Monday, February 11, 2019

Barnum's Forgotten Performers

For the remainder of February, this blog will be celebrating Black History Month by profiling some lesser-known figures in history who I think are worth a few hundred words (or more, but let's see how quickly my fingers get tired).

Today's post is going to focus on the Black performers of P.T. Barnum's famous sideshow: Christine and Millie, George and Willie, William (aka "Zip"), Ella (aka "Madame Abomah"), and, of course, Joice, none of whom made it into the movie.

If you love musicals as much as I do, you already know what movie I'm talking about.  The Greatest Showman was a visually appealing, light-hearted, and entertaining film.  It was colorful, fun, and poppy.

It was also wildly inaccurate.  And some critics went so far as to call it vapid, pandering, and "godawful."   Others acknowledge that while it's a "feel-good" musical, it "blithely ignores" the more problematic elements of Barnum's sideshow.  I sure hope you didn't actually click either of those links, because spoiler alert, a lot of movie critics bitched about the same things I'm about to.
Aside from borrowing real people's names, the movie had little basis in reality.  It favorably portrayed P.T. Barnum, going so far as to showing him saving his business partner from a burning building and being faithful to his wife, both things that never happened.  P.T. Barnum was, at his core, a ruthless businessman who was more than happy to engage in less-than-legal practices to make money.  Show business demanded it and he was all too happy to acquiesce.

Like whoever the fuck produced this movie.

Throughout the course of the film, his critics frequently declared Barnum to be a liar and a humbug without explaining why, since over the course of the movie, we never see him lie to anyone aside from the greedy bankers.  In real life, one of his most famous attractions was the Fiji Mermaid, a monstrous humbug of fake taxidermy made by sewing an ape onto a fish.  The Fiji Mermaid is never shown or talked about in the movie, even though it seems imminent at one point, when one of Barnum's adorable daughters suggests he put one in the museum, and another daughter scoffs that mermaids aren't real.

Barnum's "FeeJee Mermaid" was total nightmare fuel.

But this post isn't about Barnum.  It's about the performers in his show that didn't make it into the movie.

One of the things I noticed in the movie was what I considered a remarkable degree of whitewashing.  Putting aside the fact that none of the dark-skinned characters had any speaking parts, the movie decided to plow ahead with addressing the racial tensions at the time by having a black trapeze artist and Barnum's business partner fall in love.

The movie introduces a pair of trapeze artists who are supposed to be brother and sister despite looking nothing alike.  The woman, a character named Anne Wheeler, states that "the audience won't like us."  (Why are they even applying for the show at all if they think society's racial tensions will prevent them from succeeding?  I don't know, either.)

 oBvIoUsLy ReLaTeD

I mentioned my complaints to a friend, Joe, who is Black.  Joe reassured me that this was an accurate representation, and that the brother and sister were dark-skinned and light-skinned, respectively.  I had heard someone else say that, too, but when I actually researched it, I discovered that the first "trapeze" artist was Jules Leotard (yes, of the famous leotard you see gymnasts wear!) and that literally all of Barnum's trapeze artists (then called "aerialists") were white.

 c. 1896
The Silbons were among the first aerialists of Barnum's Circus.

There was no Anne Wheeler at all.  She was a complete and total fabrication designed to touch on the issue of race within the movie with butterfly-light wings.

As light as the skin of the actress they chose to be their representative "Black" character...

For the rest of the movie, we watch the supposed tension of a supposed mixed-race couple trying to find their place in the world, while P.T. Barnum cheerfully dances around, often with a drink in hand, which is baffling considering that the real P.T. Barnum was pro-temperance and went on a lecture tour denouncing the evils of alcohol.

Then again, Barnum was a notorious hypocrite, as well.
For example, he was a loudspoken abolitionist later in life.
I'll explain how that's hypocritical in the moment.

The Greatest Showman was to the real P.T. Barnum as Oliver and Company was to Oliver Twist.  Mind you, again,  I liked the movie.  It was everything to me that La La Land promised to be and wasn't.

But I couldn't help but notice the racism in not addressing P.T. Barnum's racism.  Glossing over Barnum's prejudice (and his willingness to exploit racial tension to create an "edgier" show) is hugely problematic.  Yes, his show was integrated, but make no mistake: that wasn't because he was a great guy who loved everyone equally.  It was because doing so made his show more shocking, and people came to him to be shocked.  Barnum did not care for Black people, no more than he cared for any of his employees.  His "freaks" were nothing more than property to him.  Literally.


Barnum started his career as a showman at the age of 25, when he'd recently gone bankrupt.  He decided to turn things around by buying Joice Heth, an ancient woman, from failed showman R.W. Lindsay, for $1,000.  Joice Heth's precise date of birth is unknown, but at the time Barnum purchased her, she was probably in her seventies or eighties.  Blind, toothless, partially paralyzed, and sickly, she looked ancient, and Barnum created a character out of her: she had been, according to Barnum, George Washington's nurse-maid, and was 161 years old. 

