way African Americans were viewed. I was struck by the depths of the cruelty.
I was struck by that as well, particularly the regional history of Roanoke as a boom town with deep ties to the KKK. Slavery was still a flexible institution in the early part of the twentieth century and that’s something you tease out. Even though slavery has technically been abolished, it’s still very real…
Think about Hollins University [Editors note: Hollins is a women’s college in Roanoke. Macy and I are both alumnae], many of the dining hall workers that served our food can trace their ancestry back to slaves that students brought with them to school in the 1840 and 50s.
It was the same thing at Hollins, it was years after Emancipation before they were paid and they had to ask for wages. In the first eighty years after Emancipation, only one of their daughters went to Hollins. The university is still struggling to make amends with that. We have a responsibility to know this history. To have this history, to have generations of families living in the same community, it’s pretty remarkable.
At the same time, a lot of the older people you interviewed were reluctant to name the discrimination against them. I thought that was a really telling manifestation of the history that you’ve written.
Almost to a person, almost to a word, they all said, “People aren’t going to believe this.” A lot of the elderly rural African Americans I interviewed kept asking me over and over again if I really wanted to hear the truth. There was a sense they had that people didn’t really want to hear their stories.
I’ve done a few promotional events in Franklin county and people will tell me their stories about the Muse brothers. Some of them are devastating; stories about the way Nancy and her family were treated and how they were mocked. Songs were made up and Eko and Iko, I’ve heard this both in Roanoke and Franklin counties since the book has come out.
You have these two histories that intertwining with each that are exploitative histories. On one hand, the sideshow and on the other, the Jim Crow South. How did you tease those out from each other when you even could? Racial politics are present in the sideshow but then there’s this tradition of the sideshow itself. When you raised that question with a handful of experts you interviewed, it seemed like their response was always to ask, “Well, what else would these people be doing?”
They were very defensive. But even George and Willie said something similar. According to their relatives, the brothers themselves often said that people were laughing at us, but we were laughing because they paid to see us. I read similar things that other sideshow acts said as well. But no matter how you put it, there’s an element of exploitation in the sideshow.
The sideshow doesn’t really exist anymore, but the legacy of Jim Crow does. I was more interested in concentrating on that legacy, I felt like it was a more universal story and more present story. I felt like I had to know about the sideshow and be able to describe it in order to place the brothers in their world, but I was definitely more interested in what was going on with the family back at home. I felt like it had more resonance with today.
Just to going into Jordan’s Alley [where Harriet and her family lived]—no one hardly ever publishes histories of small black neighborhoods—it’s not a glamorous place, then or now. I remember one time I was driving down the alley near the Muse house with Sarah Showalter [a woman who grew up in the neighborhood whose adopted father helped the Muses get paid by the circus] and she’s trying to explain to me how rough the neighborhood was. She said, “It’s the ghetto. It’s really hard to explain.” The houses in Jordan’s Alley had no heat, no indoor bathrooms, and several houses shared water spigots.
I asked her what she meant by the “ghetto” and she called me the next day and said that she wants to explain. That’s when she opened up about the slumlords and the rent collectors who would accept sex in exchange for part of the rent. That’s when I felt that we get a window into the world of how dangerous it must have been to be a child in the neighborhood. Between that and Jim Crow, one false move could have landed you in quite a bit of trouble.
Another day, I was driving with another source and we drove past an empty lot and she remembered the racist parrots squawking at her and her friends when the went to school [In the book, she tells Macy about a white woman who had trained her parrots to repeat racist slurs at black people as they passed her home]. They never knew when they were going to be verbally or physically assaulted.
To put that in contrast with Willie and George, they had more relative safety, they got to see a lot of the world, and they return to the circus after coming home. It’s a complicated story, but it allows you to go into the nooks and crannies of these dark places that haven’t really been studied before.
Beyond their life in the circus and their wonderful mother, the Muse brothers’ lives never stop being spectacularly interesting. At one point, their step-father was murdered when he was caught mid-affair with another man’s wife. You could have written a book about spectacle—one that screamed “Murder!” and “Sideshow!”—and you chose to write a book about the lives of people, instead.
Yeah, the “whizz-bang!”
Right. But Truevine isn’t like that at all. It’s an unpretentious book about people…that seems harder to write than the pure spectacle book.
I felt like I needed to be honest. I didn’t have the memories, there was no trove of letters in the attic that I was going to find, and I didn’t have the first-hand accounts. I tried to be really careful about what I was finding and sort of illuminate what was happening to these people in a really honest way. That, to me, is always the story. The murder was interesting, but their step-father is a pretty bad guy. I quoted Nancy saying something like “He deserved it.” But even the murder has a social context I was unfamiliar with until writing the book.
It’s an imperfect story in a lot of ways, but I wasn’t going to exaggerate. To me, it was a story that was grounded in one family, especially in the two women, Nancy and Harriet. I was essentially trying to follow the rules of journalism and be faithful to people whose stories have never been told.
I found myself learning a lot while reading this book. What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing this book?
The fact that almost all the elderly black people I interviewed, to a person, didn’t think that people would believe how hard it was for them growing up.
In my first book, Factory Man, I had a chapter on race relations that I had a hard time navigating. I gave that chapter to Nancy and she said that the sexual assault had always been something that factory and domestic workers had to look out for, that black women at Bassett Furniture would often wear two girdles while working in order to prevent an assault.
Later, I was interviewing a source, a former sharecropper and she said that she had used to be a domestic worker and a furniture factory worker. I told her that her that I was writing this book—she lived just down the road from Truevine—and asked her if I could come back and interview her. She said, “sure, sure.” But before I left, I asked her if she had ever heard of this practice of women wearing two girdles at once. And, without skipping a beat, she replied, “three, if you could get them on.”
That was Janet Johnson who is the great describer of sharecropping in Truevine. I didn’t tell her anything and she knew exactly what I was talking about. Going back to the same time period was an amplification of what I had learned about race relations while writing Factory Man. That was early in the reporting process and I had this sense that there were all these stories out there and people were still struggling with them. I spoke to Janet four or five times and, in the process of explaining that time to me she said, “Don’t get me wrong, I like you, but white people were hateful.”