REVIEW: A True Story of Black Brothers in the Jim Crow South, Turned into Circus Freaks

Truevine by Beth Macy
Little, Brown & Co. 344 pp.

By Paul Markowitz

In this moving, heartbreaking, and fascinating true tale, two very different worlds converge. There is the world of the circus — more specifically the sideshow, with all of its curiosities and inherent humiliations. And there is the world of the Jim Crow South of the early 1900s, with its different set of indignities. Truevine is a story of triumph over both of these worlds — by a poor black woman of exceptional bravery and persistence, and her battle to reclaim her two sons, who had been transformed into sideshow attractions.

The remarkable saga of George and Willie Muse began at the turn of the 20th century in Truevine, a small hamlet near Roanoke, Virginia.  As the local folklore came to tell it, the two brothers — African-American albino children, aged nine and six — were snatched away by a circus promoter for a traveling sideshow.  This account became so prevalent that mothers would warn their children for decades after not to wander off too far lest they be kidnapped like the Muse boys.

Beth Macy, a local newspaper correspondent-turned-book-writer, was never able to verify the truth of the legend.  What was more likely was that the Muses’ mother, Harriett, agreed, for a payment, to allow the circus to take her children for a short stint, after which she would get them back.  The circus did not, however, have any intention of returning George and Willie — so in either version, the boys were kidnapped.

Truevine also contains another compelling narrative: how Macy was able to piece together the Muse brothers’ story.  She had gotten to know Nancy Saunders, a restaurant owner in Roanoke who was George and Willie’s great niece and Willie’s caretaker in old age.  But that acquaintance was not, by itself, enough.  It was only after Macy knew Saunders for 25 years, and after Willie died in 2001, that she got the cooperation she needed.

The Muses’ story unfolds against a dramatic backdrop — the Jim Crow era in the rural South, as experienced by a poor black family. Macy paints a compelling portrait of a world of hardscrabble tobacco sharecropping, where few blacks owned their own land, poverty was deep and almost inescapable, and the occasional horrific lynching was to be expected.

Macy is equally adept at recreating the book’s second rarefied setting: the world of the circus sideshow.  Sideshows got their name from the fact that they were off to the side of the main circus entrance and required a separate fee to see the “freaks” within.  The Muse brothers, with their white skin and long, bushy hair, were advertised as Ethiopian monkey men, monkey-faced men, and other exotic and offensive manner of man or animal. 

The Muses quickly became a popular attraction from Montana to New York — particularly so because there was was a Darwin craze underway, and “missing links” were much sought after. Their financial value was considerable: the circus was the leading form of popular entertainment of the era, and people saved their pennies all year long to use when the circus came to town. The Muse Brothers started out with small circuses and traveling sideshows, but in 1919 they joined Barnum, Bailey and Ringling Brothers, the biggest and best known circuses of all.

Degrading as it was on the most basic level, the Muses’ life with their circus family was, on a day-to-day basis, surprisingly collegial, and subjected them to far less prejudice than they would have faced in the world at large.  They often traveled as white in the segregated south and became well-liked by most of their compatriots.  One of the many fun-house-mirror aspects of the brothers’ story is that they found a level of normality in a world that the general public regarded as bizarre and freakish.

The Muse brothers’ narrative arc shifts dramatically in October 1927, when Ringling Brothers played Roanoke for the first time.  Shortly after they left Truevine as young boys, their promoter and “owner,” Candy Shelton, told them their mother was dead.  Believing that to be true, they were not particularly excited about coming to Roanoke.  But their mother was not dead — and she had heard from family and friends that her sons were coming to town.

Harriett showed up at the circus to demand George and Willie’s return — and argued with the local police to make it so. Shelton would ultimately offer to pay Harriett a $100 lump sum and $20 a month to allow the brothers to return to the circus with the proviso that they would return home when they were not on the road.

Harriett rejected this offer.  Remarkably, at a time when black people had enormous difficulty using the legal system to their advantage, she filed suit with the help of a sympathetic white lawyer.  Harriett received a financial settlement, the amount of which remains lost to history.  The Muse brothers went back to the circus, but returned home regularly, at least for a while.

Things changed again in the coming years, as sideshows and their attendant humiliations became increasingly less acceptable to the public. The brothers adapted, becoming Iko and Eko, two Ecuadorians reputedly found floating on a raft, who had great musical abilities. Although they never had a lesson, they became proficient at playing the mandolin and guitar.

In time, Shelton and a later promoter reneged on the deal with Harriett, and she found another lawyer to help her do battle.  In 1939, she was able to buy land outside Roanoke.  After her death, the money Harriett was able to secure from the circus helped to ensure that George and Willie had a comfortable home to retire to.

George developed heart problems and died in 1972.  Willie lived his final years in blindness — an affliction common among albinos — but he survived to the impressive age of 108.  His grandniece Nancy — the author’s reluctant source — left her popular soul food restaurant during the day to check on him until the very end.

Truevine is, in many ways, a story of survival and even triumph — but one with a bittersweet aftertaste.  Macy rightly points out that despite the considerable progress since the Jim Crow era — and the advent of a black President — blacks still struggle against mass incarceration, vote suppression, and police violence. The persistence of racial discrimination, however, only makes this story more important — and the endurance of George, Willie, and Harriett, at a time when such powerful forces were arrayed against them, all the more impressive.

Paul Markowitz is a California-based writer.