I’m working on a story in which a pair of black, conjoined twins join a modern day freak show. I was asked if I’d done my research on black people in sideshows.
I have done a crap ton of research and read about all kinds of people, from all over the world, who ended up in the sideshow business in America. But I hadn’t organized them by race.
When I searched the internet for something on the topic of black people in the history of the sideshow, nothing like an overview came up. Maybe this will help fill that gap.
What follows is a brief overview, a skimming of the surface on this topic. It is in no way meant to be presented as a complete list of black sideshow performers. Of course, a definitive examination of all of the issues involved would consume several hundred pages. It could be a thesis. It would be a very cool thesis. If you write that thesis, let me know!
The history of black people in the sideshow is complicated, not least because the history of the sideshow is itself complicated. The easiest way to come to grips with the story is by recognizing three different eras: the Victorian era, the Depression, and the Modern era.
While anomalous bodies had been put on display at markets and in taverns in Europe as far back as the middle ages, it was during Victorian times that curiosity cabinets expanded into museums that featured both inanimate and animate displays. The dime museums of the northeastern United States were the forerunners of traveling sideshows, and the most important of them all was P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.
Barnum’s very first act, in 1835, before the museum or the circus or anything, in fact the act that started it all, was a black woman named Joice Heth. Blind and confined to a wheelchair, Heth claimed to be 161 years old and to have raised George Washington. She told amazingly detailed and period accurate stories, and Barnum himself claimed to believe her. She is said to have brought in $1500 a week. When she died, her autopsy revealed her to be around 79 years old.
There are several stories of the sideshow performers who lived above Barnum’s American Museum. It was a small fraternity, and from the beginning it is said the “freaks” looked out for one another. During this era, when anyone not white was treated as property by those who were white, people with interesting looks or disabilities were either bought or stolen from all over the world and brought to the States. Some of the most famous “born freaks” of this era and the next were from China, Laos, Turkey, Peru, British Guiana, and El Salvador. And while they were certainly being exploited, in that they were bringing in a whole lot more money than they were being paid, they also had power in their own right. They were the stars of the show, the real money makers for their outfits. It behooved the boss to keep them happy.
A few other big name black stars from before and around the turn of the 20th century were Millie-Christine, Nicodemus the Indescribable, Ashbury Benjamin, George and Willie Muse, and Zip the Pinhead.
Millie and Christine McCoy were conjoined twins born in 1851. Early on, before they were two, they were bought by a showman who purchased the rest of their family as well, planning to keep them together and be the girls’ manager. But then they were stolen and taken to Britain. It was four years later when their owner tracked them down. He brought their mother with him to Britain. Since there was no slavery in Britain, the girls were returned to their mother. They all came back to the U.S., where the girls were given singing lessons and developed beautiful voices. They were called the “Two-headed Nightingale.” The twins made a large amount of money, and retired to the farm where they were born, which their father had bought from their original owner. Later, a fire would destroy most of their possessions.
John Doogs was born in 1863 with truncated limbs. His right leg and left arm were hardly more than stubs, and his other limbs didn’t quite reach full size either. But he was incredibly strong and a talented acrobat. He went by the name of Nicodemus the Indescribable.
Ashbury Benjamin performed around 1879. He had vitiligo and was billed a black boy turning white. It appears he did not stay with show business for long.
George and Willie Muse were albino African-American brothers. Stolen from their mother in 1899, they were labeled many different things: cannibals, sheep-headed, and aliens from Mars among them. Eventually, they were reunited with their mother, after great perseverance on her part. Now free, they rejoined the sideshow circuit and made a decent living at it.
William Henry Johnson, who may have been microencephalic, played the role of Zip the Pinhead for 40 years at various different sideshows and did quite well for himself. He started his performing life as P.T. Barnum’s “What is It?” in 1860. On his deathbed he is reported to have said to his sister, “Well, we fooled ’em for a long time.”
The next era in the American Sideshow is dominated by the Dust Bowl and the Depression. This is the era of traveling carnivals scraping out a living on the road. Again, “freaks” were the sideshow’s main attraction. Times were tough and several sideshow performers were sold into their professions, regardless of color. But the firsthand accounts that came from under the canvas roofs of the ten-in-ones paint a picture of mutual admiration and tolerance, if not support, between people with anomalous bodies, no matter what they looked like. In fact, it is often regarded by those who experienced it as one of the most accepting places anyone could ever want to be. George and Willie Muse and Zip the Pinhead were among those who hit the road.
The next era sees the diminution of the traveling sideshow, and Coney Island emerging as a last bastion for freaks and working acts alike. A few of the more famous black performers from the middle of the 20th century follow.
Otis Jordan, a.k.a. Frog Boy, was born in 1925 and immediately his bones began to ossify. He learned to roll and light a cigarette with only his lips and turned it into his act as The Human Cigarette Factory. He performed with sideshows from 1963 to 1990, when he passed away. He was a strong supporter of sideshows when people were trying to get them closed down. It was the only job he’d ever had that allowed him to support himself. “I can’t understand it,” he said of a woman working to end sideshows, “How can she say I’m being taken advantage of? Hell, what does she want for me – to be on welfare?”
Willie Ingram, called Popeye, was born around 1932. He could thrust his eyes an inch out of their sockets. He toured with sideshows throughout the country and appeared in the 70s movie The Freakmaker.
Currently, there has been something of a freak show revival. In the 1990s it was the Jim Rose Circus and more recently Todd Ray’s Venice Beach Freakshow, about which AMC did a reality series a couple years back. Two black performers who appeared in it are George Bell and The Creature (a.k.a. Markus Boykin).
George Bell, born in 1974, is the tallest man in the U.S. at 7’8” tall. He has appeared on the TV show Freakshow and with Todd Ray’s Venice Beach Freakshow.
Markus Boykin, born around 1989, is one of the most heavily pierced and tattooed men alive. He calls himself The Creature and has performed with Todd Ray’s Venice Beach Freakshow.
The future of black people in the sideshow is dependent on the future of the sideshow itself, which is something that is enormously complicated. Let’s just say that, while I recognize the debate against training people to treat anyone as “other,” in my opinion, as long as everybody has agency, as long as people with anomalous bodies have a choice about what they want to do, if so-called “normal” folks want to give them their money, I don’t see the problem with that.