I’ve seen Bill Griffith’s syndicated comic strip “Zippy the Pinhead,” but have never read it regularly. In the strip, Zippy is a strange character whose utterances don’t make a lot of sense, but do somehow have memorable resonance. One of his catch phrases, “Are we having fun yet?” has entered common usage.
This book by Griffith is not about Zippy, it’s about the real person who inspired him. Schlitzie was a microcephalic child, characterized by a very small brain area and a skull that came to a point, a condition cruelly nicknamed “pinhead” at the time of his birth around 1901. His actual origins are not known for sure, Bill Griffith places his birthplace in The Bronx. Schlitzie’s intelligence level never grew beyond that of a four-year-old, and his parents were poor, so his future did not look promising. It was likely he would have eventually been institutionalized. Instead, his parents sold him to a sideshow manager, and he remained a sideshow attraction, working under many different names, for most of his seventy year life. Sideshows were collections of people considered freaks of nature, those with physical handicaps or odd anatomy, or sometimes people with unusual abilities like sword-swallowers or strongmen. They were a popular sideline for circuses at the time, and also existed on their own at places like Coney Island.
Griffith’s biography of Schlitzie is both fascinating and surprising. Though the boy and man went through some difficult times occasionally, mostly he seems to have enjoyed his life and enjoyed performing, and he often found friends and workmates that cared for him, and kept him out of trouble, including one manager that made him part of the family. Schlitzie’s biggest fame came from his appearance in the 1932 horror film “Freaks,” directed by Tod Browning, where much of the cast were actual sideshow freaks, though Schlitzie had only a small role.
Is this book a sort of apology? Possibly. Griffith clearly put a lot of time and effort into it, and does not shy away from his own role in the story, though it’s a minor one. Well worth your time, and recommended.