Following rumors that Leonardo DiCaprio has been in talks recently to help produce the adaptation of Beth Macy's book True Vine: Two Brothers, A Kidnapping, And A Mother’s Quest; A True Story Of The Jim Crow South, the decades-old, disturbing tale based on real events has crept back into the limelight.
Set in Virginia in the early 1920s, #TrueVine will focus on the true story behind two African-American albino brothers who were kidnapped and sold to a circus, made to parade around in the "freak show" and falsely told that their mother was dead.
Truevine will be the first time that the story of brothers George and Willie Muse will be told with the blessing of their family. Read their extraordinary and deeply moving true tale below:
The True Story Behind 'Truevine:'
'Genetic Anomalies' In The Heart Of The Jim Crow South
George and Willie Muse were two albino children born to black parents on a tobacco farm in the small village of Truevine, near Roanoke in Virginia. Hailed as "genetic anomalies" due to their unusual physical attributes, from birth they stood out in the viciously racist Jim Crow South — a vast rural area of America riddled with racial inequality. Despite the fact that the 13th amendment of the US constitution abolished slavery in 1865, the 1920s here saw that lynchings were common and that the Ku Klux Klan boasted some of the highest membership numbers in the entire country.
When they were just 6 and 9-years-old, sometime between 1912 and 1914, the brothers were kidnapped by a white man named James "Candy" Shelton, who was scouting for "freaks" to display at circus sideshows aimed to entertain white punters. Whisked away and sold off to a local carnival show, they were paraded around as "human oddities" and told that they could not return home because their mother had passed.
The 'Greatest Show On Earth'
For the next 13 years, George and Willie gained notoriety performing as "Eko" and "Iko," with outrageous names such as the "Ethiopian Monkey Men," "Sheep-Headed Cannibals" and "Martian Ambassadors" bestowed upon them. Speaking to Vice, author Beth Macy explained their circus roles as such:
"When they were young teens, they were featured as pure "exhibits" with smaller traveling carnivals; their milky skin and blue eyes were considered novelty enough. After a few years, their managers gave them instruments as props, but the joke backfired. It turned out the Muse brothers harbored the ability to hear a song once and play it on almost any instrument, from the xylophone to the saxophone and mandolin."
Attracting huge audiences with their long white dreadlocks and unusual features, the brothers largely toured with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey's "Greatest Show on Earth," where they were singled out as freaks among a group of other individuals such as Texas giant Jack Earle. At the peak of their career, their fame spread so far and wide that they even performed for the Queen at Buckingham Palace and a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York. However, despite being international stars, they were seldom paid for their work.
'She Was A Real Unsung Hero'
During this time, George and Willie's mother Harriet never gave up on trying to get her sons back. At one of the most extreme periods of black oppression in the 20th century, she repeatedly demanded that the white authorities helped her. Macy describes the danger she put herself in:
"She's the real unsung hero — an illiterate black maid during the harshest era of Jim Crow segregation, living in a city where the top cop was the founder and leader of the KKK. She squared off against not just him, but also powerful Ringling lawyers [when she successfully fought to get her sons back from the circus]. Think about her audacity. She could have been lynched. If she could prevail against those powerful forces for a couple of decades, continually subverting systems designed to quash her legal rights, think what she'd be like today."
In October 1927, over two decades since her beloved children went missing, she found out that their circus was coming to Roanoke. On that day, she walked right into their tent and finally saw her boys, who were now fully grown men.
Refusing to leave their side, Harriet went on to sue the Ringing Brothers company for custody of her sons, transforming them back from being someone else's property to human beings in their own right. Additionally, she put forward full compensation claims on all the money they had refused to pay George and Willie while they were being trafficked. After winning a settlement with the help of a local attorney, she continued to fight for their rights even when they freely decided to return to the circus. In an interview with Time magazine, authoress Beth Macy reveals:
"It was their choice to [go back] and because they could come home, they had more agency. You can look at the photographs and you can see their countenances shifting—they just look happier in the [later] pictures."
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Back on the road, the Muse brothers finally began to earn enough money as official employees, eventually even buying their mom a home. Back then in the 1960s, this was deemed as a huge achievement for an African American family — according to the US census, only 38.1% of black households were home-owning, compared to 63.35% among the white population.
Finally in 1961, the brothers retired and returned permanently to Roanoke. And while George died in 1971, his younger brother Willie lived on until the grand old age of 108, only bidding a farewell to this life in 2001.
To this day, the true story behind Truevine continues to be circulated in Southern communities, especially in the town of Roanoke. And while it is undoubtedly a tragic tale of racial prejudice, vicious segregation, systematic exploitation and the quashing of individuals by white-run institutions, it also coveys a message of hope and love, a mother's tough determination and the urgency to embrace each other's differences — a message that, almost a century on, is just as poignant today.
Were you already familiar with the true story behind Truevine?