Twisted Facts About the Muse Brothers, The Heartbreaking Circus Act

Brendan Da Costa

George and Willie Muse, known collectively as the Muse Brothers, were a pair of ill-fated boys from Jim Crow Era Virginia. They overcame their rare genetic conditions and a world prejudiced against them to lead happy and long lives. But not before more than a few harrowing misadventures that took them far, far from home.


1. They Were Dealt A Bad Hand

George and Willie Muse were the eldest children born to Harriet Muse in the late 19th century in the small town of Truevine, Virginia. As impoverished African-American sharecroppers in the Jim Crow south, the Muse Brothers never really had much of a chance to begin with. But then fate dealt them an even crueler hand.

2. They Were Exceptionally Rare

Rare genetic conditions are exactly that: rare. Unless you’re one of the Muse brothers. Both George and Willie Muse were born with the rare genetic condition of albinism. Even though their condition left them with pale, “white-looking” skin, it only transformed them into greater curiosities. As Black men with unique complexions, the Muse brothers became targets for the worst kind of evil.

3. They Were Going Blind

From the day they were born, albinism affected how the world saw George and Willie. In an even crueler twist of fate, however, another rare condition would affect how the Muse brothers saw the world. Not only did they suffer from albinism but George and Willie also had nystagmus; a condition that would, slowly and gradually, make them blind.

This, however, was only the beginning of the nightmare.

4. They Had To Work The Fields

Given their adverse health conditions, George and Willie suffered from the beginning. Their albinism prevented them from spending too much time in the punishing Virginia sun so they weren’t much help in the fields. Nevertheless, to make ends meet, they did their best to help out the family by pulling their own weight. But then the other shoe dropped.

5. They Were Allergic To The Sun

One of the many symptoms of nystagmus is sensitivity to light—not exactly something that a sharecropper can afford to have. The Muse Brothers’ nystagmus was so severe that, before either of them had even reached double digits, they already had forehead furrows from squinting against the bright sun. The two men undoubtedly had it rough—but it was about to get even more horrifying.

6. They’re Suffering Was Near At Hand

What happened to George and Willie next is a matter of some debate. There are two versions of events but, from the sounds of it, each is just as bad as the other. Either way, one thing is clear: The Muse Brothers’ days under the protective watch of their mother were coming to an end…and their life of misery and exploitation was about to begin.

7. Their Mother Had To Make A Sacrifice

According to some versions of the story, Harriet, the Muse Brothers’ mother, couldn’t afford to take care of the boys any longer. Despite the fact that she loved them, she feared what would happen to her albino sons in the racially divided Jim Crow Virginia. She knew that the boys weren’t going to make it as sharecroppers and hoped a different life awaited them.

As a result, Harriet made a drastic decision.

8. Their Mother Might Have Sold Them

Allegedly, in an ironic twist for a couple of African American boys, Harriet sold her sons to save them from the terrible life they would have had as sharecroppers. The story goes that she sold them to circus promoter, James Herman “Candy” Shelton when his circus passed through town. But there’s another version of events that’s even more sinister.

9. They Took Candy From Strangers

Another version of events explains how James Herman Shelton got the nickname “Candy”. This darker story asserts that one day, when the boys were out in the fields alone, Shelton lured them away from safety with candy. This is no Hansel and Gretel fairytale, however. Once Shelton had successfully lured the boys away, they wouldn’t be making a magical escape—at least not yet.

10. They Were Supposed To Go Back Home

The real version of events is likely somewhere between these two extremes. It’s likely that Harriet allowed Shelton to promote her sons as an attraction while his circus was in town. She may even have accepted payment in candy. However, instead of returning the Muse Brothers safely home, it seems that Shelton simply drove off with them, effectively abducting the boys.

11. They Were Probably Abductees

There’s even a mountain of evidence to suggest that the Muse Brothers had not gone with Shelton willingly or even that Harriet wanted them to go. According to Muse Brothers biographer and historical writer Beth Macy, the brothers’ versions of events—that they were abducted—is the likeliest one. She said, “if you ask me in my heart, I’m gonna go with [Willie Muse’s] story”.

Now separated from their mother for the first time, the Muse Brothers began to live a real-life horror story.

