The Muse Brothers: How Two Kidnapped Albino African-American Brothers Became Unwilling Circus Stars

At the beginning of the 20th century, a captivating but heartbreaking story emerged, centering on two albino African-American brothers, George and Willie Mews.

His life took a dramatic turn when he was plucked from a Virginia farm and thrust into the bright lights of the circus world. Their story is one of exclusivity, exploitation and ultimately liberation.

George and Willie Mews, the eldest of five siblings, were born Harriet Mews in the small community of Truevine on the outskirts of Roanoke, Virginia.

Born with albinism, a genetic condition that gave him pale skin, gray hair and striking blue eyes, he had characteristics that set him apart from his peers.

In addition to albinism, both boys also had nystagmus, a common phenomenon with albinism that affected their vision.

His struggle with photosensitivity began so early that by the ages of six and nine, he already had permanent wrinkles on his forehead.

Like their neighbors, the Muse family depended on sharecropping tobacco cultivation for their livelihood.

Boys were expected to contribute to protecting tobacco plants from pests, a task that involved eliminating potential threats before they could damage the precious crop.

Although Harriet Mews cared for her sons as best she could, their lives were fraught with grueling physical labor and the threat of racial violence.

Being black children with albinism made the Muse brothers even more vulnerable to discrimination and abuse.

In 1899, six-year-old George and his nine-year-old brother Willie come to the attention of an "eccentric hunter" named James Herman "Candy" Shelton.

Shelton was looking for attractions that could match the popularity of famous acts, such as the twins from Thailand, known as Chang and Ang, or the dwarf brothers from Ohio, who were famously portrayed by circus showman PT Barnum. Named Wild Men of Borneo.

According to Beth Massey, author of "Truvine", it has been suggested that the Mews family initially agreed to let the albino brothers participate in some performances with Shelton's circus when they visited Truevine in 1914.

However, it has been alleged that Shelton took a different path and kidnapped the brothers when his circus went out of town.

The popular story prevalent in Truewine was that the brothers were out in the fields one day in 1899 when Shelton lured them with candy and kidnapped them.

In the early 20th century, circuses played an important role as entertainment throughout America.

As well as the main circus acts, side shows featuring unique talents such as "funny shows" and sword swallowing were also held on roadsides throughout the country.

In this era, Candy Shelton recognized an opportunity. At a time when disabilities were often exploited for public curiosity and black individuals faced systemic discrimination, Shelton saw the potential for substantial gains in the young Muse brothers.

From their introduction to the circuit until 1917, the Muse brothers (now known as Echo and Echo) were under the management of Charles Eastman and Robert Stokes.

They were promoted under various names, including "Eastman's Monkey Men," "Ethiopian Monkey Men," and "Ministers from Dahomey."

During this time the Muse brothers did not have the opportunity to go to school or learn to read, and they were not paid for their work. To prevent him from going back home, he was even told that his mother had died.

One day, a circus photographer gave him a banjo and a guitar and asked him to pose with these instruments for a photo.

At first, their manager thought it was a joke because he did not believe the brothers could play any music.

But it turned out that George and Willie had a special talent – they could teach themselves to play almost any tune.

Although George was just three years older, he became Willie's guardian and spoke for both of them. George did most of the talking, while Willie expressed himself primarily through music.

During the First World War, he found solace in a popular song called "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", a song about being homesick.

As the years passed, there were some dramatic changes in the brothers' appearance. They were dressed in attractive outfits, and their hair was styled into unique dreadlocks that looked like fireworks bursting from their heads.

Large banners called him the "Ambassador of Mars" and the "Sheep-headed Man".

Accompanying these titles were imaginative stories about their origins, ranging from being found on a boat near Madagascar to their discovery in the Mojave Desert.

As showman Al G. Barnes recalled in his 1936 memoir: “There was a story to the effect that the boys were members of a colony of sheep-headed people living on an island in the South Sea; That they were captured after several hair-raising escapes, and were the only specimens to survive in captivity. The boys had a very low level of intelligence, and the press-agent's story fitted them perfectly."

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