Zip the Pinhead: Young Black Man Displayed as an American Freak Show

Written by Jae Jones

was born William Henry Johnson around 1842 in Liberty corner, New Jersey. He was displayed as an American freak show because of his tapered head. Johnson was born one of six children to a very poor African-American family. His parents both were former slaves. Johnson’s body developed normally but his head remained very small and pointy at the top. He was described as  having a tapered cranium and heavy jaw, which quickly attracted agents from the Circus. Because of his incredibly small head many people believed that he was in fact a “pinhead”, or a microcephalic. But, Johnson was not mentally impaired, which is a common trait of microcephalic individuals. Johnson’s parents allowed him to travel with the Circus, whether they knew the intentions of the agents at first is unknown.

Johnson was displayed in the circus, and billed as a member of the “missing link” tribe.  He supposedly was captured in Africa and put in a cage. Johnson became popular among Circus goers, and soon caught the eye of P.T. Barnum. Barnum purchased the right  from the agents to display Johnson as they saw fit; they took Johnson and gave him a new look. He was given a furry suit  to wear, and his hair was shaped to match the tiny point of his head making it further accentuate 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; the story of the “missing link tribe.” It was further explained that Johnson survived on raw meat, nuts, and fruit, but was learning to eat more civilized foods. Johnson was known to rattle the bars of the cage and screech at the onlookers, this just made the act better. Johnson became one of the biggest attractions when ever the Circus was in a town. Johnson traveled the country with the Ringling Brothers Circus for years. He died in 1926 after coming down with bronchitis and despite doctor’s orders he kept performing. Cartoonist Bill Griffith’s comic strip entitled “Zippy the Pinhead” was partially inspired by Johnson.



Please share this piece of black history with your friends on Facebook.

Leave Your Thoughts Below!

About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

Leave a Comment

Rewinding To Remember