There’s always been something creepy about circuses. While most modern ones cater to family-friendly themes, circuses back in the day boasted the display of all things freaky and bizarre. Out of that center of weirdness and exploitation comes the strange, sad story of Schlitzie the Pinhead.
Schlitzie’s entire origin story is full of conflicting accounts. Reportedly, he was born in either the late 1800s or early 1900s, possibly with the name "Simon Metz". Granted, medical practices didn’t come near the kind of record-keeping that exists in modern society, so that’s somewhat understandable. It's everything else that's a mystery.
The rest of his background gets less and less understandable the more you look at it.
Most reports say Schlitzie was born with microcephaly, which made his head much smaller in proportion to the rest of his body. More than that, Microcephalics can also exhibit a conical shape on the crown of their head, which Schlitzie also had, and which ended up giving him his "Pinhead' moniker.
Still, when it comes to Schlitzie, that's just the beginning of the story.
Naming Schlitzie's condition, microcephaly, actually produces more questions than answers. It can be a symptom of many different, larger issues. One of them is genetics, but another is utterly tragic. Some microcephalics result from fetal alcohol syndrome, which could have happened in Schlitzie's own case.
We may never know, but there are clues his family was not good to him.
According to one source in particular, Schlitzie’s parents actually had great wealth, and could have had enough resources to properly care for their son. As we'll see, Schlitzie had mental difficulties and needed guardians to take care of him. Unfortunately, that's not at all what happened when it came to his mother and father.
Although Schlitzie's early life is shrouded in mystery, there are reports that his ashamed parents kept him hidden in the basement because he looked nothing like the baby they expected. This isn’t terribly hard to believe, considering the lack of knowledge about his condition back then. Somehow, though, that's not the worst part.
It's very likely that Schlitzie’s parents sold him to a traveling circus after becoming too exasperated with his condition. One way or another though, he ended up at the circus, alone in the world without a proper caretaker. He soon discovered this was a place you really wanted a guardian.
These early circuses often featured sideshow performers with what we now know to be actual disabilities. They literally labeled them “freak shows” and charged people for the chance to gawk. Yes, this is what poor Schlitzie got dumped into. Unfortunately for him, his looks weren’t the worst of his issues.
Because of the size of his head, Schlitzie reportedly suffered from a lack of brain development as well. In fact, he likely had only about 2 oz of actual brain tissue. The consequences are heartbreaking. As you might expect, this left him with the cognition and understanding of a small child, so he wasn't able to truly advocate for himself.
As it happened, he also might not have been the only one.
Some reports claim that Schlitzie's parents gave up his sister to the circus as well. Those sources say she also suffered with microcephaly, and the pair worked together for a time. It’s possible, but there’s no way of confirming it or debunking it as a sideshow legend either way.
Even so, neither Schlitzie nor his possible sister would have had a choice in what happened next.
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Schlitzie ended up spending his formative years, and several more of his years, growing up as a sideshow performer. Circuses displayed him alongside other “unusual” people, like conjoined twins, bearded women, and dwarves. And the names for his acts? They’d immediately get those circuses canceled today.
The names of the acts likely served as the main draw to the circus sideshow. That makes Schlitzie’s titles even worse. In addition to "pinhead,” they titled him things like “what is it,” and “the last of the Aztecs”. That last one is particularly inappropriate. Still, his most unfortunate title is next up.
One of Schlitzie's other monikers? “The Monkey Girl". Although Schlitzie was born a boy, the circus often put him in dresses and treated him as a girl, possibly to make him more of a spectacle. To go along with this "spectacle," the showrunners also cut his hair in a certain way to emphasize his conical head shape.
Still, Schlitzie may have worn dresses for another sad reason.
Some reports claim Schlitzie used loose clothing to help conceal his adult diapers. They claim he couldn’t go to the bathroom on his own, and other circus members had to be responsible for changing his diaper. The dress supposedly concealed the bulge and made for easier access. Either way, it doesn’t sound too fun.
But his circus life had some surprises in store.
All things considered, Schlitzie reportedly functioned pretty well in comparison to other people with his condition. He definitely couldn’t make it all on his own, but he could say a few words and short phrases, and seemingly understood the things people said to him. Not that this helped him in the end.
You’re probably wondering exactly what Schlitzie did in the circus. While it’s not explicit, it seems that for the most part, he served as more of an exhibition than anything else. However, he could mimic some sounds, and counted to ten (although he apparently liked to skip the number seven).
Overall, he remained very childlike...and this turned out to be crucial to his future.
Other circus members felt very deeply for Schlitzie, and showed it by caring for him fiercely. He came across as innocent and easily amused, which probably made them very protective over him. They became his family. Yet even though he had these work friends, his audiences weren't always so kind.
With the lack of knowledge surrounding Schlitzie’s condition, we can only imagine the insensitive things people said to him. We’ll never know how many nasty comments he understood, but those who worked with him did. Their reaction was heartbreaking. They often tossed out guests who were mean to Schlitzie to protect him.
For all this love, however, they couldn't save him from a sad fate.
