Saturday TV Night X-Files – Season 2 Episode 20 – Humbug (change the playback speed to 0.75x to see at regular speed – don’t ask).

Not only is this one of my favorite TV shows of all time, this happens to be one of my favorite episodes.  And here’s an article to go with it…

Welcome to Gibtown, the last ‘freakshow’ town in America

With the demise of the carnival, an important slice of American history risks being lost – but the residents of Gibsonton, Florida, are trying to keep the legacy of the town’s famous ‘freaks’ alive

For those who didn’t quite fit elsewhere, Gibtown was a utopia. Its first settlers, the Giant, and his wife, the Half-Woman, ran a campsite, a bakeshop and the fire department. The post office catered to little people with extra-low counters, and the beer hall had custom-built chairs for the Fat Ladies and the Tallest Man. Special zoning regulations allowed residents to keep and train exotic animals in their gardens. Siamese-twin sisters ran a fruit stand. Three factories manufactured Ferris wheels and carousels.

Or at least that’s how Ward Hall, aka the King of Sideshow, remembers it.

In the golden days of American carnival, all roads led to Gibsonton, Florida. The self-defined, 14,900-inhabitant town 12 miles south of Tampa became the industry capital. “Carny Town” was a fabled place where everyone had run away with the circus.

When Ward arrived in 1967, it was home to up to 100 self-defined “human oddities”, in addition to several thousand “carnies”. Balmy winter weather offered a foothold in a nomadic lifestyle, where rides could be repaired, big cats trained (“every day, or they forget”) and stunts practiced during the off-season. It was a safe haven, away from prying eyes.

Lamount Dais

Lamount Dais, or the Human Volcano, 46, performing a fire-eating act on a driveway in Gibsonton, Florida. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

Before the internet, radio and TV, sideshow was sold as “edutainment”. As a show organizer, Ward promised visitors what they had never seen before, assuring them they would be shocked and amazed.

The “freaks” came in three categories: self-made (the tattooed lady), working acts (sword swallowers, fire breathers, knife throwers) and the natural-born. There was Betty Lou Williams, who had her baby sister growing out of her abdomen. You could admire Priscilla the Monkey Girl, who had a double set of teeth and silky black hair covering her body (she eloped with the Alligator Boy, with a skin condition making his skin reptile-scaly). You could also meet Lobster Boy, who only had two fingers on each hand.

As a manager, showman and stand-in father figure, Ward Hall worked with them all.

These days, one of America’s most controversial entertainment legacies is all but extinct: Ward’s World of Wonders is the last legitimate 10-in-1 – 10 acts for the price of one – sideshow in America. “The public loves the show,” Ward, now 84, insists. “Otherwise I wouldn’t still be in the business after 70 years.”

Priscilla the Monkey Girl.

Priscilla the Monkey Girl. Photograph: supplied

Where society saw disability, Ward saw business opportunity and star potential. In showbiz since age 14, Ward made a living selling the extraordinary, macabre and bizarre across America: two-headed animals, three Native American boys wrestling alligators (one lost a finger – “There was danger to it!”), monkeys in race cars, a wax replica of The Last Supper, a man bare-handedly milking rattlesnakes, foetuses in glass bottles, and human “freaks”.

Today the exhibition of “extraordinary bodies” remains illegal in several states, with laws reflecting a discourse of victimization. Michigan and Pennsylvania penal codes, for instance, prohibit the exhibition of any “deformed human being or human monstrosity” except for scientific purposes. That the performers are consensual adults, highly paid and not necessarily suffering, is often overlooked.

Several of Ward’s performers featured in Todd Browning’s 1932 film Freaks (widely banned as too graphic a display of physical disabilities). Their collectible portraits now fetch hundreds of dollars on eBay. “Of course I exploited them – and the more I exploited them, the more money they made,” Ward says. Had he not been exploited, Elvis Presley too, Ward insists, would still be singing in a some beer joint in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Ward turned pity into fascination, and unfortunate circumstances into superpowers. Dick Brisbane, with feet growing directly from his hips, causing a waddling walk, became Penguin Boy. Stanley Barent, born with stumps for arms, became Sealo the Seal Boy. With the right sales pitch, anything – and anyone – could be exhibited.

“These people were not handicapped; at least in their minds they were not,” Ward insists, recalling Louise Capps Hill, the armless girl who drove a tractor, milked cows, played guitar and raised her children on her farm. “You and I will see them and say, ‘Oh my God, what handicap to have no arms at all’ – but there was nothing that girl couldn’t do.”


The Showtown bar and restaurant, where circus and sideshow performers used to meet for karaoke. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

Todd Robbins, a sideshow historian and performer, explains that such carnivals were a fin de siècle zeitgeist where anything was possible. Exemplifying remarkable resilience and the ability to overcome obstacles – Frog Boy, for instance, telling the audience about his condition while doing cigarette tricks using only his mouth – the freakshow was a direct extension of the American dream itself.

“For the first hundred years of us as a nation, the majority of people came from elsewhere,” he explains. “Everyone here was the other; an outsider. They came here because they had a dream and an idea that tomorrow was gonna be a better day if they only worked hard enough and were smart. Sideshow was only an extreme version of that. Anything is possible and here’s a good example: if it’s possible to eat fire, then I can be president of the USA.”

On behalf of an already waning trade, Ward spearheaded a campaign against a 1921 Florida statute banning the exhibition of malformed, deformed or disfigured humans. He was successful: three years later, judges held the sideshow prohibition “unconstitutional” – because people with deviating bodies have the right to work.

This right to work was crucial to Ward, who approached his performers matter-of-factly with well-meant pragmatism – people are going to gawk anyway, why not make them pay for the privilege? He taught them how to make money, and brought them into a makeshift family (“I was the Papa,” he says proudly). Many stayed with him all their lives.


