Zip The Pinhead, alias William Henry Johnson, was born to impoverished and newly freed African-American slaves in New Jersey. In the late 1850's, when he was a teenager, a traveling circus pulled through town. They noticed his oddly-shaped head and speculated "we could build an act around this". Soon he was in the sideshow wearing a fur suit, acting batshit crazy by throwing himself around a steel cage and speaking only in grunts. Darwin's Origin of the Species had just been published, and the resulting media furor was capitalized upon with Zip's promotion; He was a missing link, discovered in the Congo. Charles Dickens, upon witnessing him, exclaimed "What is it?" This caught on, and Zip was called the What-Is-It for the rest of his long, lucrative career.

His two mainstays were the American Museum (covered in last week's mermaid post) and Coney Island, where he allegedly rescued a girl from drowning while between acts. He performed for 67 years and is estimated to have personally entertained one hundred million people. Amazingly, he also stepped forward at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 to present himself as an evolutionary mutation, "proof" of Darwin's theories.

But these days, Zip would not be classified as anything more than an unusual looking guy. He was definitely not a real pinhead (microcephalic), a general term which is manifest by chromosomal aberration and most commonly includes traits like mental retardation and dwarfism ('Beetlejuice', a recurring and cruelly exploited guest on the Howard Stern show, would have to be the most famous contemporary pinhead). He seemed to possess, at the very least, an average intelligence. He was certainly a shrewd businessman; his lifetime income would translate into millions of today's dollars.

He died of bronchitis complications at 83, within days of his last performance. He's buried at the Bound Brook Cemetery in New Jersey under his birthname.

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