Friday, April 9, 2010

Deathday: Zip the Pinhead, Freak Show Performer

Zip the Pinhead, born William Henry Johnson (1842/1843 in Liberty Corner, New Jersey – April 9, 1926 in New York City, New York), was an American freak show performer famous for his oddly tapered head.

Early life

William Henry Johnson was born 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. Microcephalics are characterized by a small, tapering cranium and impaired mental faculty. It is arguable, however, that William Henry was not 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 draw and his success led young William Henry's agent to show his charge to 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?"[1]

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 a draw 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 prodigies, 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 the Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales; his photo (the one pictured above) was taken by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.[2]

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 displaying himself 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. All who witnessed cheered his valor, but he left the scene to avoid their accolades.

Zip caught bronchitis in early 1926, and despite the wishes of his doctor and Captain White he continued to perform his part in a stage play. 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 the greatest side show acts of the days, including Lady Olga Roderick, the Bearded Lady; Frank Graf, the tattooed man; and many more. During the ceremonies the distraught Captain White collapsed. He died three days later.

Although there seem to be discrepancies on the certificate concerning age and date of death; Zip the Pinhead, William Henry Johnson, was buried in Plot 399 of the Bound Brook Cemetery on April 26 1926. A small gravestone bearing the inscription "William H. Johnson, 1857–1926" marks his resting place. However, it is written on Zip's burial certificate that Zip was 83 years old,[3] 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.

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.

Mental capacity

William Henry Johnson may not have been a true microcephalic; he may have merely had an oddly-shaped head. Additionally, he possibly did not suffer the mental retardation that microcephalics 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."

Zip's last words were to his sister, Mrs. van Duyne. He is quoted as saying, "Well, we fooled 'em for a long time, didn't we?"[4]


1.^ Hornberger, Francine (2005). Carny Folk: The World's Weirdest Sideshow Acts. New York: Citadel Press. pp. 122. ISBN 978-0-80652-661-4.
2.^ Racial profiling The San Diego Union-Tribune
3.^ Burial Certificate
4.^ History Channel documentary: Wild West Tech

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