John ‘Red’ Stuart, 66, the oldest sword swallower still performing on the sideshow, swallowing a Ford axel. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

The carnival became a tight-knit network of solidarity: the “carny code”, which prescribed unconditional support for one another, was soon developed and a secret language – carny – remained incomprehensible to outsiders. The International Independent Showmen’s Association still runs its own miniature welfare system, providing retirement homes for those in need.

Its chairman, Lee Stevens, is a New York City native who became a first-generation performer in his teens. He still romanticizes the hardship associated with the lifestyle: washing from rivers or bucket; living in the back of a wagon; traveling highways at night, working by day, regardless of weather. To him, the carnival embodied the very freedom and opportunity that was America.

“It’s the entrepreneurship of it all,” he explains. “It’s open to anyone with an idea; to anybody who wanna partake in it all. It goes back to having freedom of choice, of not having to sell your soul to a company store, work 9-5 for a factory and never getting anywhere beyond a minimum obligatory raise.”

Although sideshow originated in Europe, it was in America that it flourished. The second world war’s persecution of disabled people triggering a flight of “freaks” across the Atlantic. Not everyone managed: the Icelandic Giant found out his show’s dwarf harmonica players had all been murdered by the Nazis. Like many others, he ended up in Gibtown, his enormous silver-gold viking gown now hung away in the corner of the Showmen’s museum.

On the lush banks of the Alafia River, the unlikely community carved out a tropical paradise for themselves. The Tomaini couple arrived first, spreading the word over the carnival grapevine of a place of strawberry fields, orange groves and rivers full of fish, where locals didn’t shun show people. Conveniently close to Sarasota and with the railway passing through, the location was ideal. A chain migration sparked off as those operating rides, games and cotton candy stands followed suit. As the society grew, its residents named streets after themselves.

Gibtown cemetery

Photograph: Caterina Clerici

In return for their contribution to the local economy, residents of Hillsborough County were granted permission to keep carnival trailers, rides and animals in their gardens. Gibtown became a sanctuary, and the stigma associated with the trade was convenient as well: outsiders stayed away thanks to rumors about “carnies” stealing children. The world’s showtown capital remained a well-kept secret, purposely never a tourist destination.

Nowadays, Gibtown looks like any other American small town (the only town in Florida shrinking for the past 25 years, claims Ward). If you didn’t know it was there, you might drive straight through.

The “freaks” are gone, too. Ward’s last “human oddity”, Norbert Pete Terhune, or Poobah the fire-eating dwarf and King of Pygmys (once chief and sole inhabitant of Ward’s traveling Pygmy Village), passed away in 2012.

“We have people who just ruined the freakshow business,” Ward complains with a smirk. “We call them doctors. The medical science.” Deformities are now detected in the womb, and pregnancies terminated. Fewer “freaks” are born, and if they are, physical abnormalities are medically adjusted; Siamese twins can be separated at birth (“Thank God for that”). No one pays to see a fat man anymore (Ward’s last fat employee passed away in 2009, at 607lb).


‘Sideshows may be offensive but outlawing them would only limit people’s right to expression’. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

Simultaneously, discrimination laws opened doors for people with disabilities to pursue more conventional careers. With civil rights movements, gawking at those born different became taboo, and “freakshows” perceived as exploitative.

Ward’s World of Wonders now relies on illusions and working acts – like John “Red” Stuart the sword swallower, or the Gorilla Girl. The only “human oddity” is Popeye, a man who can pop his eyes out. When Gibtown’s visitors ask for the “freaks”, Ward directs them to the cemetery. There, sun-bleached textile flowers mark the graves of extraordinary performers such as the Lobster family, identifiable only under their real names.

“More than anything, the rise and fall of the freakshow is a story about society’s changing views on physical difference”, Brigham A Fordham, author of what might be the most substantial analysis on the legal discourse of sideshows, explains. “By necessity, sideshows can survive only so long as they offer something that their viewers find slightly more entertaining than offensive.”


A relic of colourful days. A gigantic Walmart marks the arrival of chain corporations in Gibtown. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

Passing a person with microcephaly in a diner as he gave us a tour of the town, Ward was suddenly reminded of Schlitzy the Pinhead. Mentally impaired and with a characteristic pointed head, Schlitzy had been adopted by another show; he had been, until then, hidden away by his embarrassed, wealthy parents in an attic in Santa Fe. When his legal guardian, the showowner, died, Schlitzy was taken out of the sideshow and put into an institution. He was devastated. Eventually rescued and brought back to the spotlight by Ward, Schlitzy was happy again.

The awkwardness surrounding disability can be counterproductive, argues Fordham. Like stripshows, sideshows may be offensive but outlawing them would only limit people’s right to expression. “If a little person wants to perform in a way that perpetuates stereotypes, should they not be able to show themselves for fear of ruining things for those who don’t want to be associated with that image?” he wonders. “It’s a tough call.”

Today, Ward wouldn’t work with people with mental disabilities. It’s a shame, he says, because the alternative – institutionalization – equals imprisonment. He sneers at Peta, do-gooders, “communists” and “political correctors” interfering in his business. “Political correctness is taking away the freedoms of America,” he says.


The Tampa State Fair decided not to feature a sideshow in 2015. Photograph: Caterina Clerici

Meanwhile, the world is encroaching on Gibtown. A gigantic Walmart marks the arrival of chain corporations in a society priding itself on its individualism. Industry is expanding, low-income housing under construction. “In 20 years, all of this will be gone,” Ward says, gesticulating towards his house, which he shares with his life-partner Chris Christ and Red the sword swallower. As showmen become a minority, Ward believes it’s only a matter of time before even the zoning regulations disappear.

