The story of the two black albino brothers from Roanoke, Virginia is unique even in the bizarre world of sideshow. They were initially exploited and then later hailed for their unintentional role in civil rights.
The black albino twins Eko and Iko (real names George and Willie Muse) boast one of the most remarkable stories in circus sideshow history. It started dramatically in 1899 when they were kidnapped by sideshow bounty hunters for their unique appearance. Black albinos, being extremely rare, would have been an extremely lucrative attraction. They were falsely told that their mother was dead, and that they would never be returning home.
The brothers began to tour. To accentuate their already unusual appearance, their handler had the brothers grow out their hair into long white dreadlocks. In 1922 showman Al G. Barnes began showcasing the brothers in his circus as White Ecuadorian cannibals Eko and Iko. When that gimmick failed to attract crowds the brothers were rechristened the ‘Sheep-Headed Men’ and later, in 1923, the ‘Ambassadors from Mars’.
They were not paid for their early performances with the Barnes circus, then they started to tour with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey sideshow, where, in 1927, their mother rediscovered them and demanded that they be freed from performing or she would sue.
They were freed, but returned to the sideshow in 1928 with a contract that ensured them a great deal of money as they played venues like Madison Square Garden to more that 10,000 people. They made spectacular money as their new contract allowed them to sell their own merchandise and keep all the profits for themselves. In the 1930’s they toured Europe, Asia and Australia. They performed for royals and dignitaries including the Queen of England.
In 1937 they returned to Ringling Bros. and Barnum camp; Bailey Circus for several years and finally ended their career in 1961 with the Clyde Beatty Circus. The brothers returned to their hometown and lived together in a house they originally purchased for their mother. Neither brother married, though they were well known for their many extravagant courtships.
George Muse died in 1971 and many expected Willie to quickly follow his brother. Those people were wrong as Willie continued to play his mandolin and enjoy the company friends and family until his death on Good Friday of 2001.
He was 108 years old.