Zip the Pinhead
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Zip the Pinhead
William Henry Johnson
|Occupation||Freak show performer|
|Known for||performer with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey sideshows, entertainer at Coney Island|
William Henry Johnson was born one of six children to a very poor African-American family. His parents were William and Mahalia Johnson, former slaves. As he grew, his body developed normally but his head remained small. His tapering cranium and heavy jaw made him attractive to agents from van Emburgh's Circus in Somerville, New Jersey. His unusual appearance caused many to believe that he was a "pinhead", or microcephalic. Microcephaly patients are characterized by a small, tapering cranium and often have impaired mental faculty. It is arguable, however, that William Henry was mentally deficient.
William Henry's parents agreed to allow the circus to display him in return for money. He was billed as a missing link, supposedly caught in Africa and displayed in a cage. He was a popular attraction, and his success led young William Henry's agent to show his charge to showman P.T. Barnum.
Barnum purchased the right to display William Henry Johnson from the circus and gave him a new look. A furry suit was made to fit him, and his hair was shaped to a tiny point that further accented his sloping brow. Finally, he was given the name, "Zip the Pinhead", the "What-Is-It?"
As Zip the Pinhead
Zip's early performances were set against a background story. It was told to the audience that a tribe of "missing links" had been discovered in Africa, and that Zip was one of these. It was further explained that the "wild man", the "What-Is-It", subsisted on raw meat, nuts, and fruit, but was learning to eat more civilized fare such as bread and cake.
Zip would then be revealed in a cage where he could rattle the bars and screech. This act was tremendously successful for Barnum, and Zip was as big an attraction to his American Museum as the famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker.
In later years, Zip became more "civilized" in his act. He shared the stage with other anomalies, including his friends Jim Tarver, the Texas Giant; Jack Earle, the Tallest Man in the World; Koo-Koo the Bird Girl and many others. Zip also traveled extensively with the Ringling Brothers circus.
Zip drew the attention of important figures of the time. In 1860, he was visited at the museum by Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales; his photo was taken by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
Throughout this period, Zip's best friend and manager was Captain O.K. White. White conscientiously looked after Zip's interests. He also gave Zip one of his prized possessions, a tuxedo. He would wear the tuxedo on special occasions such as birthdays.
One of his other possessions was a fiddle. It was said that he purchased the fiddle in Kentucky and that it had once belonged to Daniel Boone. Zip was most unskillful with the instrument, but it is reported that audiences loved seeing Zip play his fiddle and dance about with it.
In his later years, Zip eschewed traveling in favor of performing at Coney Island. One Sunday afternoon in 1925, Zip heard a little girl cry for help. He noticed the girl waving her arms in the ocean and swam out to rescue her.
Zip caught bronchitis in early 1926, and despite the wishes of his doctor and Captain White, he continued to perform his part in the stage play Sunny at the New Amsterdam Theater. Upon the closing of the play, he returned to his home in Bound Brook, New Jersey, where he was cared for by his doctor, Captain White, and his sister. When his condition worsened, he was moved to Bellevue Hospital in New York City, where he died.
It is estimated that during his 67 years in show business, Zip entertained more than one hundred million people. He was termed "The Dean of Freaks". His funeral was attended by some of the most popular side show acts, including Jane Barnell, the Bearded Lady; Frank Graf and a tattooed man. During the ceremonies, the distraught Captain White collapsed, and he died three days later.
Zip the Pinhead was buried in Plot 399 of the Bound Brook Cemetery on April 28, 1926. A small gravestone bearing the inscription "William H. Johnson, 1857–1926" marks his resting place. However, his age as written on his burial certificate is 83 years, which would have meant he was born in 1842 or 1843, which seems more likely considering his 1860 photograph; 1857 is more likely the year he began his career.
Zippy the Pinhead Comic
Johnson is partly the inspiration for Bill Griffith's comics character, Zippy the Pinhead. He was featured in the "Freak Show Tech" episode of the History Channel series Wild West Tech. Although Johnson was not the first pinhead in the American circus sideshows, his costumes and presentation led to the display of several other microcephalic people to the American public.
William Henry Johnson may not have been microcephalic; he may have merely had an odd-shaped head. Additionally, he possibly did not suffer the mental retardation that microcephalic people often suffer. There has been some interest in ascertaining Zip's actual mental capacity.
William Henry's sister, Sarah van Duyne, claimed in a 1926 interview that her brother would "converse like the average person, and with fair reasoning power".
According to the interview with his sister, Zip's last words to her were "Well, we fooled 'em for a long time, didn't we?"
- Fuller, Randall (2017). The book that changed America: how Darwin's theory of evolution ignited a nation. New York: Viking. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-5254-2833-6.
- Hornberger, Francine (2005). Carny Folk: The World's Weirdest Sideshow Acts. New York: Citadel Press. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-8065-2661-4.
- Racial profiling | The San Diego Union-Tribune
- Zip Rescues Drowning Girl | Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 29, 1925
- Colin Campbell (director), David Carradine (host) (21 December 2004). "Wild West Tech" Freak Show Tech. History Channel productions.
- Mateen FJ, Boes CJ (2010). "'Pinheads': the exhibition of neurologic disorders at 'The Greatest Show on Earth'". Neurology. 75 (22): 2028–32. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181ff9636. PMID 21115959.