For the first time, the nearby Tampa State Fair decided not to feature a sideshow this year. The economic downturn closed down the carousel factories. All post office counters are average height. One man allegedly still keeps a few elephants, though they are currently working in Texas. Lamount Dais, the Human Volcano who practices fire-eating in a riverbank trailer park, is the only performer in sight.

With the demise of the carnival, and of Gibtown, an important slice of American history risks being lost – though residents try hard to keep the legacy alive. A metal replica of an enormous boot, crowdfunded by Concerned Citizens of Gibtown, marks the town’s entrance and the spot where the Giant’s Camp once stood. Downtown, the recently opened Showmen’s museum features antique rides and non-PC minstrel show posters.

“We hope that schoolchildren can come here to see that you can be whatever you aspire to be,” says Debbie Rivera, a museum associate. “That you can dream of something, work hard and make it happen.”

“Gibtown today is a sad old lady, in her finery and her makeup, that has seen her better years,” says David Doc Rivera, founder of the museum and self-imposed guardian of America’s carnival history. “It is an anachronism in the sense that it is more a city in someone’s imagination. Everything wears out; everything goes away.”


‘Gibtown today is a sad old lady.’ Photograph: Caterina Clerici

The King of Sideshow may well be the last man standing, admits Robbins the historian, describing him as “the greatest showman of our times”. Now Ward, who has starred in over 100 films, had three Smithsonian exhibitions, been honored in several halls of fame, sung at Carnegie Hall and performed at Madison Square garden, can’t always join the show on the road.

Referring to himself as a dinosaur and one of the last “human oddities” around, Ward is nonetheless adamant he hasn’t retired yet. His house is the closest Red the sword swallower has to a permanent address; their driveway, on which a British juggler spent the past few months training, is still lined with show equipment: plywood décor, banners, a worn circus wagon. Together all those performers created a family of their own – often, the only family they had.

“The sad fact is that there will come a day when Ward is gone,” Robbins says. “The day World of Wonders doesn’t go out anymore is the day the sideshow is gone.”

Courtesy of:


The Muses Talk Back

The story of two abducted brothers takes us to the origins of black celebrity in America.

Black celebrity began at the freak show. When Phillis Wheatley appeared before the great men of Massachusetts in 1772, it was not as the first African-American woman poet but as a vexing human oddity—“an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa” who could write. The supposedly high-minded owners who submitted her to examination were not so different from the showman P. T. Barnum, who in 1835 launched his career with the purchase of an elderly, paralytic slave woman named Joice Heth. Barnum exhibited Heth as George Washington’s 161-year-old “mammy,” using her black body to catapult him from dry goods salesman to global entertainment icon. She was the first in a long chain of “African entertainments”—Zip the Pinhead, the Duck-Billed Ubangis, the pygmy Ota Benga—on whose backs Barnum and his successors rode to glory. They were the sacrificial lambs of modern entertainment, and they have been, as individuals, almost entirely forgotten.


George and Willie Muse, sideshow performers for dime museums and circuses including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, were known for most of their lives as “Eko and Iko,” often trailing sobriquets like “Darwin’s Missing Links” or “Ambassadors from Mars.” Done up in tuxedos and wearing their blond hair in tangled dreads, they traveled across America being ogled, silent but for the music they played in accompaniment. Hype men told the journalists and rubes in the sideshow tent that they had been found in the Amazon or had crashed their spaceship in the Mojave desert. The prosaic truth was that they were albino black brothers from Truevine, Virginia, abducted sometime around 1899 by a six-fingered ticket-seller named James Herman “Candy” Shelton. At least if the family is to be believed. One of the story’s many lacunae concerns whether George and Willie were initially kidnapped, or contracted out by their mother Harriet, who lost track of the boys after Shelton absconded with them at the end of the circus season. Whatever the case, Shelton told the brothers that Harriet, an illiterate laundress, was dead; in fact, she would spend more than thirteen years seeking their return, and a lifetime fighting Ringling Bros. for back pay and fair treatment. The surprise is, she won.

Beth Macy’s Truevine is a moving attempt to reconstruct this David and Goliath story, a chronicle of the Muses’ unlikely victory in a game that was doubly rigged against them. It is a tale of two circuses, Ringling’s and Jim Crow’s, turning on the axis between segregation’s invisible subjugation and the spectacular exploitation that was, for the Muses as for so many black performers, the only way out of it. The pattern is one we know well, a struggle between nonwhite entertainers and their would-be handlers that is ongoing. Whether it’s Eddie Huang and ABC, Colin Kaepernick and the NFL, or Leslie Jones and the trolls of Twitter, the mistreatment of people of color in entertainment has increasingly become an explicit interest of popular culture. At such a moment, there is a certain clarity in returning to the stark beginnings of representational injustice. If even “Eko and Iko” can be given back their stories, there might be hope for us all.

Macy, a white journalist, undertakes her vindication of the Muses in a spirit of something like penitence. She is a longtime features writer for the Roanoke Times, an old Virginia daily that, as she is at pains to tell us, not only mocked the Muses’ story of George and Willie’s kidnapping, but for many decades generally abused the region’s black population. There is also a thread of personal redemption: In the first chapter, Macy admits to having once written an article on teen pregnancy that, despite her best intentions, became viral fodder for racist talk radio. Restoring the Muses’ voices is framed as a form of atonement.

This is a serious challenge. Eko and Iko, like most of the African and pseudo-African circus attractions of the so-called Zulu ticket, had to maintain a silence conducive to the illusion that they were authentic savages, barely capable of human speech. George and Willie left few recollections in their own words, and their surviving relatives have maintained a stubborn privacy. Macy spent more than a decade proving to the Muse brothers’ niece Nancy Saunders that she wasn’t “one more candy peddler,” or “just another white person stirring up shit.”

