How Willie And George Muse Became The Face Of The Freak Show Business

In the early 20th century, when sideshow “freaks” were popular in America, many people were purchased, sold, and used as commodities by uncaring circus promoters. The story of George and Willie Muse, two performers, is arguably the most terrifying of them.

The two Black brothers are said to have been kidnapped from the tobacco farm where their family was farming in Virginia in the early 1900s. The Muse brothers were forced to travel with a promoter named James Shelton under the name “Eko and Iko, the Ambassadors from Mars” because they were both born with albinism and were therefore desired for show business.

But throughout, their mother struggled to rescue them from racist institutions. The Muse family was reunited with one another after much legal wrangling, cruelty, and deceit. 

How The Circus Kidnapped George and Willie Muse

George and Willie were presented with a variety of degrading names along with ludicrous backstory that reflected racial prejudices of the period.

Harriett Muse gave birth to five children, the two eldest being George and Willie. Both boys were born with albinism, which made their skin extremely susceptible to the harsh Virginia sun, against all chances.

Both also had nystagmus, a vision-weakening disorder that frequently goes hand-in-hand with albinism. By the time they were six and nine years old, the boys’ foreheads had developed permanent furrows from years of squinting in the light.

The Muses, like the majority of their neighbors, sharedcropped tobacco to make a meager living. It was expected that the lads would assist by scouring the rows of tobacco plants for bugs and eliminating them before they could harm the priceless crop.

Although Harriett Muse did her best to spoil her boys, it was a difficult life filled with racial hostility and hard labor. Black men were routinely the target of lynch mobs at the time, and the community was constantly on high alert for another attack. The Muse brothers faced a higher danger of ridicule and abuse since they were Black youngsters with albinism.

It’s unclear exactly how James Herman “Candy” Shelton, a circus promoter, first learned about George and Willie. It’s possible that a neighbor or family member in need sold him the knowledge, or that Harriett Muse let them accompany him for a short, but he kept them captive.

The Muse brothers may have consented to perform a few times with Shelton when his circus visited Truevine in 1914, but the promoter kidnapped them before he left town, said author Beth Macy of Truevine.

The brothers were out in the fields one day in 1899 when Shelton enticed them in with candy and abducted them, according to the popular tale that emerged in Truevine. Harriett Muse knew something horrible had happened as night fell and she couldn’t find her sons.

Must Perform As “Eko and Iko

The circus was a popular form of entertainment for most of America around the turn of the 20th century. All around the nation, roadside sideshows, “freak shows,” or performances of extraordinary skills like sword swallowing have appeared.

Candy Shelton understood that the young Muse brothers could be a goldmine in a time when individuals with disabilities were considered oddities and Black people had few to no rights that a white man would respect.

Managers Charles Eastman and Robert Stokes exhibited the Muse brothers in fairs and dime museums up until 1917. The “Eastman’s Monkey Men,” the “Ethiopian Monkey Men,” and the “Ministers from Dahomey” were some of the names they went by in advertisements. They were frequently compelled to consume raw flesh in front of paying customers or bite the heads off of snakes in order to complete the illusion.

The brothers came back under Candy Shelton’s supervision after a confusing series of transactions in which they were passed through a number of managers like chattel. He promoted the brothers as the “missing link” between humans and apes and claimed they were from a tribe in the Pacific, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Mars.

Later, Willie Muse called Shelton a “dirty rotten scumbag” who showed the brothers a great deal of personal disregard.

Shelton actually didn’t know anything about them, so when he gave the Muse brothers a banjo, a saxophone, and a ukulele as photo props, he was surprised to find that they could not only play the instruments, but that Willie could imitate any song after hearing it just once.

Due to their musical talent, the Muse brothers became even more well-known, and their fame spread throughout the nation. Al G. Barnes, the owner of a circus, and Shelton eventually came to an agreement to add the brothers as a sideshow. George and Willie Muse were “modern-day slaves, hiding in plain sight” as a result of the deal.

We turned the boys into a profitable prospect, as Barnes put it frankly.

The boys could earn up to $32,000 every day, although most likely they only received enough money to get by.

The boys screamed for their family from behind the curtain, but they were simply instructed to “Be quiet. Your mother is gone. It is useless to even inquire about her.

In her search for her sons, Harriett Muse used every available tool. But no police officer took her seriously in the Jim Crow South’s racial environment. She begged for help, but not even the Humane Society of Virginia listened.

She married Cabell Muse in 1917 and relocated to Roanoke for higher salary as a maid because she had two girls and another boy to care for. She and her sons who were absent never gave up hope that they would be reunited for many years.

Harriett Muse then discovered that the circus was coming to town in the fall of 1927. She insisted that she saw her sons in Roanoke in a dream.

The Muse Brothers Reappear in Truevine

Shelton brought the Muse brothers to the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1922 as a result of a better offer. Shelton gave their blonde hair bizarre haircuts that protruded from the tops of their heads, clothed them in vibrant, bizarre clothing, and claimed they had been discovered in the Mojave Desert among the remains of a spacecraft.

Mid-30s George and Willie Muse returned to their childhood home for the first time in 13 years on October 14, 1927. George noticed a familiar face in the audience as they started singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” a song that had become a favorite of theirs during World War I.

There’s our beloved old mother, he remarked as he turned to face his brother. Look, Willie, she’s still alive.

The brothers put down their instruments and at last gave their mother an embrace after more than ten years apart.

Soon after, Shelton interrupted Muse’s show and demanded to know who was responsible for the interruption. He also claimed ownership of the brothers. She refused to back down and told the boss that she would not be leaving without her sons.

Harriett Muse informed the police when they shortly came that she had authorized the temporary custody of her sons for a period of time that would end with their return to her. Instead, they had supposedly been held by Shelton indefinitely.

The boys were given the okay to go by the police, who appeared to believe her account.

Justice For The Boys

Harriett Muse and Candy Shelton both resisted giving up the Muse brothers. Ringling sued the Muses, alleging that they had taken away two important earners with legally enforceable contracts from the circus.

With the aid of a local attorney, Harriett Muse retaliated, winning several legal battles that upheld her sons’ entitlement to compensation and off-season visits. It is a credit to her perseverance that a middle-aged Black maid in the segregated South was able to defeat a white-owned business.

The hard-won rights of George and Willie Muse were guaranteed in a new contract they signed with Shelton in 1928. They started a world tour at Madison Square Garden and went as far as Buckingham Palace under the new moniker “Eko and Iko, Sheep-Headed Cannibals from Ecuador.”

George and Willie Muse did manage to send money home to their mother, despite the fact that Shelton continued to treat them like property and routinely stole from their paychecks. Harriett Muse was able to buy a small farm and escape poverty with the help of these wages.

The brothers were able to relocate into a home in Roanoke where they lived the remainder of their lives when mom passed away in 1942 thanks to the selling of her land.

In 1936, Candy Shelton was eventually forced to accept a job as a chicken farmer after losing ownership of “Eko and Iko.” Up until their retirement in the middle of the 1950s, the Muses continued to work in marginally improved circumstances.

The brothers were accustomed to recount long tales of their terrifying misadventure in the comfort of their home. While Willie Muse lived until 2001, when he passed away at the age of 108, George Muse passed away from heart failure in 1972.

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