By M. Swift
Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, circus goers could see their share of acrobats, animals doing tricks, and clowns attempting to make the crowd laugh. Often on the show program was the “freak show.” At the time, freak shows displayed of people with either something physical or mental, a unique talent, or some combination.
ORIGIN OF THE MUSE BROTHERS
Albino brothers George and Willie Muse were two such acts. In 1899, the two brothers—younger than ten—had to wear unseasonable clothing to protect them from the summer sun. While working the tobacco fields on one such day they would be kidnapped and forced into the circus circuit. This was a practice that happened all around the nation.
Robert Stokes managed to lure the boys from their home and put them to work in his traveling sideshow. Given the combination of there being many traveling circuses at different sizes in the U.S at the time and the police not caring, George and Willie Muse wouldn’t see their mother for several years. They were told their mother Harriett had died and all that was left for them was a miserable existence in the freak show as Iko and Eko.
INTO THE CIRCUS
Depending on who promoted them they were either the Sheep-Headed Cannibals or the Ambassadors from Mars among other names. They would speak jibberish and act as expected of a wildman/cannibal gimmick.
Outside of that, their childhood was spent in dirty lodgings and working several shows a day. When they became older, it was found out that the Muse brothers had a talent for music into their 20’s. Their talent and appearance contributed to Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ flourishing in the 1920s.
At this time, the Muse brothers were promoted by Candy Shelton who got them from Stokes. Known as a better promoter, he would rent them out to other circuses in the U.S and beyond and would rake in close to $440,000 in today’s money throughout the 1910s and 1920s. He was also the promoter who came up with their wildman gimmick.
This talent along with ailing health and a lack of education resulted in them being exploited even further, but their knack for music would present them with an opportunity at a family reunion.
Their mother Harriett continued looking for them for years. Even though Black people weren’t allowed at the circus, she would attend whenever one was in town. One night in 1927, while seated at the back of a venue the Muse brothers came out to sing. Harriett, recognizing her sons rushed to the stage.
Wille and George recognized their mother and after an altercation with Ringling Bros officials and the police, the Muse brothers returned home. The situation at home was favorable as their stepfather exploited them as well. They would leave and return to the circus life, but not before Harriett took steps to make sure they weren’t exploited like they were before.
Thanks to lawyers Harriett got for them, George and Willie were making money from being showcased. Needless to say, this was a step up from having to do labor around the circus to make money. These lawyers made sure they were paid even when checks bounced and continued to do so after Harriett’s death.
The Muse brothers would retire in their 60s and bought a house in Roanoke, VA. George Muse passed of heart failure 1972. Willie took his brother’s death hard, but wouldn’t follow him until 2001, at the age of 108.
M. Swift primarily writes on moments and important figures in Black history for Your Black World. He also writes heavily on wrestling, comics, gaming, and Black sci-fi and fantasy.
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