© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Truevine' Illuminates The World Of Circus Sideshows

Circus sideshow displays of “freaks” were very popular in the United States up until the 20th century. In 1899, George and Willie Muse, the African-American children of sharecroppers, were lured from their home to become part of one such sideshow.

Author Beth Macy ( @papergirlmacy) tells their story in her book “ Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.” She joins Here & Now‘s Lisa Mullins to talk about the book and about the now bygone phenomenon of the circus sideshow.

Book Excerpt: ‘Truevine’

by Beth Macy

Prologue:  I Am the True Vine

Their world was so blindingly white that the brothers had to squint to keep from crying. On a clear day, it hurt just to open their eyes. They blinked constantly, trying to make out the hazy objects in front of them, their brows furrowed and their eyes darting from side to side, unable to settle on a focal point. Their eyes were tinged with pink, their irises a watery pale blue.

Their skin was so delicate that it was possible, looking only at the backs of their hands, to mistake the young African-American brothers for the kind of white landed gentry who didn’t have to eke out a living hoeing crabgrass from stony rows of tobacco or suckering the leaves from the stems.

That was as true when they were old men as when they were little boys, back when a white man appeared in Truevine, Virginia, as their neighbors and relatives remembered it — that very bad man, they called him.

Back when everything they knew disappeared behind them in a cloud of red-clay dust.

The year was 1899, as the old people told the story, then and now; the place a sweltering tobacco farm in the Jim Crow South, a remote spot in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where everyone they knew was either a former slave, or a child or grandchild of slaves. George and Willie Muse were just nine and six years old, but they worked a shift known by sharecroppers as “can see to can’t see” — daylight to dark. “Can to can’t,” for short.

Twenty miles away and twenty-seven years earlier, a man born into slavery named Booker T. Washington had walked four hundred miles from the mountains to the swampy plains, to get himself educated at Hampton Institute. “It was a whole race trying to go to school,” he would write.

Forty miles in the other direction, another former slave, named Lucy Addison, had gotten herself educated at a Quaker college in Philadelphia. In 1886, Addison landed in the railroad boomtown of Roanoke, Virginia, where she set up the city’s first school for blacks in a two-story frame building with long benches and crude desks, using hand-me-down books from the city’s white schools. She became such an icon of education that some elderly African Americans still have her faded portrait hanging on their walls, right next to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama. Addison inspired Ed Dudley, a dentist’s son who would become President Truman’s ambassador to Liberia. She taught future lawyer Oliver Hill, who would grow up to help overturn the separate-but-equal laws of the day in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education.

But such leaps were unheard of for black families in Truevine, where it would take decades before most learned to read and write. While Washington was on his way to fame and the founding of Tuskegee Institute, black children in Truevine were kept out of school when the harvest came in.

They had too much work to do.

* * *

Still, in this remote and tiny crossroads, where everyone knew everyone for generations back, George and Willie Muse were different. They were genetic anomalies: albinos born to black parents. Reared at a time when a black man could be jailed or even killed just for looking at a white woman — reckless eyeballing, the charge was officially called — the Muse brothers were doubly cursed.

Their white skin burned at the first blush of sun, and their eyes watered constantly. They squinted so much that they began to develop premature creases in their foreheads. So they looked down as they worked — they always looked down — heeding their mother’s advice to never look toward the sun.

Harriett Muse was fiercely protective. She cloaked her boys in rags to keep their skin from blistering, and for the same reason she made them wear long sleeves when it was 100 degrees. When a vicious dog happened onto the tenant farm where they worked and lunged at little Willie, she chased it away with an iron skillet. She made the boys’ favorite food, ash cakes, a simple corn bread baked over an open fire.

When it snowed she cobbled together a dessert called snow cream out of sugar, vanilla, eggs, and snow. When a rainbow appeared above the mountain ridges, she told them to take solace in it. “That’s God’s promise after the storm,” she said.

She spoiled them as much as a poor sharecropper could, but George and Willie were expected to work, walking the rows of tobacco looking for bugs and picking budworms off the leaves when they found them, squashing them between their fingers as they went.

The boys were squinting, as they usually were, when the bad man appeared. What a surprise the well-heeled stranger was in this hodgepodge of dirt roads, tobacco barns, and shacks where tenants stuffed newspapers into holes in the walls to keep critters out, and the only dependable structure for miles was a white-frame meeting hall that doubled as a one-room school — a school the black community built by hand because the county provided a teacher but not a building for him to teach in.

