The Fascinatingly Disturbing Life of the Muse Brothers: Paramount Vying to Tell...

The Fascinatingly Disturbing Life of the Muse Brothers: Paramount Vying to Tell Their Story

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The lives of George and Willie Muse remain one of the thousands of disturbing tales hidden deep within American Black History; however Paramount is vying to get their hands on the life story of these two brothers. In another heartbreaking American tale of blacks living in the era of Jim Crow, the Muse Brothers are a testament to strength and overcoming adversity during a time when all hope seemed lost.

Here are some fascinatingly disturbing facts about the life story of George and Willie Muse:


In 1899, the boys were about 6 and 9 years old when they never returned home.  There are two versions of the story on how the boys were taken from their homes.  One version stated they were simply abducted and told their mother had died.  The brothers have confirmed that they had been informed their mother was dead, but that they never believed it and knew they would see her again one day.   Another version stated that their mother, Harriet Muse, had put them to work in the circus with the expectation that they would be returned to her. When she sent for them, they were traveling the world with the Circus and she spent decades trying to get them back.  The descendants of the Muse brothers have never accepted or confirmed that their mother made the boys work with the Circus as children.


Some of the show names the brothers were called are: “Eko and Iko, The Sheep-headed Cannibals”, “Two Ecuadorean White Savages”, and “Ambassadors from Mars”.  They were also described as brothers who “descended from monkeys in the dark continent with Neanderthal heads, caveman bodies and tremendous shocks of hair that stand out on their heads like the wigs on Raggedy Ann dolls”.  Other show names included, “Eastman’s Monkey Men” and “Darwin’s Missing Links”.


The brothers were not paid for their appearances in the circus, even though they were one of the more popular acts being featured.  At one point, they were given instruments as some sort of prop in their performances; the instruments were meant to be used as a joke.  It turned out that even though the brothers could not read, they could play their banjos by ear, and would play these instruments during their circus features.


Harriet Muse was able to get her boys back because she never gave up looking for them.  The Greatest Show on Earth, Barnum and Bailey came to Roanoke Virginia in 1927.  At the time, their mother could not read, but had heard the circus had come to town.  Some accounts say she dreamed her boys were in the circus, some say she was told they were a part of the circus.  Either way, she went to go get her boys who would have been in their 30s during this time. According to some accounts, she made her way to the front of the audience and in an interview with NPR, writer Beth Macy states, “scene that’s been recounted for four generations now, Willie, the older brother, sees her, elbows George and says, look, there’s our dear old mother. She is not dead.”


After being missing for decades, the Muse Brothers were finally able to go home with their mother; however the conditions in Virginia were said to be worse than they were on the road with the circus.  Meanwhile, their mother found a young, white lawyer and filed a lawsuit against the Greatest Show on Earth for back wages for her two sons, and won. Unfortunately, details are sketchy, but some stories claim their stepfather may have ran off with a large portion of the money.  Writer Beth Macy even claims their stepfather may have purchased a car, which was very odd for a black person to have during these times.  You can even see the sadness in the face of the brothers in this picture, taken after they had returned home with their mother.  It was obvious they were having a difficult time adapting to life outside the circus.


The brothers decided they would return to the circus, but under different circumstances.  This time, they would be paid. Sources claim the brothers were happy because they were back doing the only thing they knew how to do – entertain. In 1928, they were the season openers of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey at Madison Square Garden where they opened every year thereafter.  The headline in The New York Times was “Eko and Iko are happy” – the NY Times article makes no mention of their hard times, slavery, kidnapping or the lawsuit.  None of this mattered because they men were back doing what they enjoyed, with the permission of their mother, and the ability to go back and visit her when they could.  The brothers performed across the world, including a performance for the Queen of England.

Because of their albinism, the brothers were nearly blind by their middle ages.  They retired from the circus in 1961. George died in 1972 and Willie lived to be 108 years old, passing in 2001.


It wasn’t easy for writer, Beth Macy to get the full story of the brothers’ lives from the older brother Willie.  His caretakers, which consisted of nieces and grand nieces, were very protective of him.  From an interview with NPR, Macy recounts one of her first encounters with the brother’s grandniece, Nancy Saunders:

“She wouldn’t let me interview him. She said I’ll probably let you write a story about him after he’s died. She said he’s resting. He’s been exploited his whole life, and he needs to be in peace. And so, no, I’m not going to let you tell the story. And she says the first time I sauntered in, sort of demanding an interview – I don’t remember it quite that way – but I’m sure I went in, and I was trying to be charming and trying to talk her into letting me tell the story about her famous great uncles. She pointed to a sign on the wall that a customer had given her, and the sign said sit down and shut up. And she meant it.”

Later on, Beth Macy and Nancy Saunders went to become close friends.


The story of the Muse Brothers being kidnapped and taken to perform for the circus is not a new one.  There are many stories of young Africans and Americans who have been kidnapped and forced to work with the circus, including:

Ota Benga, in 1904 a he was taken from Africa and brought to the Saint Louis Missouri for display at the World’s Fair as evidence of an inferior species. At the end of the World’s Fair, he ended up at the New York City Bronx Zoo housed with primates and displayed again with Monkeys as the “missing link” between human and apes. In their eyes, here was Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Sarah Baartman, who researchers believe was born in the 1770s, became known as Hottentot Venus.  Sarah was from the East Cape South Africa region.  Due to her large buttocks, which were normal for women of her region, she was taken and displayed as a freak-show exhibit in the early 1800s.  Not only was she sold and traded among animal traders, but she was subjected to horrible scientific exploration.  Researchers said she died around the age of 26, most likely from smallpox, syphilis, or pneumonia.


Paramount Pictures and Leonardo DiCaprio’s are vying to obtain screen rights to the Beth Macy’s book.  Rumors are the DiCaprio is planning on starring in the film.  No word on who he will play, but many believe he will play the roll of the man that kidnapped the brothers.

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