The Tragic Story of George and Willie Muse, the Black Brothers Who Were Kidnapped and Forced to Perform in Circuses

George and Willie Muse were two brothers born in rural Virginia in the late 19th century. They were members of the African American community, and their family worked as sharecroppers. However, their lives took a drastic turn when they were kidnapped and forced to become part of a circus sideshow.

The Muse brothers were born with albinism, a genetic condition that causes the skin, hair, and eyes to lack pigmentation. This condition made them stand out in their community, and they were often subjected to discrimination and ridicule.

There are two different stories as to how Willie and George ended up in the circus.

According to the first narrative, which was circulated among local families and intended as a warning to African Americans, a man working in the circus business spotted the two boys in 1899. Intrigued by their unusual appearance, he enticed them into a wagon with sweets before abducting them.

The second account suggests that Harriet Muse, the mother of Willie and George, had given permission to a man named James “Candy” Shelton, an employee of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to showcase her sons as a spectacle during his circus’s visit to their town, with the understanding that they would be returned afterwards. However, instead of fulfilling his promise, Shelton absconded with the Muse Brothers, effectively kidnapping them.

George and Willie in the only known picture of them with one of their captors, showman Al G. Barnes. Photograph courtesy of Josh Meltzer.

James Shelton assumed the role of the Muse Brothers’ manager and transformed the brothers from scared little boys into world-famous sideshow freaks. George and Willie weren’t permitted to go to school or learn to read. To stop them from begging to return home, he also told them that their mother was dead.

The Muse Brothers were showcased as “Eko and Iko, the Ambassadors from Mars,” as well as “Eastman’s Monkey Men,” the “Ethiopian Monkey Men,” and the “Ministers from Dahomey.” They were exhibited alongside other individuals with physical abnormalities, and compelled to complete the ruse by biting off snakes’ heads or consuming raw meat in front of paying audiences. They were paraded around the country, forced to perform for crowds who came to gawk at them and were never compensated for their work. They were also forced to live in deplorable conditions, often going without food and proper medical care.

The brothers continued to perform in the circus for over 13 years, gaining a following and becoming one of the most popular acts in the sideshow.

The Muse Brothers were not only physically remarkable but also musically gifted, with the ability to play instruments such as the banjo, saxophone, and ukulele. In particular, Willie possessed an exceptional talent for replicating any song after hearing it just once. Their musical prowess added to their appeal and, as they traveled to cities across the United States, their fame continued to spread. Then Shelton eventually struck a deal with circus owner Al G. Barnes to attach the brothers as a sideshow. This agreement effectively reduced George and Willie Muse to “modern-day slaves, hidden in plain sight.

Despite the fact that the brothers brought in as much as $32,000 per day, they received only enough compensation to survive on.

Harriett Muse, the mother of the Muse Brothers, spared no effort in her attempts to locate her missing sons. However, in the racist climate of the Jim Crow South, law enforcement officials and even the Humane Society of Virginia dismissed her pleas for assistance. Despite this, Harriett remained committed to the belief that she would one day be reunited with her children, while also caring for her other son and two daughters.

In the fall of 1927, Harriett Muse received a tip that the circus was in town, and she became convinced that her sons were among the performers. She claimed that she had seen them in a dream, and that they were in Roanoke.

After making inquiries, she was led to a sideshow where she saw her long-lost sons who were now in their mid-30s, for the first time in over a decade. Although the brothers initially failed to recognize their mother, they soon embraced her, and they were subsequently freed from their captivity in the circus.

The Ringling Brothers and Shelton were enraged by the loss of their valuable “assets” and sued the Muse Brothers for breach of contract. However, Harriet fought back and won a significant settlement for her sons in stolen wages.

Harriett Muse, right, and husband Cabell, far left, with the brothers shortly after she found them at a sideshow in 1927. Photograph by George Davis, courtesy of Frank Ewald

In 1928, the Muse brothers returned to work for the circus, but this time they signed a new contract with Shelton that included guarantees of their hard-won rights.

Thanks to their steady income, George and Willie Muse were able to send money to their mother, Harriet Muse, who was then able to purchase a small farm that eventually lifted her out of poverty.

When Harriett Muse passed away in 1942, the sale of her farm allowed the brothers to move into a house in Roanoke, where they lived for the remainder of their years.

At home, the brothers would tell stories of their harrowing misadventure. George Muse passed away from heart failure in 1972, while Willie lived on until 2001, when he died at the age of 108.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora

2 COMMENTS

  1. This article is heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time. It illistrates the indomitable spirt of African Americans, unfortunately at the conclusion of great pain, struggle and injustice.

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