You can hardly blame her for her caution. The contemporary press treated George and Willie atrociously, legitimizing their captivity by regurgitating all the “ballyhoo” (wild, improvised performer biographies) that the high carnies could cook up. When the Muses were reunited in 1927, most papers entirely omitted Harriet’s successful lawsuit against Ringling Brothers, in which she won a large settlement and guarantee of regular fair pay for her sons. (She eventually used the money to purchase a house, where the brothers lived comfortably until their deaths.) Journalists preferred to run interference for the circus. When the brothers went back to “The Greatest Show on Earth” after their victory in court, The New Yorker came up with a “fun” explanation for their actions—at home, “the fried chicken had soon given out.”

Macy is admirably undaunted by the family’s privacy and her predecessors’ distortions. Her sense of duty to George and Willie is best expressed in a quote from a historian friend, which serves as the principle of her narrative: “If we only wrote the histories of the people who left detailed records we would only get to know about the really privileged people. You have to piece together your evidence with empathy and conjecture.” So much of this evidence is irreparably marred that a difficult question occurs: Can we discover the authentic voices of the exploited behind, or within, the propaganda of their exploiters?

A recent spate of histories have answered “yes.” Along with an overview of African Entertainments Abroad by Bernth Lindfors in 2014, the last few years have seen biographies of Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” by Clifton Crais and Pamela Scully in 2010; of Franz “Clicko” Taibosh, the “Dancing Bushman,” by Neil Parsons in 2010; and of Ota Benga, the Bronx Zoo pygmy, by Pamela Newkirk in 2015. Many of these books are the first legitimate biographies of these performers, who left few if any reflections in their own words—fruit of a recent conviction that the stories of the men and women behind the masks of racist art and entertainment, however scant their traces, are worth recovering and even reinventing.

It is a project that artists have been at for decades. In his satirical novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Ishmael Reed invents a spiritual germ called “Jes Grew” to account for black culture’s transformative influence on twentieth-century America. It is a virus of reappropriation, taking racist depictions of black culture and “infecting” them (often comically) with the very stories they were devised to suppress. (A good example of “Jes Grew” art might be Joe Overstreet’s “The New Jemima,” a 1964 painting in which the headkerchiefed waffle icon appears as a revolutionary with an automatic weapon.) More recently, the scholar Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit To Kill (2008) tracked the ways that artists from Richard Pryor to Kara Walker have conjured similar reversals, using black humor to make the muzzled specters of the racist imagination—the mammy, the minstrel, the African savage with a bone through his nose—speak. Even museum artifacts are joining the chorus: The title poem of Robin Coste Lewis’s National Book Award–winning Voyage of the Sable Venus (2015) uses prosody alone to turn a centuries-long catalogue of museum objects depicting black women—often as decorative elements in furniture—into an elegiac restitution of erased interiorities.

It is this kind of restitution that Macy is after in Truevine, a book which, in spite of the paucity of available information, aims to reattach Eko and Iko to the “true vine” of their roots as George and Willie Muse. Warm, personable, and empathetically speculative, it centers on experiences that shed light on the brothers’ inner lives: a trip to England on the RMS Majestic, the first reunion with their mother, a shared love of animals and music.

The Muse brothers are pictured with other Barnum and Bailey circus performers. Circus World Museum

Where the record is silent, Macy draws on the better-known biographies of the Muses’ fellow performers to give us a sense of the worlds George and Willie moved in, and how they might have felt. Jack Earle, Ringling’s “Texas Giant,” reflected at length on his status as a sideshow attraction in paintings, photographs, and poems. The Ubangis, a group of Congolese women with artificially extended lips, were hard-driving negotiators who constantly tortured an effigy of their manager. (They retired to a lavish ranch in their home country.) But Truevine contains little direct testimony about how the Muse brothers saw themselves as performers, as black men who passed for Martians, as pawns on the game board of American entertainment.

You can’t fault a writer for not discovering what isn’t there to be known. But it’s hard to escape the sense that some of the time Macy spends developing the Muse brothers’ scant personal history might have been better spent on a subject she assiduously avoids: the attraction of their stage personae as sideshow freaks. The omission is understandable. As a white person writing about an African-American family, a “normal” person writing about human oddities, and a journalist working with mistrustful sources, Macy faces a number of hurdles—and is clearly aware of them. Before beginning the narrative proper, she quotes the critic Leslie Fiedler: “Nobody can write about Freaks without somehow exploiting them for his own ends.” Keen to avoid the worst of this voyeurism, Macy chooses to focus on the backstage drama between the conniving manager, the courageous mother, and the largely passive (but ultimately victorious) George and Willie Muse.

But what about the other drama, the one between Eko and Iko and their savage-hungry audience? Truevine all but takes for granted that albino black men in early-twentieth-century America were titillating, without much delving into why that might have been. The book’s most glaring flaw is its unwillingness to make a study of the sideshow’s spectators, consumers for whom racial drag, along with other category-confounding paradoxes, were essential components of circus fun. Audiences were drawn to the “fearsome pleasure” involved in muddling the “natural” order that governed their worlds—the mixture of attraction and threat that Eric Lott’s Love & Theft, a book on blackface minstrelsy, calls the “mystery of color.” A similar dynamic must have been at play in the case of the “white savages,” whose allure was in the supposed incongruity between their African features and unpigmented skin.

