“Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest…” by Beth Macy. Little, Brown, 2016, 420 pages.
Running away to join the circus implies a certain carefree existence, but being kidnapped to perform in a circus sideshow casts the experience in an entirely different light. African-American albino brothers George and Willie Muse, who hailed from a poor rural sharecropper enclave called Truevine in southwest Virginia, were said to be the victims of just such a scheme.
Between about 1914 and 1950, the two brothers travelled with roaming tent circuses as sideshow freaks spending years on the road performing as Eko & Iko, the sheepheaded brothers or as the two musical “Ambassadors from Mars”. During much of this time, their mother and extended family were living in poverty outside Roanoke, Virginia with no idea of the whereabouts and safety of their relatives.
The two young men were valued by the circus for their golden dreadlocks, pale skin, colorless eyes, and outlandish appearance. They came under the influence of a series of circus impresarios and hucksters who served as managers and pocketed any legitimate earnings from the pair. For a long period of time, their mother maintained that they were lured from the tobacco fields as pre-teens with the offer of candy from strangers.
As “Truevine” unfolds, it becomes evident that their desperate mother, an illiterate black washerwoman, may have initially agreed to their circus travel in order to gain income and then become concerned when she lost track of the pair after they switched sideshows and managers. The Muse brothers would often perform alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, midgets, giants, fat women, tattooed men, people with microcephalic heads (pinheads), and even some genuine aboriginal tribesmen who had been recruited by the Ringling Brothers organization.
In the circus off-season, the Muse brothers found themselves on exhibit in what were called “dime museums”. These museums purported to show the public “wonders of the world” in the tradition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Contrary to the assertion that the two brothers were essentially simple-minded, it’s believed that George and Willie Muse actually became very talented self-taught claw-hammer banjo and string-band type musicians in their down-time while traveling and between shows.
As a biography of the Muse brothers, Truevine recounts how journalist Beth Macy traced the story of George and Willie Muse via living relatives, circus memorabilia from collectors, and by the legal documents generated when their mother Harriet Muse tried to sue the circus for a settlement and back wages. The last remaining brother, Willie, died in 2001 at the age of 108 years. At the time he was being cared for by a grandniece who was the proprietor of a local restaurant and fiercely protective of her elderly uncle.
Pictures throughout the text illustrate the hardscrabble poverty of rural black communities of the era, the poor state of racial relations in the segregated South, and the various human oddities that were the Muse brothers’ fellow sideshow freaks. Truevine is fascinating as both a circus history, the story of a mother’s crusade for justice, and as a window into the entertainment preferences of a bygone era before mass media when the public had a thirst for the exotic.
If you’ve ever read anything about Chang and Eng, the Thai-born Siamese twins who settled in North Carolina, this book is well-researched and compares favorably with their story.
Lisa Kobrin is Reference and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 229-3588.