IN SEARCH OF ZIP THE WHAT IS IT?
by Mark Sceurman
CIRCUS FREAKS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN LOOKED UPON as somewhat "show business impaired" in regards to the glitter and glamorous lifestyles shared by those of normal height and girth.
One curious little (as in head) fellow fooled many people for years as one of P.T. Barnum's star attractions. Billed as "Zip The What Is It," he was gazed upon by millions of people and touted as the survivor of a lost tribe discovered in the Amazon during the exploration of the River Gamba.
The truth is that Zip was born William Henry Johnson in Liberty Corners, NJ in 1857. He was the son of William and Mahalia Johnson, former slaves, and one of six siblings.
Zip was sub-normal from birth. His body developed, but his head was very small, and it was believed his brain never functioned properly. He was described as "having the head like the slim end of an egg, a long broad nose and a prognathous jaw." Although in later years he displayed as much common sense as anyone else, the tiny head is what attracted circus agents from the nearby Van Emburgh's Circus in Somerville to Zip's door. The circus was tipped off by the Johnson's neighbors who would frequent the traveling sideshows. They suggested someone take a look at the little-noggined Zip.
After striking an agreement with Zip's parents, who saw the opportunity to make some money, Van Emburgh added Zip to its sideshow exhibit. He instantly became the talk of the circus.
Zip's agent, seeing the success the boy was having, decided to show him to P.T. Barnum, in hopes of selling him to the world's greatest collector of human oddities.
When Barnum saw Zip, he told the agent of a similar fellow he had shown Charles Dickens the previous year. When Dickens asked, "What is it?" Barnum thought that would be a perfect name for his newly found feral human. Barnum's original "What Is It" turned out to be an English actor by the name of Harvey Leech, but Barnum knew a good name when he heard it. When he saw Zip he was convinced that he'd found an even better "What Is It?" and came to a reasonable agreement to take Zip on.
Barnum gave Zip a makeover, shaving his cranium, except for a little tuft of shaggy hair on the back of his head. Barnum fitted Zip with a furry monkey outfit, which became the most famous prop in Zip's career.
The audience loved Zip. "The American people love to be humbugged," Barnum declared. He gave Zip an extra dollar every day he would remain silent, piquing the curiosity of all that viewed him. While on exhibition, Zip would speak an undecipherable language. Zip's sister, Mrs. Sarah Van Duyne, claimed in a 1926 interview that her brother would "converse like the average person, and with fair reasoning power," when he came to visit her.
Zip was not a true pinhead, or "microcephalous", but his conical head and small face made him the prize of the circus sideshows. He stood proudly amongst his friends; Jim Carver, the Texas Giant, Major Mite, the Smallest Man in the World, the Ambassadors from Mars, and other performing human oddities.
Pictures of Zip appeared in all the major newspapers in the 1920's. Matthew Brady, the famous Civil War photographer even had tintypes of Zip made, and proclaimed him the "Dean Of The Freaks." Zip performed for audiences all over the United States for over 67 years.
In an excerpt from M.H. Werner's "Barnum," appears the following:
On October 13, 1860, the Prince Of Wales, later King Edward VII, visited Barnum's American Museum. With great interest, Albert Edward examined the Siamese Twins and What Is It? According to the New York Herald, the latter was a deformed idiotic negro boy, whom Barnum exhibited as the connecting link between man and ape. The advertising sheets used during these years by Barnum always listed among the freaks 'What Is It? or Man Monkey.'
Zip drew a good salary from Barnum, and when P.T. joined forces with America's other circus dynasty, Ringling Brothers, Zip went along with the package. Much of his career was spent working for the world-famous side show of the Ringling Brothers, and even earning himself the central place of honor on his own platform alongside the other best known sideshow performers. He was very proud of that honor, keeping a pop gun under his chair to ward off anyone that would try to steal his throne.
During the famous trial of John Scopes, a Tennesseean schoolteacher who dared to teach Darwin's theory of evolution, Zip offered himself as evidence, and was ready to take the stand as a "missing link." Always the consummate showman, that Zip.
Zip had taken a liking to cigars. The same cigars John Ringling North, the owner of the circus would smoke. If Zip didn't get the same brand as Ringling, he wouldn't perform.
Zip also performed with a fiddle for the audience. Although not knowing how to play an instrument, the audience could not get enough of Zip dancing and squeaking his violin.
Zip first got the idea to play the violin from Cliquot, the African Bushman who played a ukulele. Zip noticed that people would crowd around Cliquot whenever he'd strum the instrument, and that made Zip jealous. A large crowd meant Cliquot could sell photographs of himself for 10¢ apiece.
