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Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South
By Beth Macy
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The year was 1899 and the place a sweltering tobacco farm in the Jim Crow South town of Truevine, Virginia. George and Willie Muse were two little boys born to a sharecropper family. One day a white man offered them a piece of candy, setting off events that would take them around the world and change their lives forever.
Captured into the circus, the Muse brothers performed for royalty at Buckingham Palace and headlined over a dozen sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. They were global superstars in a pre-broadcast era. But the very root of their success was in the color of their skin and in the outrageous caricatures they were forced to assume: supposed cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even “Ambassadors from Mars.” Back home, their mother never accepted that they were “gone” and spent 28 years trying to get them back.
Through hundreds of interviews and decades of research, Beth Macy expertly explores a central and difficult question: Where were the brothers better off? On the world stage as stars or in poverty at home? Truevine is a compelling narrative rich in historical detail and rife with implications to race relations today.
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I Am the True Vine
Their world was so blindingly white that the brothers had to squint to keep from crying. On a clear day, it hurt just to open their eyes. They blinked constantly, trying to make out the hazy objects in front of them, their brows furrowed and their eyes darting from side to side, unable to settle on a focal point. Their eyes were tinged with pink, their irises a watery pale blue.
Their skin was so delicate that it was possible, looking only at the backs of their hands, to mistake the young African-American brothers for the kind of white landed gentry who didn't have to eke out a living hoeing crabgrass from stony rows of tobacco or suckering the leaves from the stems.
That was as true when they were old men as when they were little boys, back when a white man appeared in Truevine, Virginia, as their neighbors and relatives remembered it—that very bad man, they called him.
Back when everything they knew disappeared behind them in a cloud of red-clay dust.
The year was 1899, as the old people told the story, then and now; the place a sweltering tobacco farm in the Jim Crow South, a remote spot in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains where everyone they knew was either a former slave, or a child or grandchild of slaves. George and Willie Muse were just nine and six years old, but they worked a shift known by sharecroppers as "can see to can't see"—daylight to dark. "Can to can't," for short.
Twenty miles away and twenty-seven years earlier, a man born into slavery named Booker T. Washington had walked four hundred miles from the mountains to the swampy plains, to get himself educated at Hampton Institute. "It was a whole race trying to go to school," he would write.
Forty miles in the other direction, another former slave, named Lucy Addison, had gotten herself educated at a Quaker college in Philadelphia. In 1886, Addison landed in the railroad boomtown of Roanoke, Virginia, where she set up the city's first school for blacks in a two-story frame building with long benches and crude desks, using hand-me-down books from the city's white schools. She became such an icon of education that some elderly African Americans still have her faded portrait hanging on their walls, right next to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama. Addison inspired Ed Dudley, a dentist's son who would become President Truman's ambassador to Liberia. She taught future lawyer Oliver Hill, who would grow up to help overturn the separate-but-equal laws of the day in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education.
But such leaps were unheard of for black families in Truevine, where it would take decades before most learned to read and write. While Washington was on his way to fame and the founding of Tuskegee Institute, black children in Truevine were kept out of school when the harvest came in.
They had too much work to do.
Still, in this remote and tiny crossroads, where everyone knew everyone for generations back, George and Willie Muse were different. They were genetic anomalies: albinos born to black parents. Reared at a time when a black man could be jailed or even killed just for looking at a white woman—reckless eyeballing, the charge was officially called—the Muse brothers were doubly cursed.
Their white skin burned at the first blush of sun, and their eyes watered constantly. They squinted so much that they began to develop premature creases in their foreheads. So they looked down as they worked—they always looked down—heeding their mother's advice to never look toward the sun.
Harriett Muse was fiercely protective. She cloaked her boys in rags to keep their skin from blistering, and for the same reason she made them wear long sleeves when it was 100 degrees. When a vicious dog happened onto the tenant farm where they worked and lunged at little Willie, she chased it away with an iron skillet. She made the boys' favorite food, ash cakes, a simple corn bread baked over an open fire.
When it snowed she cobbled together a dessert called snow cream out of sugar, vanilla, eggs, and snow. When a rainbow appeared above the mountain ridges, she told them to take solace in it. "That's God's promise after the storm," she said.
She spoiled them as much as a poor sharecropper could, but George and Willie were expected to work, walking the rows of tobacco looking for bugs and picking budworms off the leaves when they found them, squashing them between their fingers as they went.
