William Henry Johnson, aka 'Zip the Pinhead' Begins Performing at Barnum's American Museum
William Henry Johnson was born to a very poor African-American family.
His parents were William and Mahalia Johnson, former slaves. As he grew his body developed normally but his head remained small. His tapering cranium and heavy jaw made him attractive to agents from van Emburgh's Circus in Somerville, New Jersey. His unusual appearance caused many to believe that he was a "pinhead", or microcephalic. Microcephalics are characterized by a small, tapering cranium and impaired mental faculty. It is arguable, however, that William Henry was not mentally deficient.
William Henry's parents agreed to allow the circus to display him in return for money. He was billed as a missing link supposedly caught in Africa and displayed in a cage. He was a popular draw and his success led young William Henry's agent to show his charge to P.T. Barnum.
Barnum purchased the right to display William Henry Johnson from the circus and gave him a new look. A furry suit was made to fit him, and his hair was shaped to a tiny point that further accented his sloping brow. Finally, he was given the name, "Zip the Pinhead," the "What-Is-It?"
Zip's early performances were set against a background story. It was told to the audience that a tribe of "missing links" had been discovered in Africa, and that Zip was one of these. It was further explained that the "wild man", the "What-Is-It", subsisted on raw meat, nuts, and fruit, but was learning to eat more civilized fare such as bread and cake.
Zip would then be revealed in a cage where he could rattle the bars and screech. This act was tremendously successful for Barnum, and Zip was as big a draw to his American Museum as the famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker.
In later years Zip became more "civilized" in his act. He shared the stage with other prodigies, including his friends Jim Tarver, the Texas Giant; Jack Earle, the Tallest Man in the World; Koo-Koo the Bird Girl and many others. Zip also traveled extensively with the Ringling Brothers circus.
Zip drew the attention of important figures of the time. In 1860 he was visited at the Museum by the Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales; his photo (the one pictured above) was taken by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.