It was a fascination born of colonialism and its attendant anxieties, of a guilty xenophobia evident in Eko and Iko’s outlandish honorifics. Dubbed “Ethiopian Monkey Men,” “Sheep-Headed Cannibals from Ecuador,” and “Ministers from Dahomey” they were usually cast as hailing from empires’ anxious outer limits. Dahomey, a powerful kingdom in what is now Benin, was conquered by France in 1892; in the aftermath, Dahomeans were exhibited in an artificial village at Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Ethiopia had even more remote, insurrectionary connotations. Twice invaded by Italy, it was for most of the twentieth century Africa’s one holdout against European control. Ersatz natives of these and other regions, Eko and Iko were like captured barbarians in a Roman triumph—a model toward which the pioneers of the circus clearly aspired. After the United Kingdom deposed the Zulu monarch Cetewayo, P. T. Barnum offered Queen Victoria $100,000 to exhibit him abroad. He was refused, but the performers of “Zulu ticket” would fill the same need. Their bodies, made nonthreatening by comedy and “science,” were used to pacify an audience unsettled by the unknown; an unknown that their civilizations were swiftly wiping from the map.

The irony of Eko and Iko—imaginary castaways from Mars or the borderlands of the West—was that the captivity and estrangement they play-acted was not so far from their reality. Like the Dahomeans of Chicago’s Midway, they were the subjugated natives of a conquered territory: African-Americans from a “Redeemed” post-Reconstruction South that, as much as any distant colony, had been seized from its inhabitants by force. It’s hard to say whether this ever occurred to George and Willie Muse; if, from behind their sideshow masks, they ever found a way to sneak it out the sides of their mouths. What’s certain is that others picked up the realm of racial fantasy within which they were imprisoned and made it their own, no longer a degrading sideshow but a big top of otherworldly possibility.

Sun Ra, the avant-garde jazz musician famous for his extraterrestrial aspirations, appears in his 1974 film Space is the Place as an envoy from another world: a freak in an eyeball-shaped ship with funny clothes, “a mid-size solar Arkestra” and a plan for the salvation of the black race. After reading Macy’s book, it is hard not to view Ra, born Herman Poole Blount in 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, or the androgynous android Cindi Mayweather, born Janelle Monáe Robinson in 1985 in Kansas City, as inheritors of Truevine, Virginia’s “Ambassadors from Mars.”

To some people—perhaps including Truevine’s author—placing freak shows at the origin of this tradition might seem distasteful. But this is how black performance began in America—as a farce fertile with possibilities, a sideshow of captives that “Jes Grew” into the Greatest Show on Earth.

The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows

“When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.” 

George Carlin

In 19th century America, gawking at people who were born with deformities was not only socially acceptable — it was considered family entertainment.

P.T. Barnum made millions by capitalizing on this. His “freakshows” brought together an amalgam of people considered to be curiosities — bearded ladies, tattooed men, the severely disfigured, and the abnormally short and tall — many of whom were unwillingly forced into the industry as young children.

Barnum hyperbolized  (or altogether falsified) the origins of these performers, which made them out to be beasts, rare “specimens,” and cretans. When he met criticism for “perpetuating hoaxes”, he countered that he was only on a mission to sprinkle society with a little magic: “I don’t believe in duping the public,” he wrote to a publisher in 1860. “But I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”

He accomplished both of these things through exploitation — yet many of his performers were paid handsome sums, some earning as much as today’s sports stars. The rise and fall of the “freakshow” business is a fascinating economic story, but also a morality tale.

P.T. Barnum and the Rise of the Freakshow

The “freak show,” or “sideshow,” rose to prominence in 16th century England. For centuries, cultures around the world had interpreted severe physical deformities as bad omens or evidence that evil spirits were present; by the late 1500s, these stigmas had translated into public curiosity.

Businessmen scouted people with abnormalities, swooped them up, and shuttled them throughout Europe, charging small fees for viewings. One of the earliest recorded “freaks” of this era was Lazarus Colloredo, an “otherwise strapping” Italian whose brother, Joannes, protruded, upside down, from his chest.

The conjoined twins “both fascinated and horrified the general public,” and the duo even made an appearance before King Charles I in the early 1640s. Castigated from society, people like Lazarus Eager capitalized on their unique conditions to make a little cash — even if it meant being made into a public spectacle. But until the 19th century, freak shows catered to relatively small crowds and didn’t yield particularly healthy profits for showmen or performers.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, P.T. Barnum had already established himself as a brilliant marketer. By 19, as a storekeeper and early lottery-ticket seller, he’d already married deception and showmanship, and was making nearly $500 per week in profit ($10,700 in current dollars).

But when the U.S. governemnt passed an anti-lottery law, Barnum found himself out of work and moved to New York City. In 1835, inspired by stories he’d heard from England, he purchased a blind, paralyzed slave woman, fabricated a sensational story (that she was 160 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse), and charged viewers to see her in-person.

A year later, the woman passed away and a death report confirmed that she was only 80 years old — but Barnum’s viewers didn’t seem to care: they had been captivated by his storytelling and his deceptions had become “irrefutable truths.” Barnum had purchased the slave for $1,000, and made nearly that amount every week from his “investment.”

Barnum also mastered the art of colorful trickery. His first major hoax, in 1842, was the “Feejee mermaid” — a “creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish.” The specimen — really the torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the back half of a fish — was originally sold to an Englishman by Japanese sailors in 1822, for $6,000 ($103,500 today). After being displayed for some time in London, it found its way to New York, where Barnum negotiated to lease it for $12.50 per week.

Barnum embarked on a ferocious campaign to convince his crowds that the creature was real, feigning newspaper articles and even weaseling his way into the American Museum of Natural History. He fabricated a story about the mermaid’s discovery and distributed over 10,000 pamphlets. In a matter of weeks, he had the public’s attention.