12. They Were “Freaks”

Regardless of which version of events is a more accurate representation of what actually transpired, one thing is absolutely certain. In 1899, the Muse Brothers became a traveling “freak show” attraction for the unscrupulous circus promoter, Shelton. Over the coming decades, the Muse Brothers would have to endure all kinds of deranged humiliations.

13. They Just Disappeared

It’s nearly impossible to trace Muse Brothers’ steps immediately after Shelton had abducted them—or else their mother would have saved them. But it is clear that Shelton, along with fellow circus managers Charles Eastman and Robert Stokes, managed the brothers until 1917. Again, the exact details of their travails are hard to come by but that’s probably a good thing.

14. They Were African Royalty

It wasn’t bad enough that Shelton, Eastman, and Stokes had stolen the boys away from their home. They had to steal their identities from them too. As they traveled across the US, they advertised the Muse Brothers as “Ministers from Dahomey”, a now defunct kingdom in modern-day Benin. But that was, perhaps, the least demeaning alias given to the brothers.

15. They Were Treated Like Monkeys

Pretending to be ministers from an African kingdom was downright complimentary compared to the other roles the Muse Brothers had to play. As they traveled to new towns, far, far away from their home, the circus billed the brothers as “Eastman’s Monkey Men” and “Ethiopian Monkey Men”. And the things they made the brothers do were barbarous.

16. They Were The Missing Link

Shelton went a step further than his fellow circus managers in degrading the good character of the Muse Brothers. Eastman was “kind” enough to recognize that the brothers were, in fact, human. Shelton, on the other hand, referred to the Muse Brothers as being the “missing link” between apes and men. Oh, and he went even further.

17. They Were From Another World

Two naive and unworldly circus attendees, the albino Muse Brothers were a somewhat frightening anomaly. These credulous crowds would have believed anything. For example, they would have believed that the brothers were aliens—and Shelton knew it. He sometimes referred to the brothers as “Eko and Iko, Ambassadors from Mars”.

But this was only the tip of the iceberg.

18. They Ate Live Snakes

The circus forced the “Eko and Iko” to act out their humiliating roles by having them perform grotesque stunts in front of circusgoers. Amongst the many toe-curling, hair-splitting things they had to do, the Muse Brothers were forced to eat raw meat and bite the heads off of live snakes. Meanwhile, the brothers actually had real talents.

19. They Had A Hidden Talent

Shelton forced the Muse Brothers to pose for all kinds of strange pictures. But one day, to his surprise, the Muse Brothers revealed a hidden talent. Shelton had the brothers pose with musical instruments like a banjo, saxophone, and ukulele. The surprise was that the brothers, despite their lack of formal education, actually knew how to play the instruments.

But that wasn’t the only surprise the brother had in store.

20. They Were Gifted Musicians

Even more shocking to Shelton and the other malicious circus managers wasn’t just that the brothers could play music, it was that they were actually quite gifted musicians. Willie, for example, could play a song by ear after only hearing it once. Too bad no one could hear the sad song in their achy-breaky, homesick hearts.

The brothers longed to escape—but deception barred their way out.

21. They Were Trapped By Lies

Even if the Muse Brothers wanted to escape and make their own way back home, their new “managers” made them believe that it was impossible. When they weren’t locked up and on display, the circus kept the brothers trapped in a cage of lies—the most heartbreaking and mean-spirited lies anyone could ever dare to tell a couple of lost little boys.

22. They Believed A Malicious Lie

In their captivity, the Muse Brothers longed to go home and be with their family, even if it meant working in the fields. But Shelton never let them believe that was possible. “Be quiet,” Shelton told the boys. “Your momma is dead. There’s no use even asking about her”. It was hard for the boys to hear. It was also a dirty lie.

23. They Never Forgot Their Home

The most heartbreaking part of Shelton’s lie was how much the boys loved their mother. Despite the uncertain circumstances of how they had come to be prisoners in the circus, they never held a grudge against their family. In fact, Willie Muse kept a tiny framed photograph of his mother, Harriet, at his bedside his entire life.

He thought his mother was gone forever—but he was so, so wrong.

24. They Couldn’t See A Way Out

Soon, even that faded photograph wouldn’t be able to fill the mother-shaped hole in Willie’s heart. As he grew older, his nystagmus took his vision away and he started going blind. His vision would fade to black long before the picture of his mother would fade to dust. Fortunately, he would get to see her again—but the road back to her was long and cruel.

