ByJancy Richardson, writer at
To avoid fainting, keep repeating 'It's only a movie...It's only a movie...'
Jancy Richardson

I've written before about the incredible real people who inspired American Horror Story: Freak Show - read about them here or on the original source site The Human Marvels - but there's one famous sideshow performer who directly influenced the creation of one of American Horror Story's best loved characters: Pepper.

Pepper, the good-natured microcephalic - played by Naomi Grossman in an amazing feat of make-up and thespian skill! - first appeared in American Horror Story: Asylum, and now we get to see her fascinating origins in Freak Show.

Still, even more famous and beloved than Pepper is the original Freak Show 'pinhead,' Schlitzie. Check out the amazing story of one of TV's most unusual characters...

Schlitzie was born in the Bronx, 1901

Schlitzie in Tod Browning's film 'Freaks' [Credit: MGM]
Schlitzie in Tod Browning's film 'Freaks' [Credit: MGM]

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His true origins are hard to pinpoint, as he was passed off to various Freak Shows from early childhood. Schlitzie was billed as 'The Last of the Aztecs' (due to the mistaken belief that he was born in Yucatan, Mexico like other famous microcephalics, Pip and Flip), 'The Monkey Girl,' 'The Missing Link,' 'The Pinhead,' and even simply 'What Is It?'

Schlitzie was often presented as female

A screenshot from Tod Browning's 'Freaks' [Credit: MGM]
A screenshot from Tod Browning's 'Freaks' [Credit: MGM]

Although Schlitzie was purportedly born Simon Metz, he was usually dressed in a muumuu or other feminine attire. Reasons for this differ, with some citing his needing extra room in clothing to accommodate an adult diaper. It is more likely, however, that the androgynous dress was employed to enhance Schlitzie's already unusual appearance for a paying audience. People close to him used both male and female pronouns indiscriminately.

Schlitzie in Tod Browning's 1932 Freaks

It was 1928 when Schlitzie made his screen debut in The Sideshow, but Tod Browning's classic Freaks is the role - playing himself - that Schlitzie is best remembered for. The film was wildly controversial when it first appeared, and was even banned in the U.K. for thirty years before acquiring its current cult status.

Schlitzie's varied circus career

Schlitzie with other performers for 1932's 'Freaks' [Credit: MGM]
Schlitzie with other performers for 1932's 'Freaks' [Credit: MGM]

From 1920, Schlitzie spent more than two decades performing in circuses, including Clyde Beatty Circus, Foley & Burke Carnival, Ringling Bros., and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It was during his time in the Tom Mix Circus in 1935 that he met George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer who adopted Schlitzie as his child. His legal name on his death certificate was Schlitze Surtees.

The show must go on...

Schlitzie in 'Freaks' [Credit: MGM]
Schlitzie in 'Freaks' [Credit: MGM]

When his guardian, George Surtees, died in 1965, Schlitzie was placed in an LA hospital until he was released by sword-swallower Bill Unks, who noted that Schlitzie was very sad about being kept away from the carnival. Schlitzie continued to perform with Unks, who was then performing for passers by on Santa Monica Boulevard.

When Schlitzie died at the grand old age of 70, a fan collection was set up to buy him a commemorative headstone in Rowland Heights, LA.

I don't know about you, but I found Schlitzie's story moving, and I'm glad that so many people showed him love and kindness during less understanding times. What do you guys think of the original 'pinhead'?

For more information on Schlitzie or any other amazing freaks, geeks, or human oddities check out The Human Marvels page!


Do you think that Schlitzie inspired 'American Horror Story's Pepper?

(Sources: Wikipedia)


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