Schlitzie the Pinhead – tragic story of a famous sideshow “freak” performer
// December 26th, 2012 // Sideshow Anomalies
“Schlitzie” was born Simon Metz on September 10, 1890 in the Bronx. From birth Schlitzie looked like any other baby boy but as the years progressed, it became apparent that he suffered from microcephaly, a condition where the face grows at a normal rate but the head does not. Microcephaly bestows upon the person an abnormally small head (often only half the size of a normal head) and sloping forehead. Known as “chaus”, “rat people” or “pinheads”, the condition almost always results in mental retardation and diminished brain capacity. The cause of the condition varies. Sometimes it can be caused when a child’s mother consumes excessive alcohol. There is no cure.
As one of the greatest circus sideshow performers in history, it is odd that many details of Schlitzie’s early life are unclear. Stories passed down from his circus owners indicate that Schlitzie was born in Sante Fe, New Mexico (some say he was bon in Yucatan, Mexico) to a very wealthy family. He had a sister named Atheila who also suffered from microcephaly. The parents were ashamed of the children and kept them hidden away. As was common in the early 1900’s, when the opportunity presented itself, the family sold Schlitize and his sister to the travelling circus where he began his life as a sideshow freak.
A circus sideshow owner named Pete Kortes kept Athteila to himself and passed Schlitzie to his brother George Kortes. In the course of his career Schlitzie was employed by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, Crafts 20 Big Shows, Foley & Burke Carnival, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, and the Dobritsch International Circus (circus freaks were often traded around and “lent” to other circuses). Schlitzie was billed as “What is it?”, “pinhead”, and “the last of the Aztecs”. He was often billed as a female only because his caretakers found it easier to change his diaper when he was dressed in a lady’s gown. Schlitzie has the mental capacity of a 3-4 year old.
Schlitzie’s mental capacity offered one advantage – it made him a favorite with the fans and his caretakers. Like a 3-year-old frozen in time, each day brought new wonders to Schlitzie. His childlike exuberance, boyish innocence, and unconditional love for everyone he met, endeared him to everyone he came into contact with.
In addition to sideshow work, Schlitzie made appearances in several movies. In 1932, Schlitzie was given a part in the cult classic movie, Freaks. He also made an appearance later in the year in the Island of Lost Souls (as a “manimal”) opposite Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. He also appeared in the 1928 movie, The Sideshow (bit role), the 1934 Tomorrow’s Children (as a vasectomy patient), and the 1941 Meet Boston Blackie).
In 1936, while travelling with the Tom Mix Circus Sideshow, a chimpanzee trainer named George Surtees became Schlitzie’s legal guardian (his California Certificate of Death even lists his name as Shilze Surtees). When George’ passed away in the 1960’s, ownership of Schlitzie went to George’s daughter who declined to care for him. He was institutionalized in the Los Angeles County Hospital. Schlitzie spent many years in the hospital.
By an odd stroke of luck, a circus sword swallower, Bill Unks, was working part time in the hospital during the off season when he recognized a sad, depressed Schlitzie. Convincing the hospital that allowing Schlitzie to be a part of the circuses sideshow world would do Schlitzie a world of good, the hospital agreed and consigned Schlitzie to Sam Kortes, Unks’ employer.
Schlitzie spent his finals days living with performer friends near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. He passed away at the age of 81 at Fountain View Convalescent Home in Los Angeles from bronchial pneumonia. Schlitzie was interred at Queen Of Heaven Cemetery, Rowland Heights, California, Plot: Grave 69 – Tier 21 – Section E. The grave went unmarked for several years until members of the internet message board community at Find a Death raised funds to have the grave appropriately marked.
The following was recieved from Wolf Krakowski, notable videographer, author, and musician (http://www.kamea.com) on April 9, 2011. In the letter, Wolf provides a touching story of his personal relationship with Schlitzie.
I turned 18 in the summer of 1965. I had a job working for Conklin and Garrettt Shows at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, where I was living with my family and attending high-school. It was there that I first came to know Schlitzie, who was billed as “The Missing Link” on the midway sideshow. It would break my heart – and piss me off – to see him abused by so-called “normal people” in the audience. They taunted him mercilessly and threw bottles and lit cigarettes at him.
When the show moved on to London and the Western Ontario Fair, I went along. You might say I was dissatisfied with life at home and at school and figured life with the carnival would beat the hell out of Grade 13. It did. After setting up, I was given the job of foreman of the bumper cars. The carnies stayed at the Clarendon Hotel on the tenderloin. I had a room next to that of Schlitzie’s and his guardian, Frenchy, a former lion-tamer and sword-swallower and, as he claimed, a “Gypsy prince.” He sported an impressive ring to bolster this claim; I had no reason to disbelieve him.
At night, after a long day on the fairgrounds, we would all hang out together, maybe play some cards and just relax. Frenchy would drive us all to work, stopping off first each day to pick up a bottle at one of the government-run liquor stores, which would be closed after our workday was over. One time, Frenchy stopped the car in front of a pawn shop that had a display of knives and swords in the window. He wanted to go inside and swallow a sword. “To keep in practice,” he said. Schlitzie and I lingered in the car a few extra moments, waiting for the song on the radio to come to an end. He enjoyed hearing music and would wave his hands and rock to the music, tap my arm and say, “You see?”
When we entered the shop, hand-in-hand, I observed Frenchy cleaning a sword with a handkerchief and some liquid from a small bottle. Then he swallowed the sword. The two rather elderly women running the place gasped in horror and disbelief. When they turned to see me, sporting quite long hair for the times, and Schlitzie, dressed in his mu-mu, I could see the blood just drain from their faces. Frenchy thanked the ladies for the use of the sword and we continued on our way to work. Later, I would see Frenchy practice his art using a straightened coat-hanger from the hotel closet; he always disinfected it first.
Schlitzie, like all children, craved tenderness and affection. He would snuggle up to me and I would put my arms around him. This simple contact and warmth caused him to moan and to weep. I was too young and inexperienced at the time to fully grasp the totality of what he must have been feeling. Once, Frenchy saw me giving him a hug and told me, albeit gently, not to do so in the future. He explained that Schlitzie would come to want these embraces all the time and just never let me go. Reluctantly, I did as I was told.
I’m 63 now and over the years and across the miles, I have never forgotten Schlitzie and Frenchy and the days when I “ran away with the circus.”
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