25. They Had No Money

Thinking that they had no other options, the Muse Brothers kept working for the circus. They traveled all over the country and headlined everywhere they went. But no matter how hard they worked, they never had more than two pennies to rub together. In fact, despite their suffering, they never had more than one penny between the two of them.

In fact, their salary was downright shocking.

26. They Took A Lot Of Selfies

Circus attendees were usually horrified or fascinated by the Muse Brothers—and their curiosity meant big money for the circus. Audiences were so intrigued by the brothers that they were willing to splurge on morbid mementos. Crowds lined up for $30 a pop, just to take pictures with the brothers. But sadly, George and Willie never saw a cent.

27. They Were The Main Attraction

Throughout their circus career, George and Willie raked in the dough—even if they never got to eat any of it. Allegedly, the brothers could easily make the circus $32,000/day (and that was without their musical talents). Sadly, the brothers never saw that money. In fact, they were living in the most squalid conditions.

28. They Barely Had Enough To Survive

Most people in the world don’t see $32,000 in a year, far less in a single day of “performing” in a circus freak show act. Despite their earning potential, however, George and Willie only received enough money to survive on. It’s not even clear that they could have afforded the cost of a bus ticket to run away from the circus.

29. They Worked Without Pay

Biographer Beth Macy recounted the treatment the Muse Brothers received from their “carny” managers. “Later, showman bragged about buying them from one carnival and then selling them to another like they were chattel. So there was no question they were exploited, there’s no question that they worked for many years without pay”.

The brothers spent years living the same tired routine of exploitation. Little did they know, a big change was on the horizon.

30. They Joined The Circus—The Big One

Shelton eventually “sold” the Muse Brothers to another circus, the famous Ringling Brothers. From the sounds of it, the brothers’ situation improved slightly under this new management. “They were good musicians,” wrote Macy. “And they dressed in finery with red sashes and tuxedos—the outfit topped off by that explosive, anachronistic hair. They were far more interesting than they were grotesque”.

But all that glitters certainly isn’t gold.

31. Their Identities Weren’t Their Own

The Ringling Brothers circus definitely treated the Muse Brothers better than Shelton had—after all, the managers were, themselves, brothers. But they still did their best to erase all traces of the Muse Brothers’ tragic origin story. Much like Shelton, they came up with elaborate and unlikely stories about how the brothers came to be in their circus.

32. They Made The Newspapers

As the Ringling Brothers circus traveled across the country, John Ringling advertised his “albino assets” in local newspapers. One newspaper repeated the insane lie that John Ringling had found the Muse Brothers “floating off the coast of Madagascar”. While the brothers were definitely adrift, they were certainly never lost at sea.

33. They Sparked Scientific Curiosity

The morbid fascination with the Muse Brothers extended far beyond circus folk. When the scientific community caught wind of a couple of albino brothers traveling across the country, it gave them the “evidence” they needed for their most insane theories. Theories that would make the Jim Crow supporters very happy. Theories like eugenics.

34. Their Photographs Were Collectors’ Items

Perhaps motivated by their desire to help out the scientific research—or to pad their pockets—the Ringling Brothers supplied eugenicist Amram Scheinfeld with a photograph of the Muse Brothers. Scheinfeld’s interest in the photograph wasn’t, however, to use as a memento of his day at the Ringling circus. He had something else in mind.

35. Their Condition Appealed To Researchers

Scheinfeld put the picture of the Muse Brothers in his book You and Heredity. Scheinfeld wrote, “They have white skins, pale blue eyes and flaxen hair (the odd effect produced by combing out the [woolly] strands and letting them grow for exhibition purposes). They also have nystagmus (oscillating eyeballs, characteristic of many albinos)”.

However, the scientist’s twisted conclusions took an even darker turn.

36. They Narrowly Escaped Eugenicists

After documenting their condition, Scheinfeld gave his prejudiced scientific opinion. “By sterilization and birth control,” he wrote, “we might reduce the proportion of the ‘unfit’, and by stimulating births in other quarters we might increase somewhat the proportion of the ‘fit’”. Presumably, the Muse Brothers were evidence of the “unfit”.