Circuses made their money by traveling place to place and setting up their attractions. Expectedly, they’d need to keep their show fresh to make a profit year to year. They did so by exchanging performers as they went, so Schlitzie was basically just cargo. He didn’t have the ability to decide where he went, and got sold and traded on the whims of others, often far away from old friends.
Where he ended up may have been a shock to even hm.
Over several decades, Schlitzie performed in numerous circuses. He even made appearances at some of the biggest circuses in the game, like Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey. He may have been defenseless and lonely, but at least his star was on the rise, right? Well, it was about to turn into a supernova.
As unusual as his condition was, it wasn't long before word got out in Hollywood about Schlitzie. In 1928, he made his first film appearance. It was not a dream come true. The flick,The Sideshow, simply put Schlitzie and his friends on celluloid to be gawked at. Yet his next film was something else entirely.
Schlitzie’s next film gig eventually became his most famous performance. In 1932, he appeared in Tod Browning's horror film Freaks. This film also featured other sideshow circus performers, and centered on a “normal” woman’s evil plan to marry one of the “freaks” for his inheritance.
Today, critics consider the film a startlingly sympathetic portrayal of circus performers, including those with disabilities or different bodies. After all, the director Browning had previously worked in a circus for years in various acts. But the on-set story of Freaks is much different, and much worse.
Obviously, Browning brought in Schlitzie and his co-workers to MGM's studio lot to film the movie. This is where the trouble began. Certain studio employees were upset at the presence of the actors playing the "freaks," to the point where only the more "normal" actors, such as the conjoined twins, could stay on set.
Instead, Schlitzie and some of his colleagues had to stay in a purpose-built tent in a more remote area. But that didn't stop Schlitzie.
In Freaks, Schlitzie plays a version of himself. Once more, he wears dresses, and people often address him using "her" pronouns, such as when Phroso the clown compliments "her" new dress and hat. But Schlitzie picked up some new tricks too: Although many of his lines in the film are garbled, he reportedly learned to mimc director Tod Browning's voice perfectly.
Yet as the studio prepared to release the film, it all really hit the fan.
Society was not kind to Schlitzie. If Tod Browning thought his film would open audience's eyes to the plight of the "sideshows," he was tragically wrong. The first preview screenings of the film were a disaster, with most finding the film to horrifying to watch. As the art director noted, "Halfway through the preview, a lot of people got up and ran out. They didn't walk out. They ran out".
Then, just when MGM thought it had calmed down, a woman came forward with a disturbing allegation.
After this disastrous preview of Schlitzie's film, MGM got stunning news. One of the women who attended the screening was now suing them. She claimed that the film's imagery—and the people in it—had given her such a shock, she had experienced a miscarriage. With accusations like this, Freaks suffered a sad fate.
With all this uproar, MGM ripped Browning's film to shreds, cutting it from its original 90-minute run-time down to around an hour. They took out much of the "offensive" imagery of the film's circus performers, and the original scenes are now completely gone. And still, it wasn't enough. When it came out, the Britain banned it for 30 years.
Even then, Schlitzie was unstoppable.
For all that Freaks treated him badly both on set and off, Schlitzie continued to work in the film industry. Granted, he played characters that didn’t require much “acting,” so to speak. For example, he played a “manimal” in The Island of the Lost Souls, which was an adaptation of the HG Wells novel The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Shallow or not, this work kept him busy. But then he truly got taken advantage of.
In 1934, Schlitzie appeared in the politically-motivated film Tomorrow’s Children. Schlitzie appeared as a disabled delinquent. In the movie, which criticizes eugenics and its heartless practices, courts force him to be sterilized in an attempt to prevent people like him from existing in the future.
The film had good intentions, but it was still horrible to Schlitzie.
Although Tomorrow's Children rightly takes aim at eugenics—this practice of forced sterilization was actually a reality at the time—it didn't make its ethical points, well, ethically. After all, there's no way Schlitzie could make his own mind up about these political conversations, yet the film crew used him for their own ends all the same.
But Tomorrow's Children did introduce the world to a new Schlitzie.
For the only time ever caught on film, Schlitzie appeared with his hair and beard fully grown out in Tomorrow's Children. The effect is astoundingly different from his usual childish look. His condition is still apparent, but he looks much more like a grown man. His personal life, however, was a constant reminder that he wasn't.
In 1936, Schlitzie finally got what he deserved. While working with the Tom Mix Circus, he met chimpanzee trainer George Surtees, and the two of them fell into a wonderful friendship together. Schlitzie’s open, joking personality delighted Surtees, so much so that he took their relationship one step forward.
After some time, Surtees took official guardianship over Schlitzie, adopting him. For the first time ever, Schlitzie found himself in the consistent care of a father-like figure. He was likely well into his 30s by now. Nonetheless, the two of them stuck by each other for years...until a sad event turned Schlitzie's life upside down.
Schlitzie and his adoptive father George Surtees got many good years together, but all good things must come to an end. In 1965, Surtees passed, and it looked like Schlitzie was going to be alone in the world once more. If only he had been left alone, because the next development wasn't good.
