Zip the Pinhead

William Henry Johnson (ca. 1842-1926) was so revered in the show business community that in his latter years he was known as “the Dean of Freaks”. Born the son of former slaves, despite the odd shape of his head, he was likely neither retarded nor microcephalic (the condition most pinheads are born with). Around 1857 he was recruited for Van Emburgh’s Circus in Somerville, NJ. This is how he came to the attention of P.T. Barnum, who hired him for his American Museum in 1860. Johnson became one of Barnum’s most famous attractions as “Zip, the Pin Head”. Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species the year before; the whole world was talking about it. It was Barnum’s inspiration to augment the effect of Johnson’s unusual appearance by shaving his head down to a tuft at the top, put him in a fur suit, and claim that he was one of a race of such men discovered in Africa, a “missing link”, billed variously as a “wild man”, a “monkey man”, and a man-monkey”. Johnson would act the part, grunting, squealing, and so forth. (It his ability to have done so and to stay in character, among other things,  that leads modern historians to speculate that he was not retarded). In 1867, Charles Dickens visited the exhibit and famously asked “What Is It?”, and thereafter that became Zip’s tagline.

When the last iteration of the American Museum burned down, Zip toured with Barnum’s many circuses, before and after his outfit merged with Bailey and then the Ringling Bros. After this he made his base of operations Coney Island, which is where he became “the Dean of Freaks”.

He is of course the inspiration for Bill Griffith’s underground comic strip “Zippy the Pinhead”, which was my first exposure to the name, devouring it every week in the Providence New Paper in the 1980s.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


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