Barnum purchased the American Museum on Broadway in New York and, throughout the 1840s, introduced a “rotating roster of freaks: albinos, midgets, giants, exotic animals” and anyone else who piqued the curiosities of the public. To advertise the space, he hired the most unskilled musicians he could find and had them play on the building’s balcony, in the hopes that this “terrible noise” would attract customers.

Under his leadership, the American freakshow became a booming business — both highly profitable and degrading for its performers.

Charles Stratton: “General Tom Thumb”

Following the success of his Feejee Mermaid, Barnum set out to find extraordinary humans who he could partner with (and capitalize on). He’d heard of a distant cousin, Charles Stratton, who had an incredible abnormality, so he went to investigate.

Stratton had been born to average-sized parents, and he developed at a normal rate until he was six months old, at which point he measured 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds. By age five, he hadn’t grown an inch. Barnum partnered with the boy’s father, taught the child to sing, dance, and impersonate famous figures (Cupid, Napoleon Bonaparte), and, in 1844, took him on his first tour around America.

Barnum “re-branded” Stratton as “General Tom Thumb” — “The smallest person who ever walked alone” — and told onlookers that the five year old was actually eleven. After incredible success, the two embarked to Europe, where Queen Victoria became enamored with the act; Stratton was mobbed by crowds wherever he went and achieved international stardom.

By the late 1860s, Barnum made Stratton a well-to-do man. For the better part of fifteen years, he was paid upwards of $150 per week ($4,100 today) for his performances, and, upon retiring, lived in New York’s “most fashionable neighborhood,” owned a steam yacht, and wore only the finest clothes.

Barnum was equally smitten with his new partnership: the European tour paid him so handsomely that he nearly purchased William Shakespeare’s birth home. His earnings extended well into the hundreds of thousands — money he reinvested in his business, and used to purchase his first large museum. He re-named it “Barnum’s Museum,” and by 1846, it was drawing 400,000 visitors a year.

William Henry Johnson: “Zip the Pinhead”

William Henry Johnson was born to impoverished, newly-freed slaves in New Jersey, in 1842. While he possessed a very subtle physical deformity (his head was slightly microcephalic, or cone-shaped), a local showman capitalized on and exaggerated it. Johnson began performing in sideshows in the mid-1850s.

In 1860, P.T. Barnum recruited him, and transformed him into “Zip,” a “different race of human found during a gorilla trekking expedition near the Gambia River in western Africa.” His head was shaved, save for a small tuft on top, and he was dressed in a head-to-toe suit of fur. Darwin had recently published his Origin of the Species, and Zip was promoted as a “missing link” — a beacon of evolutionary proof.

Barnum displayed Zip in a cage and ordered that he must only grunt; he was paid “one dollar a day” to keep quiet and stay in character. He also had Zip play a violin — so badly that he was often paid to stop by spectators.

He quickly became a star in Barnum’s rotation of “freaks,” garnering attention from the likes of author Charles Dickens and other celebrities. For his efforts, Zip was rewarded handsomely: Barnum paid him $100 per performance (of which he often had 10 per week) and purchased him a lavish home in Connecticut.

Zip was known not just for his curious origins, but for his upbeat, positive demeanor; as one spectator wrote, “he amuses the crowd and the crowd amuses him.” His showmanship extended far beyond Barnum’s eventual death, and he performed into his late eighties. He was also a masterful marketer: during 1925’s Scopes Trial, he offered himself as living proof of evolution, generating a massive amount of publicity.

Though he played a fool for the duration of his life, and was exploited, Zip was frugal and retired a millionaire. On his deathbed he reportedly told his sister, “Well, we fooled ‘em for a long time,” implying that, for decades, he’d been conning not only his audiences but sideshow operators into believing that he was mentally incapacitated.

Chang and Eng Bunker: “The Siamese Twins”

Born in 1811 in a small Siamese fishing village, Chang and Eng were conjoined twins, connected by a four-inch ligament at the chest. In the late 1820s, a British merchant established a contract with the twins and exhibited them around Europe and America for three years. Subsequently, the two split from the showman, started their own American sideshow, and gained great fame. The term “Siamese twins” was created by a doctor who witnessed the two perform.

By 1838, at age 29, they retired with $60,000 ($1.3 million today), and settled in North Carolina, where they bought a 100-acre farm and operated a plantation. After adopting “Bunker” as an “American” last name, they became naturalized U.S. citizens and met a pair of sisters, who they wed. They constructed two separate houses on their property and traded off three-day time slots in which each could spend time with his wife. Combined, the two fathered 21 children.

After running out of money in 1850, they reinstated their career as sideshow performers and signed a contract to tour with P.T. Barnum. For the next twenty years, they intermittently performed, and they died four hours apart in 1879, leaving a great fortune to their wives.

Captain Costentenus: “The Tattooed Man”

George Contentenus, America’s “first tattooed side act,” was so committed to his stage story that little is known today about his actual origins. Born in 1836, he claimed to be a Greek-Albanian prince raised in a Turkish harem.

His 338 tattoos covered nearly every inch of his body (save for his nose and the soles of his feet), were incredibly ornate, and depicted Burmese-specific species, and symbols from Eastern Mythology: snakes, elephants, storks, gazelles, dragons, plants, and flowers of all sorts intermingled on his skin.

According to Contentenus’s tale, he’d been on a military expedition in Burma when he and three others were captured by “savage natives” and offered a choice: they could either be cut into pieces from toe to head, or receive full-body tattoos and be liberated — should they survive the excruciating process. The soldiers chose the latter option, a process which took three months and killed Contentenus’s accomplices.

To convince the world that his story was true, he even went so far as to publish a 23-page book in 1881, documenting every detail of his alleged experience. It wasn’t until much later in his career that Contentenus admitted he had feigned this tale in the hopes of attaining fame and fortune. And that he did.