After Surtees was gone, the law left Schlitzie’s guardianship to his next in command—his daughter. It was the worst thing that could have happened. Allegedly, despite her father’s life-long circus career, she felt no connection to the circus or to Schlitzie.
Whether because she had no time for him or just didn’t care, she made a decision that nearly became the end of Schlitzie altogether.
Tragically, Surtees’ daughter gave Schlitzie up to a mental hospital in Los Angeles shortly after her father passed. After literal decades traveling and performing, both for live audiences and on film, she relegated Schlitzie to a life of separation and interiority. The effects were simply devastating.
By just about all accounts, Schlitzie almost immediately slipped into a state of depression that continued to worsen with every day he spent in the institution. He performed little shows here and there for the doctors and other patients, but even they could see his light dimming.
Sadly, doctors predicted he wouldn’t live very long in their care. Then a miracle happened.
After about three dreary years in the hospital, somebody recognized Schlitzie while he put on one of his mini shows. Bill Unks worked at the hospital as a janitor. Coincidentally, he also worked another job as a circus sword-swallower. When he saw Schlitzie at the hospital, he knew what he had to do.
Knowing he couldn't let Schlitzie deteriorate in the institution, Unks got in contact with Sam Alexander, another sideshow performer, and told him about Schlitzie’s fate. Together, they approached the doctors in charge of Schlitzie and requested his release to return to performing in the circus.
The doctors felt strongly that, in their own care, Schlitzie didn’t stand a chance. So they made an unorthodox move.
Incredibly, the doctors discharged Schlitzie to the care of Unks and Alexander. He immediately returned to the circus and the life of entertainment he knew. Shockingly, the doctors predicted he had six months left in him when he left the hospital in his current condition. But getting back to the circus revived Schlitzie, and for years he got back to doing what he loved more than anything else.
Back in the circus, Schlitzie returned to traveling as well. Now at least in his 60s, he still traveled as far as Hawaii and London with his late-in-life act. Yet even with his indefatigable spirit, Schlitzie did eventually grow too old to travel. But he didn’t let that hold him down.
In his later years, Schlitzie settled in with caretakers in Los Angeles. He didn’t stop performing, though. He loved spending time at Santa Monica Boulevard, where he did little shows and fed ducks and pigeons. His caretakers also sold photos from his time in the circus during this era...but not everything was shiny and happy.
Although Schlitzie spent nearly his entire life working as an entertainer, it doesn’t seem like he saw any of his own fortune. He likely lacked the mental capacity to handle his own finances. Furthermore, with him passing from guardian to guardian for so long, it’s no wonder his funds fell through the cracks.
Still, you have to wonder if he was being taken advantage of. His end pretty much proves that he was.
All things considered, Schlitzie lived a comparatively long life. His medical condition could have compromised his health much more than it did. Moreover, sideshow performers generally lived shorter lives than expected, considering their medical conditions and the stress of the job.
Nonetheless, Schlitzie lived to see the dawning of the 1970s—and then his end came swiftly.
In 1971, Schlitzie's body finally began to break down. Doctors ultimately diagnosed him with bronchial pneumonia. He spent time in a hospital before his days came to an end at Fountain View Convalescent Home in late September. Considering the many people he made smile throughout his career, he deserved a better burial than he’d get.
At this time, Schlitzie's tragedies caught up to him. Again, he'd been seeing almost no compensation for his work, and his caretakers let him down in his final moments. At the time of his passing, he certainly had no money in his accounts, and no one else provided payment for his grave marker.
He laid to rest in the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights, California, with not a thing to show he was there. Decades later, however, a plot twist occurred.
Although Schlitzie’s turn in Freaks was initially disastrous, the film made an unexpected comeback in the late 20th century. Fans in Europe especially started to create a bit of a cult following around the movie, resulting in its—and Schlitzie’s—resurgence across the world. That wasn’t all Schlitzie helped inspire.
In 1971, a character with a pointed head appeared as the star of the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead. Zippy looked remarkably like Schlitzie, which is no coincidence. The artist, Bill Griffith, cited Schlitzie as his inspiration for the appearance of the character.
Most people are also familiar with the popular game Red Dead Redemption 2. The series debuted in 2010, and its second instalment featured another familiar Schlitzie-inspired character—Bertram. This eventually brought things full circle for Schlitzie.
In 2007, a man named Scott Michaels visited Schlitzie’s unmarked grave to pay homage to the now-cult figure. Michaels owned a website that featured celebrities’ deaths, and thought the fact that Schlitzie's grave remained mostly anonymous was unfortunate.
He posted the information on his site, and Schlitzie’s fans took action.
When Michaels posted about Schlitzie’s unmarked grave online, his fans contacted the cemetery to find out what the issue was. Sadly, they found out what you already know. Schlitzie actually had an unpaid balance on his burial. The next thing they found out was a real tear-jerker.
As it happened, the balance owing on Schlitzie’s account was just a couple hundred dollars. Determined to pay homage to him, his fans raised the money in a small fundraiser and gave him a modest, aised marker for his plot. It’s the least they could do for a person who’d entertained so many.
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