Zip Grins In
Death, Mask Off At Last
New York World,
April 29, 1926
Side Show "What Is It?" Lies in
Coffin in his Evening Clothes. Was "Sold"
Told Sister on His Death Bed He'd Have Joke on Crowds
Death cracked Zip's little joke on the public for him.
"Zip -- the What Is It?" side show spielers had cried to awed
crowds for more than half a century. "
Take a look and try and tell us! What is it?
Its head is an ice-cream-cone!
Its nose is that of an Af-ri-can ant-eater!
It has hair on its body like a gi-ant gor-rilla! What is it?
Take a look and try and tell us!"
The throngs stared and marveled. And through the years Zip
grinned inanely, gurgled and mumbled his freakish part -- and
kept his joke to himself.
Only on his death bed did Zip tell his secret. His dying gasp
was a chuckle.
When the morbid crowd -- thinly interspersed with Zip's friends
and survivors among the "strange people" -- passed before Zip's
coffin yesterday morning at Campbell's Funeral Church, there was
a twisted half-grin on the still, brown face. It was as though
the Fates that had played such a weird joke on Zip in life were
permitting him this final grin in death at the objects of his
For the crowd that came to see "Zip -- The What Is It?" saw only
the body of William Henry Johnson. The form in the coffin was
that of a Negro man in evening dress. The head may have been a
trifle longer than ordinary, but there was no queer tuft of hair
on the top. There was nothing unusual about the nose. And most
of all, there was no wooly hair -- "like a gi-ant gor-rilla."
Zip was buried in Bound Brook, N. J., not because he has "passed
his vacations on the farm he owned" as was generally thought by
the public he fooled, but because he was born there -- not in
"the wilds of South Africa." Even the birthday was part of Zip's
joke, for he was born in 1857, though he was supposed to have
been "over eighty."
At the graveside were a brother and a sister of Zip and the
sister, Mrs. Sarah Van Dyne, told his history. When William was
four he was "sold" into the circus side-show by his parents, in
need of funds. His head was large and long and he was less
feeble-minded. Otherwise William was normal -- the rest was
"fixed up," Mrs. Van Dyne said.
For nearly ten years, she said, Zip had almost to be forced to
mount the platform. He was afraid of the crowds and hated their
morbid giggles. But in 1866 his attitude changed completely.
"Last Saturday," said the sister, "I guess he knew he was dying
when I came to see him in the hospital. He said, "Sarah, you
know them people that laughs at me all the time -- well, I'm
laughing at them -- they dunno I'se just a plain nigger wid' a
funny head. Lordy, Sarah, when I die they's gonna see just a
The "strange people"-- the two Fat Ladies, the two Texas Giants,
the Leopard Family, the Sword Swallower, the Human Pin Cushion
-- all honored Zip at his funeral, and none laughed. There were
tears even in the eyes of Jim Tarver, the seven-foot strong man,
as the minister said: "He has laid aside this broken body and
gone to the Great Hereafter."
New York World,
April 29, 1926 Disability History Museum,
(May 18, 2005)
Title: What is it? Zip the
Pinhead, William Henry Johnson in costume
Photograph of William Henry Johnson Grave Stone Inscribed
WILLIAM H. JOHNSON 1857 - 1926
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