He showed off a bill of sale to "prove" her age.  And Joice went along with it.  In part, because she had to.

Barnum wrote:  "I soon got Joyce [sic] into training, and from a devil of a termagant, converted into a most docile creature, as willing to do my bidding as the slave of the lamp was to obey Aladdin. I soon discovered her weak point. . . .WHISKEY. Her old master of course, would indulge an old bed-ridden creature no such luxury, and for a drop of it, I found I could mould her to anything.”

She was described as friendly and talkative to her fans, and part of her act included telling stories about George (including the famous cherry tree incident), while another part involved singing hymns.

When ticket sales slowed, Barnum "leaked" a rumor that she was an automaton, then encouraged people to come his museum to see her, touch her, and prove to themselves that she was, in fact, alive.

She passed within one year of her purchase by Barnum, and Barnum, always eager to leap on any sort of opportunity, went ahead and sold tickets to a public autopsy for 50 cents each.  On February 25, 1836, Heth’s corpse was cut open in a saloon in front of 1,500 spectators.

Nowadays, Joice Heth's Wikipedia contains only three paragraphs, and primary sources on her life are scant.  (The Lost Museum has a Joice Heth exhibit, mostly made up of reviews.  Only two pictures of her remain today.)  But it was Joice who launched Barnum's career and dug him out of poverty; using Heth, Barnum earned about $1,500 a week for her shows.


You've probably never heard of William Johnson.  Or rather, you have, but not by his name.  Billed as the "What-Is-It?" and later as "Zip the Pin-Head," William Johnson was the first of the "pin-head" movement of freaks.  "Pin-head" was the term coined by Barnum to describe people with microcephaly, the most famous one being Schlitzie, who you might remember from Revenge of the Freaks.

But William Johnson did not appear to have true microcephalism.  His head was a weird shape but it was emphasized dramatically by his haircut, which was styled in a little pointed tuft, a 'do later pin-heads would also adopt.  Barnum "recruited" William for the Circus in 1860, giving him $100 a week to perform and $1 a day of "hush money."

What were they hushing, you ask?

Well, William's act involved being placed in a cage and wearing a furry suit and screaming at people.  He would only screech grunt, no speaking, and cavort about like an animal or a madman.  Also called the "Monkey Man," his later stage name, What-Is-It, was coined by Charles Dickens, who asked that question to Barnum when he saw the "act."

 I like to believe he was asking what the hell the act was, not what William was.
William was not noticeably disabled out of his costume.

Despite the humiliation of it, William appeared to have enjoyed himself at the circus.  He played a fiddle (badly... and then charged people to make him stop).  He teased the audience by flinging their coins back at them (encouraging them to throw more into his cage, which he collected for himself), and by shooting off a prop pistol to scare them.  He liked the stage and performed into his eighties; he acted as a sort of grandfather figure to other freaks, and never passed up an opportunity for a bit of lime light.  Famously, he attended the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, offering himself as "evidence" of a missing link.  This was probably merely a publicity stunt, because his famous last words were, "We fooled 'em an awful long time, didn't we?"

He is credited with saving a drowning girl off of Coney Island in 1925, an act that might have been his demise, as he caught bronchitis and died in the spring of 1926.  Described as fun-loving, surprisingly clever, and a real showman, William might have been as successful as Barnum if not for his deformity and his skin color.  His funeral was attended by hundreds and at the time he was one of the oldest freaks in Barnum's entourage.


Millie and Christine were a pair of conjoined twins who made periodic appearances at Barnum's Circus between 1855 and 1875.

Born to slavery in 1851, the girls were exhibited at the North Carolina State Fair at the age of two, and passed hands for large sums of money at least four times before they came to Barnum.  Their original owner, a man named McKay, sold them to Pervis, who sold them to Brower, who sold them to Joseph Smith, all within two years.  While on display in New Orleans, they were kidnapped by a swindler who went on to display them across the globe.  This was in 1855, during which time they appeared at Barnum's Circus.  (Take note of this.  It's important later.)

Fortunately, they swapped hands yet again.  A man named Professor Millar bought them in 1855 and was able to track down Mr. Smith to "return" them in 1857, after a tour of Canada and Europe.

To give credit where credit is due, Joseph Smith seemed to have a good relationship with the family.  He went with Millie's and Christine's mother to get them in Europe after Professor Millar contacted them, and brought them home; he and his wife, Mary, tutored them in various arts before they went back on tour.  They were well-educated and reportedly knew five languages.  Their true love, though, was song; Millie was a contralto and Christine was a soprano, and the two could harmonize well, leading to their moniker "The Two-Headed Nightingale."  If that sounds familiar, it's probably because one of their contemporaries, Jenny Lind, was an opera singer called the "Swedish Nightingale," and went on a tour of America with Barnum in the 1850s.  Their "nightingale" title was almost certainly a reference to Lind, who Barnum was incredibly fond of.

