The Untold Truth Of ‘Schlitzie The Pinhead’
In the annals of sideshow performance history, there are few figures as famous as Schlitzie. A so-called "pinhead," Schlitzie’s unusual appearance brought swarms of audiences to the (morally questionable) circus sideshows he called home. A major appearance in Freaks, a film by Dracula director Tod Browning, has made him an extremely recognizable figure. Even if you’re not familiar with Schlitzie himself, you might know the pop culture figures he has inspired, such as Pepper from the Asylum and Freak Show seasons of American Horror Story.
But, like many sideshow performers of the time, Schlitzie’s life was incredibly hard behind the scenes. As you can imagine, his looks and profession made it very difficult to exist in a world that still didn’t have even the most basic protections for the physically and mentally disabled. In spite of this, however, Schlitzie kept on performing and made a lasting impact on the circus industry and the world.
Not much is known about Schlitzie’s birth
There are almost no agreed-upon facts about Schlitzie’s birth. While his death certificate, as listed on Find a Death, gives his birthdate as September 10th, 1901 in the Bronx, this is not confirmed. He’s also frequently given a birth name of Simon Metz but this, too, is not certain, as one of Schlitzie’s guardians was named Ted Metz, so at least the surname was probably not the one he had at birth. His death certificate gives his birth name as Schlitzie Surtees, but this is an adopted name and was used because his actual birth name was unknown.
Some reports, such as Joe Nickell’s Secrets of the Sideshows, give Schlitzie’s birthplace as Santa Fe, NM instead, and others still say he was born somewhere in the Yucatan, though this may be a sideshow legend, as Schlitzie was billed as the "Last of the Aztecs" for a time, presumably for horrifyingly racist reasons.
As far as Schlitzie’s birthdate goes, 1901 is the most commonly suggested year, though some claim he was actually born on an unknown day in 1890. This is complicated because Schlitzie was naturally short (about four feet tall) and his cognitive skills were believed to be about those of a 4-year-old, so he may have seemed younger than he actually was at any given point.
Schlitzie’s parents probably sold him
Since we know next-to-nothing about Schlitzie’s birth, we similarly don’t know much about his childhood. Some sources say his parents kept him in either an attic or basement, which we can’t really know. They were also alleged to be ashamed of him, which is also not known for sure, but considering the period, it’s a very good guess. The 1900s were a very different time, to put it mildly.
And on that note, one thing we can be pretty sure of is that Schlitzie’s parents probably sold him to the circus, as noted by several sources such as Altered Dimensions. Decades after slavery was outlawed, selling a child with a disability was not exactly legal, but people certainly looked the other way. Schlitzie’s earliest mentions are from his time under George Kortes, a circus owner, so chances are, Schlitzie came to Kortes’ (or another circus owner’s) attention, who then offered his parents money to take custody of him. Since he had no family to speak of the rest of his life, it’s likely they were out of the picture entirely.
While this does sound quite heartless, it’s not confirmed, and there may be a lot of factors we are unaware of. But similar things certainly happened to other sideshow performers, so it is a strong possibility. On the positive side, Schlitzie is reported to have loved his life in the circus and was well cared-for by his various guardians and nurses.
Schlitzie’s condition isn’t fully understood
Schlitzie’s most recognizable feature was his smaller head, the result of a disorder called microcephaly. Microcephalics have skulls that are far smaller than a typical skull, and they’re often conical toward the crown of the head. Schlitzie’s hair was actually cut specifically to emphasize the point at the top of his skull.
That much about his medical condition is clear, but the thing is that microcephaly can be a symptom of several other issues, according to the CDC. Sometimes it’s genetics, sometimes it’s a result of fetal alcohol syndrome, or a number of other problems. While some sources say that Schlitzie was born microcephalic, others say he developed the condition later on, when his body grew but his head did not.
Each of these can indicate different causes, so it’s unclear exactly how Schlitzie came to be microcephalic. It doesn’t seem that he was ever seriously examined by any sort of doctor, and medicine back then was far more rudimentary than it is now, so it’s likely they wouldn’t have been able to find out anything, especially without a family medical history or any other information to go on. There are some clues, such as his hands and feet appearing to be proportionate to his body, but even things like that only narrow things down a little.
Schlitzie was typically billed as female
Although Schlitzie’s few medical records show that he was male, circus promoters often advertised him as being female, with names like "The Monkey Girl," It is noted in many sources, such as All Things Interesting, that this is because Schlitzie was incontinent and wore diapers, thus he wore dresses to make it easier for his caregivers to change him. However, some sources also assert that Schlitzie wasn’t incontinent until late in life, and in many photos of Schlitzie, he’s wearing pants under his dresses, which would defeat the purpose of the dress if incontinence was indeed the reason for it.
