George and Willie Muse (The Muse Brothers), two African-American albino brothers born in Roanoke, Virginia, in the 1890s, were the grandson of former slaves and sons of tobacco sharecroppers. Their mother, Harriett, raised them in poverty.
Bounty hunters kidnapped the two brothers as boys in Truevine, Virginia, in 1899 and forced them into the circus. They were wrongly told that their mother had died and that they would never come home when they were captured.
Bounty hunters were known to look for fresh freak show performers, so their mother assumed her sons had been kidnapped. However, with approximately 100 traveling circuses operating in the country at the time, her prospects of seeing her beloved boys were limited to none.
Because albinism is a congenital condition more common among persons of African origin than white Europeans, being Black albinos made them very unusual and a valuable attraction.
Freak shows exhibited dwarfs, conjoined twins, people with acromegaly, and other anomalies throughout the United States throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from the tiniest communities to the largest metropolis. It was not only socially acceptable to stare at people born with malformations; it was also considered the best kind of family entertainment.
Harriett and Cabell Muse’s six-year-old George and nine-year-old Willie were never seen or heard from again. In Roanoke, their abduction became a cautionary tale for blacks.
Reports of two black boys missing in the US Southern state of Virginia during the time when pro-segregation Jim Crow Laws were in effect would not receive substantial police attention.
African Americans were treated as second-class citizens throughout the Jim Crow era. It was seen as a validation of anti-black prejudice. Many Christian ministers and theologians preached that whites were God’s chosen people, blacks were cursed to be servants, and God favored racial segregation.
Their proprietors put the brothers on display in circuses, where they were exploited in so-called freak exhibitions for profit. The Muse Brothers became known as “Eko and Iko,” “White Ecuadorian Cannibals,” “Sheep Headed Men,” “Sheep Headed Cannibals,” “Ministers from Dahomey,” and “Ambassadors from Mars” across the United States.
George and Willie were forced to grow their hair into gigantic locks, which, along with their white skin and bluish eyes, made them stand out. “Darwin’s Missing Links” and “Nature’s Greatest Mistakes” were also used to describe them.
The lads were not allowed to attend school and were not compensated for their labor. They were treated as slaves, earning nothing despite the fact that thousands of people paid to see them. Their sole compensation was clownish costumes for the shows and food to keep the ‘assets’ alive.
One of their owners discovered that George and Willie could perform practically any song on almost any instrument, ranging from the xylophone to the saxophone and mandolin, which made them even more famous and desirable ‘assets’ to traveling circus owners. Their uneducated mother, on the other hand, had not given up hunting for her sons after all this time.
The brothers were on a tour with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to Roanoke in the fall of 1927, and they had no idea they were returning home after nearly three decades apart.
Their mother learned that “The Greatest Show On Earth” was coming to town, and she was determined to track them down. Confronting the Ringling Brothers, who were powerful multimillionaires with the attention of strong politicians and law enforcement organizations, was a difficult decision.
Their mother tracked them down and discovered them working for the Ringling Brothers circus. She surprised them while they were performing. Their family was reunited, 28 years after they had gone missing in the same town. The poor and powerless black mom successfully took her sons home against police and big-shot circus proprietors.
After a court battle, Harriet was able to sue Ringling Brothers for their mistreatment of her sons, and they were given financial reparations.
Harriet’s successful lawsuit against Ringling Brothers, in which she obtained a significant payout and proper compensation for her kids, was completely ignored by most papers and news outlets.
Later, the two brothers elected to return to the circus as paid employees. Willie died in 2001 at the age of 108, while George died three years later in 1972.