Obit of the Day (Historical): “Zip the Pinhead” (1926)
William Henry Johnson was born in 1842 in southern New Jersey. The son of former slaves, Mr. Johnson was born with a head was noticibly small and oblong, appearing to come to a point at the top. Called a “pinhead”* his parents allowed the local circus to exhibit the boy in exchange for money which Mr. Johnson’s family desperately needed.
Discovered by P.T. Barnum in this local “freak show,” he hired Mr. Johnson and re-named him “Zip the Pinhead.” He had Mr. Johnson dress in a gorilla suit and marketed him as a “The Missing Link” and “The Monkey Man.” Mr. Johnson earned in excess of $100 per week to act like a gorilla, screaming and throwing himself around a cage at terrified passers-by. (Decades later Mr. Johnson arrived at the Scope Monkey Trial in Tennessee claiming to be evidence of evolution.)
When famed author Charles Dickens saw Mr. Johnson’s “act” in 1867 he was so taken aback that he turned to Barnum and asked “What is it?” Barnum immediately began using it as an advertising slogan for Mr. Johnson’s act.
Mr. Johnson became the premiere “pinhead” attraction in the nation and this fame allowed him to tone down his “savage” behavior on stage. He eventually ended up in a side show on Coney Island where he lived with his manager, Captain O.K. White. Captain White also took care of Mr. Johnson’s financial well-being, making the performer a wealthy man who owned several homes.
In 1925, at the age of 83, while working Mr. Johnson saw a young woman in the ocean off of Coney Island waving her arms. He did not hesitate, jumped into the water, and saved the woman from drowning.
Mr. Johnson, known as the “Dean of Freaks” as he aged, died in 1926 from complications due to bronchitis, unrelated to the rescue. Hundreds of circus performers attended his funeral and Captain White was so grieved that he collapsed during the ceremony and died three days later.
William Henry Johnson is buried in Bound Brook Cemetery in Bound Brook, NJ.
(Cabinet card showing “Zip the Pinhead,” aka William Henry Johnson, in his gorilla suit, circa 1860-1880 is courtesy of www.sideshowworld.com)
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries circus freak shows were popular forms from entertainment for the general public. Here are other men and women who became became famous due to their physical deformities: