Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Zip the Pinhead
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, NJ. 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 clear, 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 "wild negro boy" supposedly caught in Africa and displayed in a cage. He was a popular draw and his success lead 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 afro 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 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; 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 Prince of Wales; his photo (the one pictured above) 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 unskillful with the instrument to say the least, 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, during one of his strolls on the boardwalk, Zip heard a little girl cry for help. He noticed the girl waving her arms in the ocean and swam out to rescue her. He instantly became a hero, being cheered by all who witnessed, but shyly ran away from the attention of being a good samaritan.
He took seriously ill in early 1926. He had bronchitis and despite the wishes of his doctor and Captain White he continued to perform in a stage play in which he had a part. Upon the closing of the play he returned to his home in Bound Brook, NJ, 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 passed away.
It is estimated that during his astonishing 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 Madame Olga , the Bearded Lady; Frank Graf , the tattooed man; and many more. During the ceremonies the distraught Capt. White collapsed. He died three days later.
How smart was Zip?
William Henry Johnson was not a true microcephalic; he merely had an oddly-shaped head. He therefore 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," when he came to visit her.
An example often given of Zip's intelligence is this anecdote: Zip had picked up the habit of smoking cigars from John Ringling North, proprietor of the circus. However, his cigars had to be the same expensive brand that North smoked, or Zip wouldn't perform.
Zip's fiddle-playing was so awful that his fellow performers and some audience members would pay him not to play. In this way, it is believed that Zip earned $14,000 in only six years – a staggering US $140,000 in 2002 dollars. Could Zip have purposefully annoyed his fellow prodigies and unappreciative audience members to earn extra cash? (Zip's money was invested by Capt. White in several ventures, including a chicken farm in Nutley, NJ.)
Finally, Zip's last words were to his sister, Mrs. Van Duyne. He is quoted as saying, "Well, we fooled 'em for a long time!"
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