Bills that espoused talent over freakishness tended to white-wash the performers to draw larger crowds.
Much like The Greatest Showman.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the girls, who, like William, were necessarily enterprising.  At the age of 17, they wrote a brief autobiography (22 pages) that was sold at their appearances for a quarter, from which they kept all the profits.  They returned to Barnum's Circus and went on various tours, retiring in their thirties and moving back onto the farm on which they were born, which their family was actually able to purchase thanks to their success.  They remained close to the Smiths and took care of Mrs. Smith after her husband died.  Between their emancipation and their retirement, they had amassed a quarter of a million dollars.

It's worth noting they were not merely successful business women and talented singers, but that they were philanthropists, making sizeable donations toward Black churches and schools.  One of their common outlooks on their condition was, "God decreed, and [we] agreed."


Remember how I mentioned that Millie and Christine, who were born in 1851 and kidnapped in 1855, showed up at Barnum's Circus?  Well, this wasn't by accident.  In fact, Barnum's circus had a bit of reputation for kidnapping performers.  Black performers were the easiest to exploit because, before 1863, they were property in southern states, and many would prefer to live as Barnum's (underpaid) indentured servants than as slaves.  What's more, a lot of the "freaks" had mental disabilities, which allowed Barnum to easily exploit them without their knowledge.

Millie, Christine, William, and Joice had no known mental impairments (unless you count Joice's age and alcoholism).  But the same cannot be said for Willie and George.  A pair of albino twins, they are featured in The Greatest Showman as background characters without speaking lines, probably to hide their tragic backstory from the playful, carefree central plot of the movie.

In 1899, someone kidnapped two mentally handicapped boys who were working in a cotton field by offering them candy.  Classic, I know.

In fairness, I should mention that the actual kidnapper was not P.T. Barnum himself, who at that time was already dead. Willie and George were kept by a showman named Al G. Barnes (shown in a photo below), who owned his own show, which was later bought out by Barnum's.  But Barnum historically didn't really give a shit where the "performers" came from; they could be from Mars, for all Barnum cared, so long as they earned the show money.

Speaking of which...Willie and George, ages 6 and 9 at the time of their kidnapping, were billed as "Eko and Iko: Ambassadors from Mars" by Barnum's Circus (then called Ringling Bros).  Their family found them in 1927, when the circus came to their home town of Roanoke, Virginia, by which time they had been "in the business" for almost three decades and knew no other life.

 c. 1927, shortly after reuniting

Their mother hired an attorney and attempted to sue the circus for the exploitation of her children, as well as their backpay, which was being kept by the circus, who handled all financial matters for the brothers.  The lawyer was able to finagle a settlement, but who knows how much the brothers might have had.  During their time with Ringling, they were estimated to have made a half a million dollars for the circus.

In any case, after their mother's lengthy legal battle, they earned enough to buy a house for their mother and eventually retire.  George passed in 1972, and Willie lived to be 108, passing away in 2001.

Their story has long been a part of Roanoke's history.  Their story was the subject of national best-selling book, Truevine, published in 2016.

Honorable Mention:

Although she joined up with Barnum's Circus after he passed in the 1890s, I would be remiss if I didn't include here Ella Williamson. 

Born a free woman (within a year of the Emancipation Proclamation), Ella has giantism.  She worked during the day as a nanny, but was billed as a bloodthirsty Amazonian woman by various managers.

 Pay close attention to the wording of this poster...

Standing at 6'10" or so, everyone insisted she was 7'6" (Barnum and his associates always exaggerated), and with the stage-name "Madame Abomah," she toured the world, eventually ending up at Barnum's in the 1920s, where she inexplicably disappeared from history in 1925.

Known for her elegant clothes, good posture, and lady-like mannerisms, Ella Williamson, as far as I can determine, never worked directly with Barnum himself, but his circus and his family certainly profited from her performances, which included such songs as "All Coons Look Alike to Me."

 oBvIoUsLy ReLaTeD

The Greatest Showman was universally agreed to be a feel-good film that maintained its feel-goodiness by turning a blind eye to some of the more uncomfortable topics of the day.  And I get it.  Feel-good movies have a place in our society.  But they should never take a place so big that it obscures problematic or shameful parts of our past.  It's only through the examination of this past that we can grow and learn from it as a society, and ensure it does not repeat itself.

P.T. Barnum got a movie.  But why not Millie and Christine, or Willie and George?  Why not Ella, or William?  Why not any of the people under P.T. who have equally fascinating stories?

Good news: Willie and George might have a movie in the works.  Based on the book Truevine that tells the tale of their kidnapping, exploitation, and life after Mrs. Muse's legal battle for their rights, this is one tale that doesn't shy from the intense racial tension that our country has battled with for centuries.  And while it might not necessarily be a "feel-good" tale, it's one I, at least, am very much looking forward to.

 Their names-- their real names-- deserve to be known, just as widely as Barnum's.

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