The Men from Mars: Sideshow Exploitation

In sideshow exhibits around the world, George and Willie Muse were known as “Eko and Iko, the Ambassadors from Mars.” The truth was they were African American Albino brothers who were essentially tricked into slavery until their incredible brave mother found and rescued them. In this episode, we tell the amazing tale of George and Willie Muse and then chat with Comedian Lisa Berry!

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The Cobra Effect

If we’re going to do a podcast about exploitation in the circus, it’s really too much for a single episode. We could do an episode about exploitation of animals, but that’s not what this story is. We could talk about the exploitation of little people. We could talk about a whole list of things, but this episode is about one story. And even that story could be it’s own 10 part series. So before we get into that, I want to suggest that if you want to read this story in incredible detail – and there’s a lot that’s fascinating about this – read the book Truevine by Beth Macy. Beth Macy is actually from my hometown of Urbana, Ohio and I didn’t know about this connection until I started researching this week. I tried to get in touch with her, without success, but if you want to get into this in detail, – that book is a great place to start. My overview here is just that – it’s an overview of the story. I also want to add a couple disclaimers. I have friends who have spent their lives studying and loving the circus. I don’t mean for this episode to disparage the circus. This is just one ugly part of its history, and there are many parts that are beautiful and wonderful and I acknowledge that this is an institution that provided joy and wonder to people all over the world for a very long time. I also want to talk about the word “Freak.” It’s obviously a harmful term and I want to assure you that I’m using it in the historical context of what these people were called at the time, and not in a disparaging way. 

So imagine this – it was 1914 and the circus comes to town. The sideshow tent boasted a sign that said “Ambassadors from Mars” and the nice people from that town were intrigued. They paid for a ticket to see the men from Mars and a group of other so-called freaks. They heard the barker outside describing the act.

“They’re here, ladies and gents, the Ambassadors from Mars. This is not а motion picture. They’re in the flesh. Here for your inspection. White of skin, long of hair, and believe me when I say their eyes are pink. Hairy Monsters from Mars. Don’t crowd, please. I know you want to see them, but please keep the aisles open. Three, you say? Dollar five! Here they are, hairy, horrible, astounding, inhuman monsters! They have been featured before all the crowned heads of Europe. Step right up!”

That was the actual text of the barker’s speech for Eko and Iko – The Ambassadors from Mars. They’d also sometimes be billed as “The Sheep Headed Men,” “Cannibals from Ecuador” or “The Original Monkey Men.” In one story, they were discovered in a raft drifting off the coast of Madagascar. But Eko and Iko were really George and Willie Muse. Two black men born with albinism, a rare genetic expression that robbed them of the pigment in their skin and hair. Their hair was naturally blonde. Their eyes appeared pink.

The story starts in 1899. George and Willie, who were just 6 and 9 years old were working in a field in Truevine, Virginia. Truevine was a small rural community of Tobacco Farms Southeast of Roanoke, Virginia. They were free men, the grandsons of enslaved people, but were put to work sharecropping from a young age. Their job was to find and exterminate the bugs on tobacco plants. Working in the fields was difficult for the boys. Their albinism gave them an eye condition that made them sensitive to the sun and even as children, they had permanent furrows on their foreheads from constant squinting. They lived on the farm with their mother Harriett, their father Cabell and three other siblings and that year, in 1899, everything changed. 

The story varies and it depends on whose account you believe, but through some means, whether Harriett agreed for them to go, or they were taken without their permission, George and Willie were picked up from the field by a man in the Circus business. The dominant story seems to be that Harriett went to the house to get some farming tool and she came back and they were gone. His name was Robert Stokes and he was the man responsible for taking the boys from the field, allegedly using candy to lure them away. Eventually, the boys were under the control of a man named James “Candy” Shelton who wanted to display them in the freak show.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Freak Shows were a large part of circus sideshows. Humans have always been curious to peek in on the bizarre, the strange, and sometimes those who just look different than the rest of us. There was a time that the World’s Fair and even some zoos would have “human zoo exhibits” in which Africans had been kidnapped and displayed, made to live outdoors as onlookers would gawk at this showing of primitive life. The same was done with Native Americans. Circuses got in on this brand of exploitation. In 1880, famous circus owner P.T. Barnum displayed two Ohioans born with dwarfism as “The Wild Men from Borneo.” As most people had never met a little person, it was easy for them to suspend their disbelief and buy into these crazy stories about the so-called freaks on display. Siamese Twins, Fat Ladies, Dog Men – all people who looked different and thus were billed as freaks to small town after small town. Most of these people were hardly paid – if at all. They were given a traveling home – meals and a new family – that being the other so-called “freaks” on the sideshow. One exception was a man born with a pituitary gland condition, Charles Stratton. He grew up to be only 25” tall and Barnum dressed him in a Napoleon uniform and showed him around the world as “General Tom Thumb.” He was seen as so valuable to Barnum that he was paid incredibly well, making Tom Thumb a millionaire before he squandered the money away.  