The boys were squinting, as they usually were, when the bad man appeared. What a surprise the well-heeled stranger was in this hodgepodge of dirt roads, tobacco barns, and shacks where tenants stuffed newspapers into holes in the walls to keep critters out, and the only dependable structure for miles was a white-frame meeting hall that doubled as a one-room school—a school the black community built by hand because the county provided a teacher but not a building for him to teach in.
The white man had arrived in the Virginia backwoods by horse and carriage. He cast a long shadow over the rows where the boys were crouched, working. He went by the nickname Candy, Willie Muse would later tell his family members, and he came from the Hollywood of that era: the circus.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the height of circus popularity, bounty hunters scoured the nooks and crannies of America's backwoods—and the world—looking for people they could transform into sideshow attractions: acts like Chang and Eng, the world's most famous conjoined twins, "discovered" by a British merchant in Siam (now Thailand) in 1829, or the Wild Men of Borneo, as P. T. Barnum pitched a pair of dwarf brothers to audiences in 1882—though they actually hailed from a farm in Ohio.
Somehow the man had heard about the boys—maybe from a shopkeeper in nearby Rocky Mount, the county seat. Maybe a neighbor had seen the ads that circus showmen took out in newspapers and trade publications for freak hunters, as they were called.
"WANTED—To hear from the man that grows three feet in front of your eyes.… Call DAN RICE, Sioux City, Iowa."
Maybe even a member of their own family had given the boys up.
The white man found them working, alone and unsupervised, two snow-white field hands, no more than seventy pounds and four feet tall, dressed in flour-sack clothes and turbans jerry-rigged out of rags and string. As he approached, stepping over the tobacco rows, the boys stood and nodded respectfully, as they'd been taught to do with white men.
When they removed their head coverings at his request, the man gasped. Their hair was kinky, and it was golden.
It was money in his pocket.
Harriett Muse had warned her sons about copperheads amid the tobacco rows, about wolves in the outlying fields. They knew about the perils of what scholars call peonage, the quasi-slavery in which a man could be stripped to his waist, tied to a tree, and lashed with a buggy whip—for the bold act of quitting one farmer's land to work for better wages down the road. They'd heard the adults talk about the lynch mob in Rocky Mount in 1890, the year George was born, formed to rain vigilante justice down on five blacks accused of setting a fire that had destroyed much of the uptown. Two of the five were hung in the basement of the county jail before evidence surfaced, on appeal, that arson could not be proved.
"Before God I am as innocent of that charge as an angel," Bird Woods declared as a deputy slipped the noose around his neck. He spoke his truth even as his voice began to quake:
"I bear no malice in my heart towards any one, and my soul is going straight to heaven."
In 1893, the year of Willie's birth, a riot in nearby Roanoke erupted after a white produce vendor claimed that a black furnace worker, Thomas Smith, had assaulted her near the city market. Before the next sunrise, two dozen people were wounded and nine men were dead—including Smith, who was hung from a hickory tree, then shot, then dragged through the streets. As if that wasn't enough finality to the young furnace worker's life, the next morning rioters burned his body on the banks of the Roanoke River while a crowd of four thousand looked on, some clinging to pieces of the hanging rope they'd grabbed as mementos. The only evidence linking Smith to the crime was the victim's vague description of her perpetrator: he was "tolerably black," she said, and wearing a slouch hat, a tilted wide-brimmed hat popular at the time.
A Roanoke photo studio sold pictures of Smith hanging from the rope as a souvenir. It was the eighth known lynching in southwest Virginia that year.
The region had always been a dangerous place to be black. But it had never occurred to Harriett that some far-off circus promoter would steal her boys, turn them into sideshow freaks, and, for decades, earn untold riches by enslaving them to his cause.
But by the end of that swelteringly hot day, Harriett later told people, she had felt it in her marrow—something had happened, and something was wrong. A white man in a carriage had been spotted roaming the area, she heard, and now George and Willie were gone.
In a dusty corner of Virginia's Piedmont, in a place named Truevine—where the only thing that gave Jim Crow–era blacks any semblance of hope at all was the biblical promise of a better life in the hereafter—Harriett Muse knew it for a fact. She'd already been robbed of dignified work, of monetary pay, of basic human rights, all because of the color of her skin.
Now someone had come along and taken the only thing she had left: her children.
For more than a century, that was the story Willie Muse and his relatives told. Their descendants had heard it, all of them, since the age of comprehension, then handed it down themselves, the way families do, stamping the memory with a kind of shared notarization. The story was practically seared into the Muse family DNA.
And, although it wasn't entirely accurate, not to the letter, the spirit of it certainly was.
The truth was actually far more surprising and, as it usually is, far more tangled.
