It was in Roanoke, Virginia, the legendary location of a colonial massacre, that the albino brothers George and Willie Muse would seal their fate. Born in Truevine, the unfortunate siblings were kidnapped and forced to work in the circus.
Stolen From A Field
Whilst working in a field in 1899, George and Willie Muse were kidnapped by a circus ringmaster who saw their rare skin disorder as a cash cow.
The late nineteenth-century South was a tough place to grow up if you were African American. The 13th amendment to the constitution outlawing slavery only took place thirty years before, in 1865. The resulting Civil War would make the South a deeply inhospitable place for persons of color up until the Reconstruction period.
George and Willie Muse’s namesakes were taken away, and the brothers were instead given the names of Eko and Iko, the sheep-headed cannibals from Ecuador. The dehumanization that the Muse brothers faced during their time as circus freak show attractions were immense.
The Legacy Of Slavery
The Muse brothers were the grandsons of former slaves. During the late 1800s, after the post-war baby boom, black children were regularly abducted from their homes. It was commonplace for as many as twenty children to go missing per month, especially in the South. George and Willie Muse’s parents were tobacco sharecroppers and worked long brutal hours in the hot weather to make a basic living.
Life was undoubtedly hard for black families during this period, who often sent their kids to work at a young age as an extra resource. When the boys were just six years old, a circus promoter made his way onto the field that the boys were working on and coaxed them with a piece of candy. The boys were gone in the blink of an eye, and panic ensued amongst the family and community.
A Mother’s Loss Of George And Willie Muse
The South Virginia town of Truvine is where these boys hailed from. It was a small industrial town on the outskirts of the bible belt that offered no real prospects for its many lower-income families. The next thirteen years would see George and Willie’s mother go through turmoil, trials, and tribulations as she tried to bring awareness of the loss of her boys.
It would seem that the brothers were an easy target because of their bright blue eyes and blond hair which is rare in the African ancestry genome. They suffered from glaucoma and had extremely poor vision as a result. The boys were often misdiagnosed as having a mental illness, but it’s now understood that this was due to a lack of knowledge surrounding partial blindness.
Freak Shows Rise In Popularity
The latter part of the 19th century saw the rise in freak show attractions. Circus promoters would go on tours worldwide to search for unusual people they could entice into their slideshows. Due to the stigmatism largely associated with genetic disorders, people living in this period were regularly shunned from society. The poverty-stricken lives of these people served as an easy target for circus promoters, who offered them a “way out.”
It’s not known whether the families of the brothers had anything to do with their kidnapping. But we do know that during the thirteen years of their abduction, the boys were ever changed. They were transformed into a money-making sideshow act that served to keep them as docile as possible.
They weren’t allowed to read or write and didn’t receive any financial compensation for their work, despite being top earners. Worse still, when the boys were young, they were told that their mother had died to curb any emotional connections.
The Muse Brothers Were Musical Geniuses
George and Willie Muse surprisingly showcased their affinity for music when they were given a banjo and a guitar to hold as props for an impromptu photoshoot. Their manager made fun of the boys, assuming they were too “stupid” to play a tune. Little did he know that the brothers were musical geniuses and could play almost any melody that they listened to.
Once the circus organizers learned about the boys; innate ability with instruments, they fully took advantage of it. The pair were handed various musical instruments to learn, including the saxophone, harmonica, and xylophone. It wasn’t long before the boys were music geniuses and were paraded in front of circus crowds for all to see.
Humiliation And Degradation
The boys were extremely close, and George being the older of the two, protected his younger brother. Willie was much quieter and sensitive in nature, and he preferred to communicate through his music wherever possible.
The sideshow operators would further dehumanize the siblings by dressing them in bizarre clothes and shaping their hair into unusual upward-facing dreadlocks. They were routinely humiliated under different banners, with sideshow operators calling them names such as Barnum’s Original Monkey Men, The Ambassadors from Mars, and The Sheep-headed Men.
In Search Of Her Boys
Meanwhile, the boy’s mother, Harriet Muse, had moved to nearby Roanoke in search of more opportunities. She’d lived an even harder life since the disappearance of her sons but never gave up on finding them.
Harriet Muse was illiterate and destitute by the time she reached Roanoke. The heartbroken mother was about to give up hope when she had a dream that prompted her to visit The Greatest Show on Earth, which was in town. The circus was headed by the Ringling Brothers, who worked for Burnum and Bailey.
As the train carrying all of the circus performers pulled into Roanoke, George and Willie Muse were unaware of their proximity to home, unable to read the Welcome to Roanoke sign. When they stepped out of the train, the Muse brothers first saw a neighbor called Leslie Craft Crawford, who they remembered from childhood.
It’s not known whether the boys knew if they were so close to home at this point. The connection to Leslie may not have sparked a strong enough memory.
A Mother’s Determination
Harriet Muse is also in attendance and makes her way to the main tent, where she takes her place neatly at the back. Her boys are on the stage performing their famous mandolin and guitar routines when they recognize her. The albinism caused them to have bad eyesight, but against all odds, they were able to pick their Dear old Mother out of the crowd.
A reunion ensues that would bring even the hardiest of us to tears. Harriet edged ever more forward, realizing that her boys had recognized her. She took to the front of the stage and began embracing her long-lost sons in front of a confused crowd.
Once the show was over, Harriet refused to leave without her sons in tow and stood up to eight Roanoke police officers and the powerful Ringling brothers who claimed the boys were their own.
The Muse Boys Are Finally Free
A battle of wills emerged, and against all odds, Harriet was able to convince the police of her truths. Her plight was reported in the national news, and she would go on to hire a lawyer to take on the Ringling Brothers along with Barnum and Bailey circus.
Harriet would go on to win her boys a settlement for their back wages, but it was later discovered that their longtime manager continued skimming their wages.
Unfortunately, Candy Shelton would continue to hold a lot of control over the brothers despite several lawsuits being filed over the years by Harriet. The boys would bury their mother in 1942 after a suspected heart attack. Harriet had been on her way to collect her wartime rations when the incident occurred.
George and Willie Muse would live the rest of their lives in peace, ever thankful to their mother. Despite all of the odds, she never gave up on her boys.