The white man had arrived in the Virginia backwoods by horse and carriage. He cast a long shadow over the rows where the boys were crouched, working. He went by the nickname Candy, Willie Muse would later tell his family members, and he came from the Hollywood of that era: the circus.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the height of circus popularity, bounty hunters scoured the nooks and crannies of America’s backwoods — and the world — looking for people they could transform into sideshow attractions: acts like Chang and Eng, the world’s most famous conjoined twins, “discovered” by a British merchant in Siam (now Thailand) in 1829, or the Wild Men of Borneo, as P. T. Barnum pitched a pair of dwarf brothers to audiences in 1882 — though they actually hailed from a farm in Ohio.

Somehow the man had heard about the boys — maybe from a shopkeeper in nearby Rocky Mount, the county seat. Maybe a neighbor had seen the ads that circus showmen took out in newspapers and trade publications for freak hunters, as they were called.

“WANTED — To hear from the man that grows three feet in front of your eyes. . . . Call DAN RICE, Sioux City, Iowa.”

Maybe even a member of their own family had given the boys up.

The white man found them working, alone and unsupervised, two snow-white field hands, no more than seventy pounds and four feet tall, dressed in flour-sack clothes and turbans jerry-rigged out of rags and string. As he approached, stepping over the tobacco rows, the boys stood and nodded respectfully, as they’d been taught to do with white men.

When they removed their head coverings at his request, the man gasped. Their hair was kinky, and it was golden.

It was money in his pocket.

Harriett Muse had warned her sons about copperheads amid the tobacco rows, about wolves in the outlying fields. They knew about the perils of what scholars call peonage, the quasi-slavery in which a man could be stripped to his waist, tied to a tree, and lashed with a buggy whip — for the bold act of quitting one farmer’s land to work for better wages down the road. They’d heard the adults talk about the lynch mob in Rocky Mount in 1890, the year George was born, formed to rain vigilante justice down on five blacks accused of setting a fire that had destroyed much of the uptown. Two of the five were hung in the basement of the county jail before evidence surfaced, on appeal, that arson could not be proved.

“Before God I am as innocent of that charge as an angel,” Bird Woods declared as a deputy slipped the noose around his neck. He spoke his truth even as his voice began to quake:

“I bear no malice in my heart towards any one, and my soul is going straight to heaven.”

In 1893, the year of Willie’s birth, a riot in nearby Roanoke erupted after a white produce vendor claimed that a black furnace worker, Thomas Smith, had assaulted her near the city market. Before the next sunrise, two dozen people were wounded and nine men were dead — including Smith, who was hung from a hickory tree, then shot, then dragged through the streets. As if that wasn’t enough finality to the young furnace worker’s life, the next morning rioters burned his body on the banks of the Roanoke River while a crowd of four thousand looked on, some clinging to pieces of the hanging rope they’d grabbed as mementos. The only evidence linking Smith to the crime was the victim’s vague description of her perpetrator: he was “tolerably black,” she said, and wearing a slouch hat, a tilted wide-brimmed hat popular at the time.

A Roanoke photo studio sold pictures of Smith hanging from the rope as a souvenir. It was the eighth known lynching in southwest Virginia that year.

The region had always been a dangerous place to be black. But it had never occurred to Harriett that some far-off circus promoter would steal her boys, turn them into sideshow freaks, and, for decades, earn untold riches by enslaving them to his cause.

But by the end of that swelteringly hot day, Harriett later told people, she had felt it in her marrow — something had happened, and something was wrong. A white man in a carriage had been spotted roaming the area, she heard, and now George and Willie were gone.

In a dusty corner of Virginia’s Piedmont, in a place named Truevine — where the only thing that gave Jim Crow–era blacks any semblance of hope at all was the biblical promise of a better life in the hereafter — Harriett Muse knew it for a fact. She’d already been robbed of dignified work, of monetary pay, of basic human rights, all because of the color of her skin.

Now someone had come along and taken the only thing she had left: her children.

For more than a century, that was the story Willie Muse and his relatives told. Their descendants had heard it, all of them, since the age of comprehension, then handed it down themselves, the way families do, stamping the memory with a kind of shared notarization. The story was practically seared into the Muse family DNA.

And, although it wasn’t entirely accurate, not to the letter, the spirit of it certainly was.

The truth was actually far more surprising and, as it usually is, far more tangled.

Excerpted from Truevine © 2017 by Beth Macy, Reprinted with permission from Little, Brown and Company.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.