In 1899, George and Willie Muse, then nine and six, were abducted from Truevine, Virginia, and forced into the circus. The brothers were both albinos born of African-American parents at a time in Southern history when blacks had little to no rights. Their white skin and black features gave them an exotic appearance that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth" exploited by having them pretend to be cannibals, sheep-headed "freaks," and "Ambassadors from Mars" in sideshows.
The brothers were international superstars long before the age of television, playing to huge crowds at Buckingham Palace and New York's Madison Square Garden. But throughout all this their mother Harriet refused to accept that they were gone, and spent the better part of three decades trying to get them back.
In a new book, Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, out October 18 from Little, Brown and Company, journalist Beth Macy gives a gripping account of what black oppression was like at its most extreme during the beginning of the 20th century. She recounts the Muse brothers' tale, but more importantly details their mother's quest to find them. For decades, the closely guarded story of how "Eko" and "Iko," as they were called in the circus, became George and Willie once again was only known to family members—many of whom were illiterate. It took Macy 25 years to get the full story, using "gentle persistence" and building trust with the remaining family members before they'd share the entire narrative with her.
In her book, Macy paints a striking portrait of rural Virginia, the complicated stardom of circus freaks, and the amazing story of a black woman defying white men in order to transform two black boys from property back to humans. Recently I talked with Macy about the Muse brothers journey, why their mother deserves a statute, and how racism during Jim Crow was more insidious than separate water fountains.
VICE: Prior to reading this book, I wasn't familiar with the Muse brothers. Can you tell me a little bit about their lives during the peak of their "fame," so to speak?
Beth Macy: They were among the top acts of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey sideshow throughout most of the 1920s and 1930s, a time when that circus, a.k.a. "The Big One," was king and also the top form of entertainment in America. Next to Christmas Day, circus day—the day it came to your town—was the most important day of the year, and people flocked to see the circus trains unloading in the early morning hours, even if they couldn't afford money to go to the shows later in the day.
The Muse brothers performed in front of British royalty and at sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. Their act was sometimes featured in headlines of the New York Times. When they were young teens, they were featured as pure "exhibits" with smaller traveling carnivals; their milky skin and blue eyes were considered novelty enough. After a few years, their managers gave them instruments as props, but the joke backfired. It turned out the Muse brothers harbored the ability to hear a song once and play it on almost any instrument, from the xylophone to the saxophone and mandolin.
Their story is quite amazing on the surface, but you dug way deeper, spending 25 years to get to the bottom of this story. What was that process like along the way?
The first time I asked Nancy Saunders if I could write a story about her famous great-uncles, she told me (and many others who tried to write the story) to get lost. Ten years later, after Willie Muse died, she let a colleague and me write a newspaper series, but she didn't tell us much. The key was gentle persistence, to keep circling back. As [Pulitzer winner] Robert Caro says, "Time equals truth." You need time to build relationships with subjects to win their trust. That gets lost in today's hyper-mobile society, I think. I'm a unicorn in the world of journalism; I've stayed in the same mid-sized city, and that staying has allowed me to write two deeply-reported books.
Can you tell me about the Muse brother's mother, and the difficulty she faced while trying to get her sons back?
She's the real unsung hero—an illiterate black maid during the harshest era of Jim Crow segregation, living in a city where the top cop was the founder and leader of the KKK. She squared off against not just him, but also powerful Ringling lawyers [when she successfully fought to get her sons back from the circus]. Think about her audacity. She could have been lynched. If she could prevail against those powerful forces for a couple of decades, continually subverting systems designed to quash her legal rights, think what she'd be like today. Somebody should put up a statue in her honor. She spoke truth to power. She was a total badass.
She couldn't read because sharecroppers in rural Virginia didn't get to go to school. I don't know with certainty how she knew [her sons] were with the circus the day she showed up [to get them back] in 1927. She told relatives it had come to her in a dream. We do know that it was almost suicidally bold of her, facing off against Ringling lawyers and eight policemen at the circus and successfully arguing for the return of her sons. As a black woman, she was supposed to know her place.
"This is really a book about historic erasure, and how one family's story was systematically quashed by white-run institutions."
How were the Muse brothers treated at the circus? Did their lives get easier as their fame increased?
They were illiterate because they were never allowed to attend school, so there was no trove of letters for me to mine. They told relatives that their initial years working for various shows were traumatic, in that they were held captive and told their mother was dead. We also know they were mocked constantly in media accounts, and the fact of their trafficking was never questioned.
Once their mother got them and won a settlement from the circus, it was their choice to go back, but it was a very complicated choice. Which was better—life at home crammed into a 517-square-foot shack with no running water (and where people mocked and ogled them), or life on the road with the circus (which, by that point, was the only home they really knew)? Their lives got better once they were being compensated and were allowed to visit their mother. You can tell from the photos alone they were happier after that.
How does the Jim Crow south era that you've written about in this book compare to what's going on today with race relations in this country?
The brothers' great-great-great niece, Erika Turner, has this great 2015 anecdote near the end of the book. She's in a high school psychology class following the riots in Baltimore over police treatment of Freddie Gray. Her predominantly white, suburban classmates are criticizing the looting as she tries to explain how these events weren't happening in a vacuum, they were precipitated by centuries of systematic exploitation and bias.
So many white people don't want to talk about race; it's uncomfortable. Many reason that slavery happened more than a century ago, and people alive today had nothing to do with it. But the particulars of these stories, from slavery to segregation to civil rights and mass incarceration, are at the marrow of life in America today. I cite the examples of an elderly lady who still shudders at the memory of the parrots taunting her with racial epithets as she walked to school, or the sharecropper who was handed her lunch through a window and forced to eat outside in bad weather because the rule was, "No niggers in the house."
Racism was so much more insidious and ingrained than separate water fountains. And even though I've spent three decades writing largely about marginalized people, it was much harsher than I understood. Newspapers across the country ran racist syndicated cartoons, including Hambone's Meditations. Blacks were considered subhuman beings by most whites, including most of our own white ancestors, some of whom benefitted from the systemic exploitation of a black underclass. I think we all need to own a little piece of that inheritance. And to own it, we first need to acknowledge it.
The book may deal with a focused narrative about the exploitation of these brothers, but it's really a story about bigger concepts like love.
The circus sideshow may have been the wow factor, the hook into a great yarn, but this is really a book about historic erasure, and how one family's story was systematically quashed by white-run institutions. The heart of Truevine is about the travails of two strong black women who agitate to get justice for their family. Not just Harriet, the mother, but also her great-granddaughter Nancy, who sued the largest corporation in town when Willie Muse was mistreated later in life. Nancy had grown up being mocked and made fun of because of her uncles by people, black and white, and she long ago developed a façade of toughness. Her relatives lovingly call her the Warden. After 25 years, she finally let me tell this story not so much for her family's sake, but because she believes people need to learn to embrace each other's differences. Also, because she believed her Uncle Willie—who was never interviewed—deserved, for once, to have the final word.