Sit Down and Shut Up
The story seemed so crazy, many didn't believe it at first, black or white.
But for a century, it was whispered and handed down in the segregated black communities of Roanoke, the regional city hub about thirty miles from Truevine. Worried parents would tell their children to stick together when they left home to see a circus, festival, or fair.
A retired African-American school principal recalls, at age twelve, begging his mother to let him pick up odd jobs when a traveling circus visited town.
"They were hiring people to set up, but my mom said no. She was really serious about it," he said.
The myth of the Muse kidnapping was so embedded in the local folklore that, long before he became a social science professor, Roanoke-born Reginald Shareef remembers thinking it was bunk when his mother said to him: "Be careful, or someone will snatch you up," just as the Muse brothers had been.
But eventually an adult took him aside and told him that a circus promoter really had forced the brothers to become world-famous sideshow freaks, subjugating them for many years. And not only that, they had found their way back.
They were here. Now. Retired and hidden away in an attic of one of the houses on a segregated Roanoke city block, one of them living into the early aughts.
While adults relayed the story as a cautionary tale, kids teased each other about it. Nobody seemed to know for sure whether the Muses really lived in an attic—and the handed-down stories had key points of divergence—but the truth didn't stand in the way of a good story: the brothers were the equivalent of Boo Radley. "The story had a mystery to it and a witchery in some people's minds," another retired educator told me. And some kids weren't sure whether it was the circus they should be afraid of—or the Muses.
In the 1960s, Shareef grew up in the same segregated neighborhood as the Muses; his grandmother lived two blocks away. He ran around with the great-nephews of the Muse brothers. "They were a nice family, but the men were always getting into something," he recalled. "It's a wonder the women in that family didn't go crazy."
In 1996, Shareef published a pictorial history of Roanoke's black community and included a long-hidden photograph of the Muse brothers he'd found in the dusty archives of Roanoke's Harrison Museum of African American Culture. The caption he wrote contained errors—they weren't twins, and they weren't exactly toddlers when they were kidnapped—but the gist was correct: "Albino twins [George and Willie Muse] were stolen at age three and featured as 'freaks' for many years in the Ringling Brothers Circus."
A Muse relative saw the photo in the book and called Shareef on the phone, asking, "Where'd you get that picture?"
The family didn't like to talk about what had happened to their uncles; they'd all been taunted about it as kids.
"Your uncles eat raw meat!" classmates shouted at them on the playground. Or worse, curiosity seekers, blacks and whites, would show up on their front porch at all hours of the day and night, demanding to see George and Willie. Another albino relative, a niece, described that double curse of differentness rearing back on her. For years, she had a hard time leaving her house to go to the store.
Not long after Shareef's book came out, the Muse brothers' great-niece Nancy Saunders went to the owner of that image, Frank Ewald, who ran Roanoke's premier photo-finishing shop and gallery. A photo collector, Ewald had purchased the negatives of celebrated Roanoke street photographer George Davis, who'd taken the 1927 portrait of the brothers featured in Shareef's book. Ewald was in the process of launching a Davis photo exhibit when Nancy visited the gallery and politely said: take George and Willie out.
"She wasn't combative or threatening," Ewald recalled. "She just asked us not to exhibit them."
He didn't dare.
The first time painter and folk-art collector Brian Sieveking heard the story, he was an eight-year-old budding artist fascinated by circus sideshows. He'd seen the Muses' picture at the Circus World Museum, in Baraboo, Wisconsin, the original home of the Ringling Brothers Circus, and began drawing them in his sketchbooks next to other acts that struck his fancy, including Johnny Eck, the Amazing Half-Boy, and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins. "I got curious about the Muse brothers because you could easily understand the fat lady and the tall guy, but what exactly did these guys do?" recalled Sieveking, who is white and now a forty-nine-year-old art professor.
The summer he was twelve, his family moved from Cincinnati to a high-end subdivision outside Roanoke and enrolled him in a private school. He was lonely and bored, and took solace in a stack of decommissioned books for sale in a back room of the downtown library. There he stumbled upon a book called You and Heredity, a quasi-scientific tome on genetics published in 1939. Proponents of the eugenics movement often used sideshows as propaganda about the dangers of miscegenation and of allowing the lower classes, especially those with genetic "flaws"—and most especially African Americans with such characteristics—to breed.
In a chapter titled "Structural Defects," Sieveking was stunned to find a photograph of an unnamed George and Willie Muse with a caption describing Roanoke as their hometown. His new town!
