January 14, 2008

Zip the "What Is It?"

Zip the "What-Is-It?"

I came across this old photo of Zip the "What-Is-It?" and was instantly curious.

Zip was born William Henry Johnson in Liberty Corners, New Jersey in 1842 to a very poor African-American family. His parents, William and Mahalia Johnson, were former slaves. As Zip grew up, his body developed normally, but his head remained small. His tapering cranium and heavy jaw eventually attracted the attention of agents from Van Emburgh's Circus in Somerville, NJ. With his parents' permission, they hired him.

At the circus, Zip was a very popular draw. Claimed to have been caught in Africa, he was displayed in a cage where he would rattle the bars, screech and bound about for the audience. Due to his popularity, Zip's agents were quick to show him off to P.T Barnum. Barnum, who was then the owner of Barnum's American Museum, bought the rights to display Zip and hired him to work at the museum in 1860.

Zip's stage appearance there came just months after Charles Darwin's book "Origin of the Species" was published. Barnum quickly capitalized on this, touting Zip as the "missing link." Barnum also gave him a new look. He began wearing a fur suit and his hair was styled to a tiny point that further accentuated his sloping brow. Finally, he was given the name we're all probably most familiar with..."Zip the Pinhead," the "What-Is-It?"

Apparently, Zip's nickname (the "What-Is-It?" part) came about due to author Charles Dickens. When Dickens saw Zip he asked Barnum, "What is it?" Barnum thought that would be the perfect name for Zip, and so it stuck.

Zip's unusual physical appearance caused many people to believe that he was a microcephalic or "pinhead" (microcephalics are characterized by a small, tapering cranium and impaired mental faculty), but it is quite clear that Zip was in no way mentally deficient. According to his sister, Sarah Van Duyne, he would converse like an average person, with fair reasoning power.

In Zip's later years, he became more "civilized" in his performances and would regularly share the stage with fellow prodigies, including his personal friends: Jack Earle, the Tallest Man in the World; Jim Tarver, the Texas Giant; Koo-Koo the Bird Girl, and several others. Zip also traveled extensively with the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Zip was one of Barnum's most popular performers and remained with the circus until he died of pneumonia on April 28, 1926. Zip died a wealthy man, thanks to his manager, Captain O.K White, who had helped him to invest his money. Captain O.K. White claimed that he never saw Zip unhappy, except for when he wasn't on tour or performing.

On his deathbed, with his sister at his side, Zip's final words were, "Well, we fooled 'em for a long time, didn't we?"

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