KOO KOO – The Bird Girl

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There are a handful of human marvels and freaks who seem to transcend time, culture and societal norms. These truly unique few become forever recognizable and iconic to the general public.   Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man will be forever famous due to his unforgettable visage. Likewise, Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy will forever be famous for his shaggy face and Zip the Pinhead will always furrow brows in faint recognition when his moniker is mentioned. These individuals captured the interest and imagination of the public and continue to be referenced in pop culture decades after their prime.

However, one strange character who managed to obtain this ‘celebrity of strange’ wasn’t really that strange at all. Or, at least, not when compared to other more ‘impressive’ marvels saddled with physical limitations and socially crippling conditions.

Minnie Woolsey was born in Georgia in 1880 and a wide variety of stories exist in regards to her physical condition. It is generally believed that Minnie was born with Virchow-Seckel syndrome, a condition also known as bird-headed dwarfism. The syndrome is quite rare and is characterized by a small head, stunted growth, beak-like nose, receding jaw as well as some mental limitations.  In addition, the syndrome also left Minnie almost completely bald and blind.  Toothless, odd and sporting glasses as thick as her thumb Minnie spent the majority of her formative years in a Georgia Asylum until, as legend states, she was rescued by a showman who thought her oddball looks we just odd enough to cash in on.

Minnie began her sideshow career dressed in an American Indian costume and billed as ‘Minnie-Ha-Ha’. The name was an obvious play on North Carolina’s Minnihaha Falls and the gimmick was likely a nod to the Aztec Children exhibits of yesteryear.  Minnie, initially reluctant and shy, soon came to love the attention she received as a sideshow attraction.  She was known to dance and shake excitedly and to speak in thrilled gibberish to the delight of audiences everywhere.

In 1932, Minnie landed a role in Freaks the movie as Koo-Koo the Bird Girl and a film legend was born. The image of Minnie, dressed in a feathery costume complete with tiny plumed cap and chicken-like feet, shimmying atop a table during a wedding feast is forever synonymous with the film Freaks.  Once you seen Minnie’s performance, you will never forget it. In fact, there was actually another ‘Bird Girl’ in the Freaks movie but few remember poor Betty Green as she was completely overshadowed by Minnie. Today Betty Greene is generally only remembered, in error, as being Koo-Koo from Freaks.

Following her Freaks movie debut Minnie continued to perform as ‘Koo Koo – The Bird Girl’ and continued to wear her strange little costume for a number of years. Eventually she had stints at Coney Island where she was billed as ‘The Blind Girl from Mars’.  By that time, age or perhaps boredom had taken hold and the dancing had stopped. Minnie’s “Blind Girl’ act consisted primarily of standing or sitting near comatose, deadpanning all audience jeers and interactions.

How long Minnie was involved in human exhibition and how she passed are something of a mystery. Some accounts state that she performed well into her 80’s. There are also reports that Minnie was hit by a car in the 1960’s. Regardless of how her life ended, her peculiar appearance ensured her a small level of immortality.

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Freaks (1932) – Starring Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova and Roscoe Ates

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.

16 Comments

  • Reply December 14, 2010

    dani from

    great site!! i just spent the last two days reading every article you have published :) greetings from costa rica!

  • Reply February 24, 2011

    john pietro

    What a sad and tragic story. People with deformities had to go through alot those days and even today. Very sad.

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  • Reply April 14, 2011

    Karla

    Great website!!!

  • Reply April 17, 2011

    Mellin

    The picture and description definitely makes it look like it was progeria, but she lived way too long.

  • Reply April 27, 2011

    Frumingelo

    Thanks for yet another great story!

  • Reply June 19, 2011

    DaziRazi

    So sad that she had to be put up with every thing people did to her. She probably was constantly laughed and pointed at her! It is also sad that she put herself through that because of money.

  • Reply August 1, 2011

    Kenickie

    a girl who lived in my home town had the same syndrome. When I read this article I immediately remembered Nonie and her doting father

  • Reply August 15, 2011

    neonjeff

    I read a few of the comments and had to add my two cents. Some people feel sad that people with birth defects made a living on the Freak Show circuit. But when “politically correct” people outlawed Side Shows — these folks were “put out to pasture.” They had severe difficulty finding employment. Indeed, at the time, many “Freaks” were wealthier than the “rubes” who paid their money to see them. Let me put it another way — today we have, in the US, the “Disabilities Act” that is supposed to protect the rights of individuals with “disabilities”. How many people with disabilities are actually working? These people were proud working people, who showed that their “disability” was a gift to marvel at, and were proud of their “uniqueness”, which they could profit from. They were in show business, and they were, for the most part, treated well. What is sad is depriving someone of a living, and MAKING them dependent on the state. Old timers can remember that the Sideshow was the BEST and most popular parts of Circuses and Carnivals. It opened a lot of peoples minds, and exposed “normal” kids to a part of life — and a way of life. Kids routinely, at one time, ran away to join Circuses! Freaks are cool! It is OK to be so controversial in your appearance that you are the center of attention. Rock Stars routinely make themselves up to look “Freakish”. It’s sad that society these days deprives real freaks from making a decent living.

  • Reply August 23, 2011

    Lady Macbeth

    Mellin, my thoughts exactly! She does resemble girls today with documented cases of progeria – from her lack of hair to head shape to stunted growth to poor vision – but lived far too long to have had the disease.

  • Reply September 3, 2011

    IDOL HANDS

    Agree with Dani!

  • Reply October 13, 2011

    hildogg

    the photo reminds me of the bee girl in the blind melon video. a sad, sad bee girl.

  • Reply May 1, 2012

    Jenny

    Amen, neonJeff. Many freaks were proud and enjoyed their jobs. While the above sympathy is well-intentioned, it is misplaced. The article clearly states that she enjoyed the attention. I would imagine this to have been a far better life than the one she led in the asylum.

  • Reply February 26, 2013

    Celia

    Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is
    a really well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information.
    Thanks for the post. I’ll certainly comeback.

  • Reply July 22, 2013

    Gregory

    I have never heard of Koo Koo the Bird Girl. How utterly fascinating. It is sad but some exist only to exploit others.

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