The hobby turned into obsession. A few summers later, he was working as a grocery-store checkout clerk when the subject of the brothers came up in the break room. His coworkers were among the very few black people the teenaged Sieveking knew in Roanoke, which was, then and now, among the most housing-segregated cities in the South. They told him the Muse family lived "over in Rugby," a black neighborhood, where Willie Muse was approaching one hundred and still very much alive.
Sieveking sent word that he'd like to interview Willie, as he had done, once, with Johnny Eck. He wanted to know more about the brothers' careers, and he'd become particularly interested in the 1944 Hartford circus fire, one of the most devastating in American history (it killed 168 people). He would go on to paint a beautiful, haunting portrait of the fire—with the Muse brothers front and center. But he didn't get that interview.
"I wanted to ask Willie Muse about the fire," Sieveking recalled. "But I was told in no uncertain terms not to mess with Nancy," his primary caregiver.
As a young journalist who'd arrived in Roanoke in 1989 to write feature stories for the Roanoke Times, I took two years to muster the nerve to mess with Nancy. A newspaper photographer had told me the bones of the kidnapping story, based on rumors he'd heard growing up in Roanoke. "It's the best story in town, but no one has been able to get it," he said.
By the time I poked my head into her tiny soul-food restaurant, with the idea of writing a story about her famous great-uncles, it was very clear that all personal details were going to be closely held, trickling out in dribs and drabs—and very much on Nancy Saunders's timeline. The first time I asked if I could interview Willie Muse, she pointed to a homemade sign on the Goody Shop wall. A customer had stenciled the words in black block letters on a white painted board and given it to her as a gift.
The sign said SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP.
Willie was not now—nor would he ever be—available for comment. So, hoping to generate some goodwill for a future story on her uncles, I wrote a feature about her restaurant, a place where the menu never changes and isn't even written down. You're just supposed to know.
Legions of black Roanokers could already recite the daily specials I would eventually commit to memory: Tuesday is spaghetti or lasagna, except every other Tuesday, which is pork chops. Wednesday is fish, and Thursday country-fried steak. Friday is ribs, but you'd better come early because the ribs always sell out quickly. The line out front starts forming at noon, though lunch doesn't officially begin until 12:15 and not a minute before—and later if Nancy has to run home to check on Uncle Willie and finds him in the midst of a bad day. (His favorite special? Spaghetti Tuesday.)
For most of December, the place is closed so the Saunders women—Nancy and her mother, Dot; cousin Louise; and aunt Martha—can work on the hundreds of yeast rolls, cakes, and pies they make by advance special order for Christmas.
Among the other unwritten rules in the Goody Shop code: "Don't criticize, especially the fruitcake," I wrote. "When a novice Goody Shopper grimaced at the very mention of the jellied fruitstuff, Saunders snapped, 'I beg your pardon! You're getting ready to step on the wrong foot!'" She pointed, again, to her sign.
She also kept a painted rock on top of her cash register, a gift from her preschooler nephew, whom she helped raise. She was not above picking it up—presumably in semi-jest—should a customer offend her.
When I returned for lunch, two days after my story ran—Rib Fridays were my favorite—Nancy shook her finger at me, and it was clear I was not getting anything close to a pat on the back. Dot sat nearby peeling potatoes, watching The Young and the Restless and cringing at what she knew her daughter was about to say.
Nancy had been ready to send me packing the first time I walked in the restaurant and blithely inquired about her uncles, but softhearted Dot persuaded her to let me stay and do the restaurant feature. A Y&R fan in my youth, I'd bonded quickly with Dot over the characters and was helping peel potatoes in her kitchen before the episode was over, much to Nancy's chagrin. (Victor Newman was a scoundrel, we agreed.)
"You know what your story did?" Nancy barked. "It brought out a bunch of crazy white people, that's all!"
Paying customers, I might have added, but she was in no mood for backtalk. She walked past me without further comment. She was leaving now to feed Willie and turn him in his bed, as she often did throughout the day, leaving the Goody Shop as many as five or six times a shift.
If Nancy Saunders had her way, her great-uncles' story would have stayed buried where she thought it belonged. The first time she heard it, she was just a child, and she found the whole tale embarrassing, and painfully raw. The year was 1961, and black and white people alike wanted to know: Were the light-skinned brothers black or white? Had they really been trapped in a cage and forced to eat raw meat?
These men deserved respect, Nancy knew. They did not deserve the gawkers who came by their house at all hours, banging on the front door.