George and Willie, however were a different story. They weren’t being properly compensated for their time away from home. In fact, they were lied to and told their parents had died. They were displayed in the circus sideshow and people paid to stare. Sometimes they were simply displayed for their unusual appearance. Sometimes their handlers forced them to bite the heads off snakes and eat raw meat to complete the illusion. Other times, they sang and played music. Strangely enough, these brothers, now young men, could play any song you asked for and were often known to play the song “It’s a Long Way to Tiperary.” They were given elaborate matching costumes and had their bright hair matted into dread locks. Sometime in the mid 1920s, the brothers were sold to the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Bailey Circus and became incredibly popular. They literally traveled around the world, performing for several heads of state, Kings and Queens. This was now the only life they knew. And it beat working in the field in the sun – something that was incredibly difficult for people sensitive to the sun because of their albinism. From 1914 until 1927, they had become world-famous without getting paid world-famous salaries. But in 1927, their lives would be changed.

George and Willie Muse had been traveling around the world and displayed as circus oddities for more than a decade. They’d been told their parents were no longer living, and they had been exploited – under paid and lied to while people paid money to stare and laugh at their appearance. They were bringing in as much as $32,000 a day and being paid just pennies.

P.T. Barnum had been displaying them in matching fancy suits with a sash, calling them the “Eko and Iko, Ambassadors from Mars.” And one day in 1927, the circus took them to Roanoke – near the field they were snatched from as boys. It was their first time back in the area in 13 years.

The crowd inside the tent was full, and as the boys were playing their favorite song, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a woman pushed her way forward through the crowd, yelling out to them. George noticed her first. He stopped playing and said to his brother, “There’s our dear old mother. Look, Willie, she’s not dead.” 

It turns out, while George and Willie were touring the world with the circus, Harriett had never stopped looking for them. She had an idea that they were with a circus, but didn’t know where or with whom. She bought tickets to the circus when it came to town on the off-chance that she’d see them.

The announcer of the sideshow was visibly unhappy. The brothers ran forward and embraced their mother. The illusion of the men from mars was being shattered in front of the eyes of the onlookers. Harriett didn’t care. The tent was silent as it watched her grab her boys and run them out of the tent.

George and Willie went home with their mother for the first time since they were young boys. They sat in the house, shoulders slumped. They didn’t know what to do with themselves. Locals started coming through the house to see the boys. They would dropping coins in to a tin cup to see them. They were living the same existence as in the circus, but now in a house with their mother. The city soon put a stop to it. The newspaper reported that a high ranking official stated “Roanoke is in no need of any Ambassadors from Mars!”

The circus sent police to the home. They claimed that the boys were their property – which is quite a disgusting claim to make about some people who were only a couple generations away from slavery. Ringling claimed that Harriett was depriving the circus of two valuable earners with legally binding contracts.

This is where Harriett began a series of lawsuits to try to argue that her sons were being exploited. She took on the Ringlings – who were multimillionaires – in an era where black people in the South who spoke up against power were still being lynched. While the legal battles dragged on, the muse brothers returned to and continued traveling with the circus.

Willie Muse in the late 1990s

Finally – Harriett was successful. She sued for back pay and fair wages for her sons, and she got that for them. It could be argued that perhaps the circus may have been a better place for them. This was all they knew and in the circus, they were safe. Safe from working fields in the Virginia sun – safe from lynchings. And because of those efforts, George and Willie were able to get Harriett a new house. They were able to pay for her healthcare. And when she died of a heart attack in 1942, they paid for a funeral and paid off her debts.

George and Willie retired from the circus in the mid 1950s and loved telling locals the amazing stories of their travels around the world. George died of heart failure in 1972, but Willie lived until 2001. When he died, he was 108 years old. 

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Forgotten history, bizarre tales & facts that seem too strange to be true! Host Michael Kent asks listeners to tell him something strange, bizarre or surprising that they've recently learned and he gets to the bottom of it! Every episode ends by playing a gameshow-style quiz game with a celebrity guest. Part of the WCBE Podcast Experience.


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