The tale of George and Willie Muse, albino brothers living in the rural South during the late 1800s, is stirring.
According to accounts, the brothers were living in Truevine, Va., when they were kidnapped as boys, sold off to a local carnival sideshow and paraded around the country. The Muse brothers were a rarity: Black albinos would be a lucrative attraction for a carnival with a so-called “human oddities” segment. According to a report by The Roanoke Times, the brothers were tricked by a bounty hunter working for a sideshow promoter and taken away from their mother. The man told the brothers that their mother was dead.
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In the circus, the dreadlocked brothers were first said to hail from “a colony of sheep-headed people.” The brothers, who had innate musical talent and could copy any tune they heard, learned to play guitar and mandolin, which became a feature of their act. Showman Al G. Barnes then promoted them as White Ecuadorian cannibals. The Muse brothers traveled with Barnes all across the country and into Canada. Amazingly, they were never paid for their work and it was rumored they were sold among other promoters like slaves.
Lew Graham, a manager for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, marketed them as Eko and Iko, the “Ambassadors from Mars” discovered by spaceship wreckage in California’s Mojave Desert. The brothers donned stylish tuxedos and hats thus earning the fancy title. The name would remain with them until they retired.
In 1927, the brothers were reunited with their mother, Harriet. The Ringling circus came to Roanoke where she had relocated and Mrs. Muse tracked down her boys. The reunion was bittersweet, however, as she couldn’t keep her sons from returning to the circus. Mrs. Muse continued to fight for her sons and their freedom, enlisting the help of a local attorney to sue Ringling for back pay and for keeping the brothers in bondage.
Ultimately the lawyer won a settlement for the Muse brothers and from then on they were paid by the circus.
Missing the road, the Muse brothers rejoined Ringling and were ultimately able to earn enough money to buy their mother a home. Mrs. Muse died in 1943.
The Muse brothers continued traveling the world, even performing for the Queen of England. They never married, retiring in 1961 and living the rest of their lives in Roanoke, Va.
George, the eldest of the brothers, died in 1971. Willie lived until the age of 108, passing in 2001.
PHOTO: Public Domain
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