One other reason, suggested by Marc Hartzman’s American Sideshow, is that female sideshow performers might have been considered a bigger draw in those days, and since Schlitzie’s gender wasn’t immediately obvious to audiences, they may have done it to draw more interest in his act. It could have started with just one circus and then just became a regular part of Schlitzie’s persona from then on. What is known is that other male microcephalic performers of the time were referred to as male, so whatever the reason, it was something unique to Schlitzie. Some people have even suggested that it’s simply that Schlitzie might have preferred to wear loose-fitting clothes and so the circuses rolled with it.
Schlitzie had numerous "owners"
Schlitzie worked for just about every popular circus that existed during his lifetime. The reason why he was able to do this is a bit depressing, though. Throughout Schlitzie’s life, he was traded, sold, and lent to various circus owners, as mentioned by Altered Dimensions. This was actually common practice at the time, as horrifying as that sounds, and was not considered a big deal at all.
Because circuses typically followed a specific route of cities each year, the owners wanted to keep things fresh, and so they would frequently swap out attractions in hopes of bringing in new customers to cities they had been to before. This meant that sideshow performers often moved between circuses and constantly visited new cities. While performers who were more able-minded might have had some say in this, those with intellectual disabilities like Schlitzie likely had no choice whatsoever.
Schlitzie ended up working for dozens of circuses throughout the American continent, including big names like Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Bros. circuses. On the plus side, Schlitzie is said to have enjoyed his travels and getting to see new places, including some as far away as Venezuela.
Schlitzie was beloved by everyone around him
Because of Schlitzie’s cognitive difficulties, it’s said that he behaved a lot like an excitable child. He had a sense of wonder and joy that audiences loved and kept them coming back to see him. Schlitzie could sing, dance, and even parrot people, and audiences ate it all up. One of his most popular acts was quite simple: Schlitzie would count from one to ten, though it’s said that he would often skip the number seven in his count. It’s not certain if Schlitzie had trouble remembering it, or if it was part of the act and Schlitzie skipped it on purpose for laughs.
But the public weren’t the only ones upon whom Schlitzie left a mark. His nurses and caregivers are said to have loved him, and fellow performers were also very fond of Schlitzie, making sure he was taken care of. While Schlitzie never had a family per se, the circuses he worked for made sure to treat him that way.
According to a quote on Find a Death by Jeanie Tomiani, a sideshow "Half-Girl," often audience members would be rude or even downright cruel to Schlitzie (something Schlitzie was reported to show anger at). On the occasions that this did happen, the roustabouts (a term for a general laborer in the circus/carnival world) would quickly stop the abusive audience members and make them leave.
Schlitzie acted in several films
Schlitzie’s most famous role, by far, was in 1932’s Freaks, where he played himself, effectively: A sideshow "pinhead" also named Schlitzie, though the movie’s Schlitzie was female off-stage as well as on. Schlitzie gets a good amount of screen time in the film, which is a great way for modern audiences to experience his personality and see his charm in action.
This was not Schlitzie’s only role, however. He appeared in other films where he also played a sideshow performer, such as The Sideshow and Meet Boston Blackie. Schlitzie’s performances in these films are much smaller than the one he had in Freaks, however. He also appeared in 1932’s The Island of Lost Souls, an early adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, as one of the "manimals."
His most unusual role, however, was in the film Tomorrow’s Children, an exploitation film that was meant to showcase the evils of forced sterilization, a common practice at the time for criminals or those with disabilities. Schlitzie has a brief role as a criminal who is sentenced to sterilization. The reason this role was unique for Schlitzie is because it’s one of the only times he was ever seen with a full head of hair and a beard, which you can see above. It’s very striking, and Schlitzie even looks quite handsome in the scene!
Schlitzie may have had a sister
Just about every detail in Schlitzie’s life is up for loads of scrutiny, even down to basic facts. But this one is even more contentious than others. According to some sources, such as Joe Nickell’s Secrets of the Sideshows, Schlitzie had a sister who was also microcephalic. She’s further alleged to have been his twin, though there is disagreement on this, too. The sister’s name was supposedly Athelia, and they are said to have both been purchased from their parents by circus owners, who then may have split them up.
Like a great many other things about Schlitzie’s life, there’s no evidence of this one way or the other. There was another microcephalic sideshow performer named Athelia, and she and Schlitzie did sometimes appear together. There are photos of her and reports about her performances from the time. Similarly to Schlitzie, she was presented as being born of the Aztec people, and she does seem to have been around the same age as him.