37. Their Mother Was Alive

The Muse Brothers had no way of knowing that their 13 years of torment were about to come to an end. Back in Roanoke, Virginia, their mother, Harriet, was not at all deceased. In fact, she was very much alive—and angry. Harriet had remarried and left the sharecropping life but she had never, ever forgotten about her sons.

38. They Appeared In A Dream

All of these years later, Harriet had no way of knowing where her sons were or even if they were still alive. That is to say, she had no way of knowing except for divine intervention. The way Harriet told the story was that one day she had a dream that her beloved boys were in Roanoke. As it happened, the Ringling circus was, in fact, coming to town.

39. They Were Close To Salvation

The Muse Brothers arrived in Roanoke with the Ringling circus. A poster of the brothers held the caption “Are they from Mars?” The poster claimed that the brothers had emerged from their crashed spaceship in the middle of the Mojave desert. But the crowds that attended the circus on that day were in for a different kind of show.

40. They Stopped Performing

In the middle of their “extra-terrestrial” musical performance of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” George and Willie noticed something odd in the crowd. There appeared to be a black woman pushing her way through the crowd of white circus attendees. Even stranger yet, George and Willie recognized the woman eagerly making her way toward them.

41. They Had A Dramatic Reunion

George and Willie stopped their performance because they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Either it was an illusion or they were seeing a ghost. Or, perhaps, their hardship was finally coming to an end. “There’s our dear old mother,” George exclaimed. “Look, Willie, she is not dead”. Freedom was finally within sight.

42. They Were Safe—Or?

With their hope restored, the Muse Brothers dropped their instruments and rushed over to their mother. They finally had their long-awaited reunion. But their old circus managers weren’t going to let them go without a fight. When Shelton noticed that his performers had stopped performing, he rushed over to find out what was going on.

43. They Stood Their Ground

In the middle of the stunned crowds, Shelton confronted Harriet and the Muse Brothers. But there was no backing down for Harriet this time—she wouldn’t let her sons go twice. Harriet stood up to Shelton and told him that she was not leaving without her sons. But Shelton wasn’t backing down either. Then the authorities showed up.

44. Their Mother Confessed

For Harriet—a black woman in 1930s Virginia—to stand up to uniformed officers took the kind of courage only a mother could muster. She explained that, over a decade ago, she had allowed her sons to travel with the circus to make a little extra money. She asserted that Shelton had then abducted the boys against her wishes and their will.

45. They Finally Returned Home

The officers must have found the entire situation to be confusing. However, even they could realize that the Muse Brothers were not Martians, “monkey men,” or cannibals adrift at sea. In other words, they were now free men and allowed to go wherever they wanted. And they wanted, at last, to go home and be with their family.

46. Their Mother Protected Them

Both Shelton and the Ringling Brothers were furious that they had lost such valuable “assets,” so they planned a terrible revenge. They decided to take the Muse Brothers to court for a breach of contract—but it was a massive mistake. Harriet didn’t just fend off the legal attack against her sons, she fought right back and won the brothers a massive settlement in stolen wages.

47. They Returned To The Circus

The Muse Brothers were able to renegotiate their contract with the Ringling Brothers. This time, they would keep the money they brought to the circus. They agreed to return as “Eko and Iko, Sheep-Headed Cannibals from Ecuador” but, for once, they owned their own narrative. And their new and improved act took them all the way across the sea.

48. They Were Circus Royalty

There’s no official record to prove it but many sources claim that the Muse Brothers had a royal audience. They did, definitely, travel to the UK and they claimed that they performed at Buckingham Palace for the king. One imagines that they stuck to playing instruments and didn’t bite the heads off of any snakes—or guests.

49. They Were Making Bank

With their earnings, the Muse Brothers managed to save up enough money to send some back to their mother in Roanoke. She was able to buy a farm with the money that her sons sent back and passed peacefully as a black landowner in the Jim Crow south. The Muse Brothers, for their part, would also have a happy ending.

50. They Lived To Ripe Old Ages

Throughout their hardships, the Muse Brothers always had each other—until they didn’t anymore. Despite their rare genetic conditions, health complications, and low life expectancy, both lived to a ripe old age. Willie, for example, outlived all of his former “managers”. He passed in 2001 at 108 years of age, happy and free.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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