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" Into Circus

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 humor.

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 plain nigger."

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, www.disabilitymuseum.org (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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