However, it’s possible that Athelia was simply another microcephalic person who happened to be touring the same circuits as Schlitzie, and so promoters came up with the idea that they were siblings as an advertising tactic. Like Schlitzie, almost nothing is known about Athelia’s birth and early life, so it’s difficult to say if they were actually brother and sister or if the whole thing is a bit of sideshow legend.
Schlitzie spent several years in an institution
George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer, met Schlitzie at some point on the carnival circuit and was quite taken with his friendliness and warmth. Surtees and Schlitzie became friends and, before long, Surtees began working as Schlitzie’s caretaker. Over time, Surtees even legally adopted Schlitzie and is said to have thought of him like a son. They’re reported to have had a happy family life together. Unfortunately, Surtees passed away in the 1960s. The courts determined that Schlitzie, unable to care for himself, would be left in the custody of George Surtees’ daughter.
Surtees’ daughter had no experience in circus life like her father did. She had never been involved in that world, and was unable to care for Schlitzie herself. It’s not clear how or why but, according to The Human Marvels, she eventually concluded that the best thing to do for Schlitzie would be to have him admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital, a mental institution.
After being admitted to the institution, Schlitzie reportedly went into a deep depression. While the institution sometimes let him hold little performances for the staff and other patients, he was deeply unhappy being away from the circus. Before long, Schlitzie was clearly not coping well at all with his new life.
Schlitzie later returned to circus life
Schlitzie was in the institution for about three years, and it was during one of his performances inside the hospital that he came to the attention of Bill Unks, a janitor there who took the job during the off-season of his regular profession — a circus sword-swallower. According to Marc Hartzman’s American Sideshow, Unks recognized Schlitzie and notified his friend and colleague, Sam Alexander, a fellow sideshow performer better known as The Two-Faced Man.
Together, Unks and Alexander reached out to Schlitzie’s doctors and requested that he be allowed to return to the circus. Amazingly, the doctors agreed. Schlitzie’s depression had reached a point where they didn’t think he’d last much longer in the hospital, so the doctors released him to Unks and Alexander, who soon had him back on the road.
Schlitzie’s mood immediately improved upon his return to the circus, and he went right back to the life he had known for decades. Prior to leaving the hospital, his doctors gave him only six months to live, based on his deep depression. Once he returned to performing, Schlitzie went on to live for several more years. Even as he got older and could no longer travel, he still performed on the streets of Los Angeles, selling his old sideshow photos.
Schlitzie lived to old age
One sad truth about sideshow performers is that a great many of them had shorter-than-average lives. They often had medical conditions that gave them their unique traits, but in many cases, those same conditions claimed them at an earlier age than the typical lifespan of the time. It was not uncommon for sideshow performers to be on the circuit for a few just years, then retire early, or even to die while on the road.
Schlitzie was actually one of the exceptions to this. He died on September 24th, 1971, according to his death certificate, which can be seen on Find a Death. He’s listed as having died at the age of 70, based on the September 10th, 1901 birthdate. However, since that birthdate is unconfirmed, it’s possible that Schlitzie was older, possibly even in his 80s, when he passed away. While microcephaly doesn’t necessarily mean a shorter lifespan, it can depend on the severity of the condition.
Schlitzie had been unwell for a while and spent some time in the hospital, but he was eventually transferred to Fountain View Convalescent Home, where he spent his remaining days. His cause of death was listed as bronchial pneumonia brought on by medullary depression. That’s a physical condition, not a mental state. Essentially, due to his advanced age, Schlitzie was unable to fight off a respiratory illness and eventually succumbed. He was buried on October 7th, 1971.
Schlitzie originally had no grave marker
While Schlitzie was wildly popular and in-demand his whole life, he wasn’t able to perform in his old age as much as he could when he was younger, and working in the sideshow doesn’t exactly come with a retirement plan. Thus, Schlitzie was quite poor at the end of his life and, in the end, wasn’t even able to afford a grave marker. The location of his grave was known, Section E, Tier 21, Grave 69 at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights, California, but the plot was completely undecorated.
Until 2007, that is, when Scott Michaels, owner of findadeath.com and a Schlitzie fan, visited the grave. He remarked upon the lack of gravestone on his site during a write-up of the visit, and later, members of the site’s message board decided to see what they could do about the situation. One member called up Queen of Heaven Cemetery and found out that there was a balance that needed to be paid off (presumably because Schlitzie didn’t leave enough money to completely pay for his burial), and then a new marker could be placed there.
The site’s members held a little fundraiser, and after raising a few hundred dollars, Schlitzie’s balance was paid off, and a small, ground-level marker was added to the plot, using the name and date from Schlitzie’s death certificate.