By the time I came on the scene, no one talked about savages or circus freaks in front of Nancy, a sturdy woman with a no-frills Afro, graying at the temples, whose skin was nearly as white as the chef's coat she wore to work. She baked bread every bit as good as her great-grandmother Harriett's ash cakes—and she was every bit as fierce. Even Reg Shareef, who knew the family well, had never contemplated bringing the subject up with her.
"That is one exceptionally guarded family," he told me, advising baby steps. "You have to think of them as a tribe. They fall out with each other sometimes. But if you fall out with one of them, they will come roaring back at you like an army."
It was ten more years before Nancy warmed up enough to let me cowrite a newspaper series about her uncles, and only after Willie Muse's death, in 2001. She didn't reveal much, though. She invited my fellow reporter Jen McCaffery, photographer Josh Meltzer, and me inside the Muse brothers' house exactly once.
She made reference to a family Bible that we were not permitted to view, and for years after the series ran, whenever I visited the restaurant she hinted that there was so much more to the story than we had found.
Our newspaper was the same one that had mocked her family's version of the kidnapping story decades before. It had looked the other way when city officials decimated two historic black neighborhoods in the name of midcentury progress, via urban renewal, or, as the black community called it, Negro removal. The newspaper cheered when the city knocked down hundreds of community homes and buildings, including the Muse family's Holiness church. It refused to print wedding announcements for black brides until the mid-1970s because, the wealthy white publisher reasoned, Roanoke had no black middle class.
I myself had used a pair of pregnant black teens to illustrate a story about Roanoke's super-high teen-pregnancy rate in 1993, a story that went viral before that Internet term existed and made the girls the object of ridicule; even Rush Limbaugh joined in with a rant. When the girls dropped out of school shortly after my story ran, it was devastating, including to me.
Words linger and words matter, I learned, and it's not possible to predict the fallout they can have on a subject's life.
It would take me twenty-five years, finally, to earn something nearing Nancy's trust; to convince her I wasn't one more candy peddler intent on exploiting her relatives for the color of their skin—or purely for my own financial benefit. As the literary critic Leslie Fiedler has put it, "Nobody can write about Freaks without somehow exploiting them for his own ends."
George and Willie Muse had come into her care in the 1960s, a situation Nancy considered her privilege as well as her duty, and her loyalty to them extended to everything from coordinating their retirement activities and doctor visits—restoring the love, respect, and dignity that had been stolen from them as children—to holding their story close.
By 2008, she had begun, in her inimitably gruff (and usually funny and occasionally even sweet) way, to warm toward me. When I set out to write a ten-part series on caregiving for the elderly, Nancy was the first person I called for input.
"You gotta keep it real," she said, sharing names and numbers of people who would eventually become primary sources for that project. She periodically counseled me about other career and family stresses, advising me, "You can handle this. Listen, girl, if you can get back into Dot's kitchen, you can do anything."
When I hit a snag updating the story of the pregnant teens more than twenty years after my explosive first story, it seemed fate that Shannon Huff, now a thirty-seven-year-old mother of four, lived just around the corner from Nancy's northwest Roanoke ranch house. After some angry relatives tried to bully me into not running the story—physically threatening me and demanding a meeting with my newspaper bosses—Nancy reassured me, "You don't need their permission to do the story, just like you don't really need mine to write your book. Not really, you don't."
And yet, months earlier, Nancy's permission is exactly what I sought. On the eve of publishing my first book, about a third-generation factory owner who had battled Chinese imports to save his company, I had given her an advance reading copy of Factory Man, dog-earing a chapter on race relations I'd found particularly hard to write. It detailed decades of mistreatment of black furniture-factory workers, miscegenation, and the sexual harassment of black domestic workers, who often resorted to wearing two girdles at the same time as a defense against their bosses' groping hands and outright rape.
"It's been that way down through history," Nancy said. "A friend of my mom's, she'd be vacuuming down the steps [on a housekeeping job], and the husband would be feeling her up from behind. My mom had to fill in for her one day. And so she told the man first thing, 'Don't make me open up your chest!'"
By which Dot Brown meant: with the tip of my knife.
Nancy and I had come a long way from the days of sit-down-and-shut-up.
Still, it was by no means a gimme when I called her in November 2013, asking for her blessing to pursue her uncles' story as a book. She was in her midsixties and recently retired, after closing the Goody Shop. I wanted her help delving into the family story as well as connecting with distant Muse relatives, including one albino Muse still living in Truevine.
"I'll think about it," Nancy said, and the message was clear: I was not to call back. She would call me.
More than six weeks later—oh, she enjoyed making me wait—she finally called. "I waited so I could give it to you as a present," she said.
- On Sale
- Oct 18, 2016
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Little, Brown and Company