More than a century old, the story sounds like a dark fairy tale, a cautionary fable mothers might tell their misbehaving kids: Two little boys, brothers, are working in the fields one day when a man comes along, offers them candy — and steals them.
They’re put to work without pay in a circus sideshow as freaks, told their mother is dead. Then many years later there she is in their audience, come to take them home again.
But it’s not a fairy tale. In “Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South,” journalist Beth Macy tells the real-life story of brothers George and Willie Muse, one of those stories too strange to be fiction.
Born in the last decade of the 19th century, George (the older by about three years) and Willie were the children of Cabell and Harriett Muse, black tobacco sharecroppers who lived in utter poverty in Truevine, Va., “a speck of land where slaves and their descendants became sharecroppers, then sewing-machine operators, then unemployed workers before, finally — those who could afford to, anyway — they fled,” Macy writes
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George and Willie were born with albinism, a trait that ran in the family. Their features looked African-American, but their skin was milk-white, their eyes blue (and their vision poor, a part of the syndrome), their hair blond.
Today they might be subjected to curious glances, but in the first decades of the century, America’s most popular form of entertainment was the circus — and its sideshow. Millions of Americans attended the traveling shows, both for the big top’s clowns and animals and for the sideshow’s stranger attractions. Billboard magazine routinely carried ads like this one: “WANTED — FREAKS … NOVELTIES … STRANGE PEOPLE … Any act suitable for a real, live Pit Show. Send photo. State salary with full particulars.”
And men called freak hunters roamed cities and towns, looking for the next giant, fat lady, half-girl, dog-faced boy or other irresistible oddity. It was one of those men who found the Muse brothers.
Researching old and incomplete records, interviewing family members several generations younger, Macy finds exact details sometimes difficult to pin down. But the brothers were no older than their early teens when they began to be exhibited in small circuses, first simply as “Eastman’s Monkey Men,” their albinism odd enough to make them “freaks.”
Later their identities would shift almost as often as the circus’s location — Eko and Iko, the Ambassadors from Mars, or the Sheep-headed Cannibals, found floating on a raft in the Pacific or deep in the jungles of Ecuador. They were always under the control of a series of white “managers” — and, because the brothers were African-American, it was the managers who collected their pay, not the Muses.
Macy writes, “Heralded as ‘nature’s greatest mistakes,’ George and Willie were modern-day slaves, hidden in plain sight, at a time when naive and eager audiences didn’t think to ask questions about contracts or working conditions, and civil rights didn’t much exist for children, women or blacks. Circus- and carnival-goers simply smiled and took the sideshow lecturer at his word.”
Given no education, socializing only with other circus people, the brothers had no way to change or control their lives. Then, one day in 1927, 13 years after they had left Truevine, the circus came to Roanoke, Va., where Harriett was working as a washerwoman.
It was daring enough that she entered the segregated circus in a city where there were massive Ku Klux Klan parades, among its members the city’s prosecuting attorney. It was even more astounding when, after she found her sons onstage, playing and singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (their favorite song), she told the unwilling manager she was taking them home.
Almost unbelievable was her lawsuit against Ringling Bros. for the brothers’ back pay. “That a black domestic worker had challenged such a formidable white-owned company at the height of Jim Crow was exceptionally unusual,” Macy writes. And she won.
The story does not end there. The Muse brothers would go back to the circus for many years before returning home for good, to be cared for by several generations of their female relatives, each as fierce as Harriett.
Macy puts their story into its larger historical context, giving the reader an understanding of the virulent, often violent racism of the Jim Crow era, which affected the Muse family deeply. And she provides a fascinating history of the circus.
Macy also offers an understanding of people like the Muse brothers that goes beyond our contemporary tendency to dismiss their plight as a relic of the past. Often, she writes, “freaks” took pride in their ability to earn a living (sometimes a very good one) in sideshows when they might not have found jobs elsewhere; many of them supported families.
She quotes photographer Diane Arbus, that gimlet-eyed chronicler of sideshow folk: “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”
George Muse died in 1972 of heart failure, at home in Virginia. Willie Muse lived to be 108, beloved by his family and the caretakers who treasured his sweet nature.
Counseling one of his nurses on a meddling co-worker, he told her, “Feed ’em honey. … Be better than the person who is mistreating you.”
“Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South” by Beth Macy (420 pages; Little, Brown and Co.; $28)