ZIP THE PINHEAD - What is it?

A pinhead is a person born with a condition known as microcephaly. It is a neurological disorder and is characterized by a smaller than average head. Biologically, during conception the head fails to grow in time with the face – which continues to develop at a normal rate; this produces a person with a small head and a receding forehead. As the individual grows older, the smallness of the skull becomes more obvious, although the entire body also is often underweight and dwarfed. It is very common that the development of motor functions and speech are also usually delayed and mental retardation is common in persons with microcephaly. The term Microcephaly is really a blanket term for many similar disorders. It may be congenital or the result of various syndromes associated with chromosomal abnormalities.What is known is that pinheads have always been a very popular draw.

Most pinheads are shorter than average and have a very distinct appearance thus, during the early years of sideshow, many pinheads were exhibited as a variant species – The Missing Link or ‘The Last of the Aztecs’ were common monikers. There was one individual during the Golden Age of sideshow who was simply considered indescribable.Those who looked upon Zip the Pinhead simply had to exclaim, ‘What is it?’

Born in 1842 as William Henry Johnson, Zip was technically a pinhead – however his condition was not nearly as pronounced as many of the other pinhead performers. However he enjoyed an incredibly long and profitable career and over those many years he was known by many names. At various stages in his career he was ‘The Monkey Man’ or ‘The Man-Monkey’. He was also known as ‘The Missing Link’, the ‘What is it?’ and Zip the Pinhead.

While William was actually born in New Jersey, those who saw him on stage would swear that he was from another planet. When P. T. Barnum recruited him in 1860 and transformed him into Zip Barnum shaved William’s head –except for a small tuft on the top of his head – and dressed him in a bizarre fur suit and then pitched Zip as a missing link.Barnum claimed that zip was ‘found during a gorilla-hunting expedition near the Gambia River in western Africa’ and he also claimed that Zip was the member of a ‘naked race of men, traveling about by climbing on tree branches’.

Zip dove into his character.He would never speak during a performance and would only grunt when addressed or questioned. Legend actually has it that Barnum paid Zip a dollar every day to keep quiet and in character. By all accounts Zip earned that dollar by acting like a complete and total madman.

Charles Dickens visited and attended a performance by Zip in 1867 as a personal guest of P. T. Barnum.As he watched Zip on stage behaving like a lunatic – with his pointed head a hair suit – Charles learned into Barnum and asked quite seriously, ‘Barnum, what is it?’. Barnum was ecstatic at this reaction and repeated the ‘What is it’ phrase on posters, pamphlets and billboards so extensively that for a time many people thought the character William portrayed was actually named ‘What is it’, and not Zip at all. Regardless of the confusion, Zip became Barnum’s most consistent draw and due to that position Zip became one of the better paid performers – $100 a week in addition to that $1 a day ‘hush money’.

Zip outlasted Barnum’s solo ventures and continued to work with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey shows. He was often featured at Coney Island and in dime museums across the U.S. William’s character gradually evolved considerably from the Wildman persona and into more of a comedy act. Zip would carry around a pop gun a fired it off at other performers who threatened his popularity and he later took to playing a violin enthusiastically and so poorly that patrons would pay him to stop. It was also during this time that Zip assumed another nickname – he was known as ‘The Playful Pinhead’. During this time he was very well know for his comedic behavior.When patrons tossed coins onto the stage – as was common at the time – Zip would scurry about and toss the coins back, as if insulted by having someone throw something at him.As a publicity stunt, he came forward during the Scope monkey trial of 1925 and offered himself as evidence.

As he became older and a senior member of the sideshow community Zip became known as the ‘Dean of Freaks’ and he continued to perform into his 80’s until he passed on April 24, 1926 of bronchitis. His funeral was attended by hundreds of fellow performers as he was loved and respected by his peers. The funeral home on that day was filled to capacity with his fellow freak performers – all paying their last respects to the greatest marvel of the era. The funeral must have been quite the sight as mourners included giants like Jim Tarver, the Texas Giant and Jack Earle, the Tallest Man in the World and Fat Lady’s, like Jolly Irene, who required entire pews just to be seated. Other marvelous mourners were not as easily identifiable as Frank Graf, The Tattooed Man wore a modest suit and Joe Kramer, the man with the rubber neck, stood facing forward for a change. Many other human marvels attended the service – from swordswallowers to midgets- and all of them had known Zip for many years.

But there is a lot of speculation as to how well anyone knew Zip. There are a number of questions in regards to the true level of intelligence. Most pinheads suffer from serious mental retardation. However, many of the things Zip did during his lifetime hints that he was highly intelligent. First, and perhaps most convincingly, he maintained his public character 24 hours a day for 66 years. In 1925, Zip became a real hero as he saved the life of a drowning woman during a break from a Coney Island Dime Museum.

His manager through much of his career, Captain O. K. White, helped him save money and Zip died a wealthy man. He owned several houses –one bought and paid for as a gift from Barnum. He left his fortune to his beloved sister and died a famous icon that continues to live on. His manager Captain White claimed he never saw Zip unhappy except when he wasn’t on tour. ‘He amuses the crowd and the crowd amuses him,’ White once said.

Finally, rumor has it that on his deathbed, his final words to his sister were, ‘Well, we fooled ‘em for a long time’.

Zip the Pinhead, William Henry Johnson, was buried in Plot 399 of the Bound Brook Cemetery on April 28, 1926. A small gravestone bearing the inscription “William H. Johnson, 1857–1926” still marks his final resting place.

image: Zip, from the author’s collection.    


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Human Marvels, pinhead,

Last Update: June 27, 2024