In the 1870s, he partnered with P.T. Barnum and became the American Museum’s highest grossing act, taking home more than $1,000 per week (an impressive $37,000 per week today). An 1878 clipping from the New York Times elaborated on his wealth:

“He wears very handsome diamond rings and other jewelry, valued altogether at about $3,000 [$71,500 in 2014 dollars] and usually goes armed to protect himself from persons who might attempt to rob him.”

“Half the people who visited [Captain Costentenus,] this last specimen of Grecian art, looked as if they would be quite willing to go through the process of having their skins embroidered, if thereby they could insure a comfortable living without labor.”

Upon his death, Costentenus donated half of his fortune to the Greek Church, and the other half to fellow freak show performers who were less fortunate.

Fedor Jeftichew: “The Dog-Faced Boy”

Born with a hair-covered face in 1873, Fedor was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Adrian Jeftichew, known throughout Europe as “The Siberian Dog-Man,” was highly superstitious and believed that both he and Fedor were on the receiving end of divine punishment.

Following his father’s early death, the 16-year old Fedor became a ward of the Russian government. By this time, he was “covered with long, silky, fur-like hair that grew thickest on his face.” While the public perceived him to be animal-like and savage, he was contrarily inquisitive, soft spoken, and shy.

Fedor was adopted by a cold-hearted showman, brought to England, and advertised as “the boy who was raised by wolves in Siberian wilderness.” The ever-enterprising P.T. Barnum saw the act, purchased the boy’s contract, and transitioned him to the United States in 1884. But, as with any of his performers, Barnum needed to embellish Fedor’s story.

The child became “Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy,” and played the stereotype of the Victorian naturalist’s approximation of a prehistoric man: he’d been found in a cave deep in the forests of central Russia, feeding on berries and hunting with a rudimentary club; after enduring a bloody battle to capture the “beast,” hunters taught him to walk upright, wear clothes, and speak like a dignified human.

Barnum dressed Fedor in a Russian cavalry uniform, and had him play up his savage nature, “barking, growling, and baring his teeth” at onlookers. Throughout the 1880s, Fedor was among the highest paid performers in the business, netting $500 per week ($13,000 today). By the time of his retirement, his saving totalled nearly $300,000 ($7.6 million).

Death of the Freakshow

Photo: Old Circus

By the 1890s, freakshows began to wane in popularity; by 1950, they had nearly vanished.

For one, curiosity and mystery were quelled by advances in medicine: so-called “freaks” were now diagnosed with real, scientifically-explained diagnoses. The shows lost their luster as physical and medical conditions were no longer touted as miraculous and the fanciful stories told by showmen were increasingly discredited by hard science. As spectators became more aware of the grave nature of the performers’ conditions, wonder was replaced by pity.

Movies and television, both of which rose to prominence in the early 20th century, offered other forms of entertainment and quenched society’s demand for oddities. People could see wild and astonishing things from the comfort of a theatre or home (by the 1920s), and were less inclined to spend money on live shows. Media also made realities more accessible, further discrediting the stories showmen told: for instance, in a film, audience members could see that the people of Borneo weren’t actually as savage as advertised by P.T. Barnum.

But the true death chime of the freakshow was the rise of disability rights. Simply put, taking utter delight in others’ physical misfortune was finally frowned upon.

The Moral Debate

Even at their peak, these shows had been vehemently critiqued as exploitative and demeaning. In 1861, British historian Henry Mayhew wrote a study in which he dismissed them as “nothing more than human degradation:”

“Instead of being a means for illustrating a moral precept, [freakshows] turned into a platform to teach the cruelest debauchery…The men who preside over these infamous places know too well the failings of their audience.”

Undoubtedly, most early sideshow performers were taken advantage of, manipulated, and pushed into the industry unwillingly. Only one of the performers we’ve profiled above, Captain Costentenus,  entered the trade out of his own volition (consequently, he also made himself an oddity, rather than being born one).

In the 1950s, Carol Grant, a 16 year-old with a deformity, was highly offended after attending a sideshow, and sent a letter to North Carolina’s Agricultural commissioner. “Handicapped people are seeking more in life than being stared at in a sideshow,” she wrote. The letter garnered national attention, and raised a debate: should performers have the option of appearing in these shows, should they choose to do so?

Harvey Boswell, a sideshow operator and paraplegic, responded to Grant:

“I’m stared at but it doesn’t bother me. Nor does it bother the freaks when they are stared at on their way to the bank to deposit the $100, $150, $200, and even $500 per week that some of the more sensational human oddities receive for their showing in the sideshows.”

Long-time showman Bobby Reynolds also pitched in his two cents:

“If you’re a mutation of sorts, the biggest thrill you get is opening the mailbox and getting a check from the government. Or you get put in an institution. People say ‘Oh, you took advantage of those people!’ We didn’t take advantage of those people. They were stars! They were somebody. They enjoyed themselves.”

Nonetheless, by the mid-20th century, remaining performers migrated into traveling carnivals or museums, making only a fraction of what they made a few decades prior. Many who’d relied on sideshows to make a handsome living died in destitution, with little to no disability support.

Modern Incarnations

Photo: Lizardman

While freak shows were ousted for their questionable morals, they exist today — just not in the traditional sense.

Television network TLC, for instance, has proved that curiosity still sells. Just as P.T. Barnum exploited “Fat Boy” Ulack Eckert, TLC’s “My 600 Pound Life” exploits the sensational aspects of America’s morbidly obese. The network’s “Little People, Big World” light-heartedly portrays the struggles of a dwarf couple, as Barnum did with Tom Thumb. “The Man With Half a Body,” and “I Am the Elephant Man” each prey on the same prying eyes that funded freak shows throughout the 1800s. And, like their predecessors, these modern-day “stars” are paid for their exploitation — up to $8,000 per episode.