One day when the circus was passing through Zainesville, Ohio, Zip bought a fiddle that was rumored to be the instrument that Daniel Boone fiddled when he would get lost in the wilds of Kentucky. Zip began playing it immediately, and almost instantly began making money. Maybe Zip wasn't the feeble-minded idiot he pretended to be. He soon began to let people pay him for not playing his beloved fiddle. Even the performers would pay him daily to keep silent. It was estimated that for the six years he played the violin, it netted him almost $14,000.
It is also believed that Zip made some recordings with a few early "talking machine companies," but those have yet to surface.
Captain O.K. White, Zip's manager for over 25 years, gave Zip a tuxedo, which he kept for the rest of his life, occasionally breaking it out for birthdays and special events.
WHEN ENTERING THE BOUNDBROOK CEMETERY to find Zip's final resting place, we came upon the caretaker, who was unaware of the famous resident interred on the grounds.
"Zip The What?" he asked.
"Is it," I replied. I knew he wouldn't get it.
We looked up the plot number and found that Zip was buried in the "public ground," meaning a plot of land set aside for the poor, unknown or minorities deceased.
"I don't think you'll find his grave," the caretaker warned us. "Most people buried there have no headstones."
We made our way to the field, scanning the inscriptions on the few stones that were visible. If we found it, I expected it might say something like "Zip The What Is It? - World's Greatest Sideshow Performer," or "Here Lies Zip - What Was It?," at least some epitaph of distinction.
Just as we began to feel as if our quest might be in vain, we happened upon a simple stone in the middle of the field that read "William H. Johnson 1857-1926." This, and nothing more was there to recognize this man as a living legend in his own time.
It was estimated that during his life, Zip was viewed by more than 100 million people. He became the "Oldest Living Freak," and was adored by kings and countries. Very few people that walk by his grave today realize that Zip's little noggin had enough sense to make money, and led a peculiar life larger than most.
It was rumored that Zip had amassed a small fortune over the course of his long showbiz career. When questioned about this his sister said Zip was getting but little money out of the life he was leading. Captain White invested some of Zip's money and did very well. Zip had even invested in a chicken farm in Nutley.
Well into his eighties, Zip still performed at the Coney Island Freak Show, being easy to travel to from his Bound Brook home. One Sunday afternoon in 1925, during one of his strolls on the boardwalk, Zip heard a little girl cry for help. He noticed the girl waving her arms in the ocean and swam out to rescue her. He instantly became a hero, being cheered by all who witnessed, but shyly ran away from the attention of being a good samaritan.
Despite his age, he was always ready at an instant's notice to play the "Missing Link." His physical vigor was said to be remarkable, and at 80 years old had yet to lose a tooth.
Zip was taken seriously ill three weeks before his death with bronchitis and influenza. He was performing in the circus scene of the musical comedy "Sunny" at the New Amsterdam Theater. Although against the wishes of his doctor and Captain White, he finished the production before settling at his home in Bound Brook.
He was moved from Bound Brook to Bellevue Hospital in New York, when pneumonia developed. With his sister at the side of his deathbed, Zip uttered his now famous dying words: "Well," he said, "we fooled 'em for a long time." Zip died on April 9, 1926.
Campbell's Funeral Church on Broadway at 66th St. in New York City held the service for Zip, which drew his friends and other oddities of nature who traveled with him under "the big top." Zip was laid out in his beloved black tuxedo. The funeral home that day was filled to capacity with his fellow freak performers, paying their last respects to the greatest freak of them all. Among the mourners were Jim Tarver, the Texas Giant, Jack Earle, the Tallest Man in the World, and Jolly Irene, a morosely obese woman who waddled when she walked, and needed a whole pew just to sit down. Other celebrity mourners were not so easily identifiable. Frank Graf, The Tattooed Man wore a modest suit. Joe Kramer, the man with the rubber neck stood in the rear with Alphonso, The Human Ostrich, who had known Zip for many years. Other friends of Zip - Gus Birchman, The Human Claw Hammer and Ajax the Sword Swallower sat silently in the audience.
The funeral was brief and simple. The soloist sang "Going Home" as Zip's freaky friends walked before his casket to say their last goodbyes.
Zip's mortal remains were interred in the Bound Brook Cemetery on April 26, 1926 at 2:30 pm. Following the hearse, one large limousine arrived carrying Zip's sister, Captain White and his niece, Mr. & Mrs. Lew Graham, representing the circus management and a Miss Gebhart from the Ringling Museum.
A quiet spring drizzle was falling when the casket, covered with fifteen floral tributes was lowered into plot number 399. There was no ceremony, but the Captain's niece became emotional and had to be comforted.
There was a fair amount of local people gathered at the cemetery, when word leaked out that some of the circus performers were going to be the pall-bearers. Due to the awkwardness of those attending the funeral, none of the freaks were in attendance at Zip's graveside for his departure to that Big Top In The Sky.