There are also those like Eric Sprague, who’s transformed himself into “Lizardman.” With head-to-toe green scale tattoos, a split tongue, and filed teeth — all products of personal volition — he brands himself as a “professional freak.” Just in case there’s any doubt as to whether or not this is true, “FREAK” is prominently inked across his chest. Sprague is part of a body modification subculture that explicitly seeks “freak stardom.”

But for the majority of the 19th century’s “freaks,” notoriety wasn’t a choice. They grew to accept their lifestyles and appreciate wealth and fame, but paid for it in other ways. Frank Lentini, a three-legged man who was once dubbed “King of the Freaks,” confirmed this in a newspaper interview at the turn of the century.

“My limb does not bother me,” he wrote, “as much as the curious, critical gaze.”

This post was written by Zachary Crockett.

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WILLIE & GEORGE MUSE – The Men From Mars









The Muse brothers had an incredible career. The story of the two black albino brothers from Roanoke, Virginia is unique even in the bizarre world of freaks and sideshow. They were initially exploited and then later hailed for their unintentional role in civil rights.

Born in the 1890’s the pair were scouted by sideshow agents and kidnapped in 1899 by bounty hunters working in the employ of an unknown sideshow promoter. Black albinos, being extremely rare, would have been an extremely lucrative attraction. They were falsely told that their mother was dead, and that they would never be returning home.

The brothers began to tour. To accentuate their already unusual appearance, their handler had the brothers grow out their hair into long white dreadlocks. In 1922 showman Al G. Barnes began showcasing the brothers in his circus as White Ecuadorian cannibals Eko and Iko. When that gimmick failed to attract crowds the brothers were rechristened the ‘Sheep-Headed Men’ and later, in 1923, the ‘Ambassadors from Mars’.

As the ‘Men from Mars’ the two traveled extensively with the Barnes circus. Unfortunately, while they were being fed, housed and trained in playing the mandolin, they were not being paid.

In the mid 1920’s the Muse brothers toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1927, while visiting their hometown, their mother finally tracked them down. She fought to free her sons, some 20 years after their disappearance. She threatened to sue and the Muse brothers were freed.

The brothers filed a lawsuit for the wages they earned but were never paid. They initially demanded a lump-sum payment of 100,000. However, as time passed the Muse brothers missed the crowds, the attention and the opportunities sideshow provided. Their lawyer got them a smaller lump-sum payment and a substantial contract with a flat monthly wage. The pair returned to show business in 1928.

During their first season back they played Madison Square Garden and drew over 10,000 spectators during each of their performances. They made spectacular money as their new contract allowed them to sell their own merchandise and keep all the profits for themselves. In the 1930’s they toured Europe, Asia and Australia. They performed for royals and dignitaries including the Queen of England. In 1937 they returned to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for several years and finally ended their career in 1961 with the Clyde Beatty Circus.

The brothers returned to their hometown and lived together in a house they originally purchased for their mother. Neither brother married, though they were well known for their many extravagant courtships.

George Muse died in 1971 and many expected Willie to quickly follow his brother. Those people were wrong as Willie continued to play his mandolin and enjoy the company friends and family until his death on Good Friday of 2001.

He was 108 years old.

Image: from author’s collection.


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A Conversation With Beth Macy About the Untold Story of 2 Unwilling Sideshow Stars

12/30/16 1:10pm

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.”

Listening to these stories of older people that are in their 80s and 90s, I felt that we have a responsibility to hear these stories and understand them. Until we understand their history in its full context—good and bad—we’re never going to get beyond this horrible sin of slavery and segregation. These visceral feeling of pain, like the parrots that these people were still living with and still hearing, those of the things I’d come home and tell my husband about.

How were albino slaves treated in the USA?

There’s written records of Albino Black Americans during the era of enslavement in medical journals of the time.

The above drawing is of mother and albino child for the American Medical Association in the book The Transactions of the American Medical Association, Volume 20. The White doctor noted that the albino child is dominant over his non-albino Black child peers and wonders if it’s because of some inherent “superiority of color” or because of the nurture factor of his mother and the Black community gives him extra attention and adoration for their White skinned child. It’s not mentioned if the Aikins family were slaves or free though.

There’s also a detailed account of the albino child’s parents, grandparents, and great grandparent’s appearance, noting which ones were lighter skinned, if there was any known White ancestry, or had vitiligo. Studies of Black albinos and vitiligo seem to go hand in hand.

Another chapter opens with how albinism among Black Americans isn’t all that rare. There’s also a consistent notation on describing albino Blacks’s facial features and hair texture to confirm how they still differ from White Europeans.

Another albino Black man of 1800’s America was Robert Crews, who was a slave. His light sensitivity meant he was unsuited for work in the kitchen with open flames so he was assigned other jobs like driving a wagon and moving furniture. Robert Crews didn’t look like the usual enslaved Black man, but he was still considered property in his country.

He eventually bought his freedom, which the writer attributes to his industriousness and having ‘more than the usual amount of intelligence among Negroes’.

There was a belief at the time that albinism only affected Africans, but the writer points out albinos are found in European and Asian populations too.

There’s also contemporary books that gather information on albino Black Americans and the study and observation of vitiligo like The White African American Body: A Cultural and Literary Exploration:

That book goes into good detail on how these “White” or “spotted” Black Americans were sometimes put on display and how they were ‘scientifically’ studied in the context of institutionalized racism. I think there’s also an account of an albino Black American who passed for White with a light skinned spouse to get a train ticket and escape slavery. When I read more of the book I’ll update this answer.

Courtesy of