SCHLITZIE THE PINHEAD

SCHLITZIE THE PINHEAD

The true identity of the pinhead known as Schlitzie is still somewhat debatable. The most common opinion is that Schlitzie was born as Simon Metz on September 10, 1901 in the Bronx. His birth parents remain mysterious figures to this day and young Simon was likely ‘sold’ to a showman for display. Yet, despite his rather traumatic beginning, Schlitzie would go on to be one of the most beloved attractions of all time.

Schlitzie was born microcephalus, a condition characterised by an abnormally small and often pointed cranium. The condition often resulted in retardation and Schlitzie himself was as cognitive as a four year old. Previous to Schlitzie, the display and exhibiting of ‘pinheads’ was nothing new. In the 1800’s pinheads were often exhibited as a species apart from man, as the last members of an ancient race – usually Aztecs – and on occasion they were billed as being from another planet. During his lifetime, Schlitzie was exhibited as all of these things. Schlitzie was most famously preceded by the pinhead Zip, and even today pinheads enjoy popularity as a microcephalus man dubbed Beetlejuice frequents The Howard Stern Show.

For much of his career, Schlitzie was billed as female. This was mostly due to his dress-like attire which was an attire choice based purely on his incontinence. While popular with crowds, Schlitzie’s biggest fans were his colleagues and caretakers. To sum up the reason for this fondness is difficult but the wonderment Schlitzie held for the daily mundane, his childlike exuberance, his eternal innocence greatly influenced those around him. Schlitzie was a ray of sunshine, and his smile and unconditional love shined on all those around him.

During his long career Schlitzie entertained millions of carnival and film goers with his antics. He was perhaps best known for his role in the Tod Browning cult classic film Freaks – though he also appeared in Island Of Lost Souls opposite Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. As a sideshow entertainer, Schlitzie was employed by every major name in the business. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, and the Dobritsch International Circus all had Schlitzie in their shows at some point.

Although Schlitzie had no known biological family, during the 1936 season of the Tom Mix Circus sideshow George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer, became Schlitzie’s legal guardian. Surtees was, by all accounts, a caring and loving guardian but when he passed in the early 1960’s his daughter had Schlitzie committed to a Los Angeles County Hospital.

Schlitzie remained committed for some time, until he was recognized by sword swallower Bill Unks. Unks just happened to be working at the hospital during the off season when he noticed a very sad and depressed Schlitzie. Schlitzie missed the carnival, missed his friends and the adoration of the crowds. Hospital authorities eventually determined that the best care for Schlitzie would be to make him a ward of Unks’ employer, showman Sam Kortes, and return to the sideshow.

Schlitzie never truly retired. He was eventually cared for by performer friends and settled in and apartment near MacArthur Park Lake in downtown Los Angeles. In his final years, Schlitzie could be seen feeding the pigeons and ducks with his guardian, performing for people as they passed by.

He continued to enchant crowds until his passing in 1971 at the age of 71.

For a personal account of the life of Schlitzie, click here.

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.

14 Comments

  • Reply May 29, 2008

    agata

    Wow, watching this video mad me a bit teary, i used to volunteer in a care home and there was a guy there who looked JUST like schlitzie… He was great i loved him to bits… wow.

    • Reply June 1, 2012

      Annia in Canada

      I did a highschool co-op placement at a group home and there were a pair of sisters who look like Schlitzie. I loved them!

  • Reply November 9, 2008

    Libby

    Schlitzie finally received a tombstone, the funds having been raised by fans of http://www.findadeath.com for his previously unmarked grave in California. There’s a bio-article on that site and picture of the new stone (bearing the surname Surtees.)

  • Reply March 6, 2010

    Marty

    Schlitzie is a god damn badass. im getting him tattooed on my arm in honor of one awesome actor and performer.

  • Reply May 12, 2010

    isabella

    ilove schlitzie he was so sweet.

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  • Reply April 3, 2011

    Wolf Krakowski

    In August of 1965, I turned 18. I had a job working with Conklin and Garrett Shows at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, where I was living with my family and going to 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 Schlitzie abused by so-called “normal people” in the audience. They would taunt him mercilessly as well as throw 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. I figured the carnival would beat the hell out of Grade 13. It did.
    After setting up in London, 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 Schlitzie’s and that of his guardian, Frenchy, a former sword-swallower and, he claimed, a “Gypsy prince.” He sported an impressive ring as proof of this royal status; I had no reason to disbelieve him. We would all hang out together after a long day on the fairgrounds; maybe play some cards and just relax.
    Frenchy would drive us all to work, stopping off first at one of the government-run liquor stores for a bottle, as they would be closed when
    our workday was over.
    One day, Frenchy stopped the car in front of a pawn shop with a display of knives and swords in the window. He said he wanted to go inside and swallow a sword – to keep in practice. Schlitzie and I lingered in the car for a few moments, waiting for the song playing on the radio to end.
    He loved music and would rock and groove to it and wave his arms to the rhythm.
    When we entered the store, hand-in-hand, I observed Frenchy disinfecting a sword and proceed to swallow it. The two rather elderly women running the place gasped in horror and disbelief. When they turned to see me, sporting rather long hair for 1965, and Schlitzie, the blood just drained from their faces. Frenchy thanked them for the use of the sword and we continued on our way to work. I would later see Frenchy practice his art using a straightened coat-hanger from the hotel closet. He always disinfected it first, of course.
    Schlitzie, like all children, craved tendernes and affection. He would snuggle up to me and I would put my arms around him. This simple contact and human warmth would cause him to moan and sob. I was too young and inexperienced at the time to fully grasp what Schlitzie must have been feeling. One time, seeing me giving Schlitzie a hug, Frenchy told me I mustn’t do that; that Schlitzie would come to want these embraces all the time and just never let me go. I did as he asked – reluctantly.
    I’m 63 now and over the years and across the mileage, I have never forgotten Schlitzie and Frenchy and the days I “ran away with the circus.”

    Wolf Krakowski
    Kame’a Media: http://www.kamea.com

    • Reply June 1, 2012

      Annia in Canada

      OMG! Schlitzie was in Toronto! I’ve got to ask my parents if they remember seeing him at the Ex (too bad I wasn’t born a generation earlier).

      • Reply August 3, 2012

        Wolf

        Hello Annia:

        Yes – you missed a wonderful era.
        In 1965, I was 18 and free as a bee.
        One could get a nice apartment for
        $85. a month and every long-haired
        stranger was your brother.

        You could see Joni Mitchell, Neil Young
        (in the Ugly Ducklings with Rick James)
        or Steppenwolf (then the Sparrow) for
        the price of a sticky lemonade.
        There was no AIDS, not even herpes.
        When you went to the EX, you could eat
        free samples in the Food Building all day
        long.

        I didn’t understand it then and was too green to
        articulate it within myself at the time, but Schlitzie
        gave me the opportunity to participate in the act of
        compassion.

        I understand every age has it’s own unique
        challenges, but I wouldn’t want to be young today.
        Bull$hit and corruption rule.

        Wishing you much, much luck!

        Peace and Love.

        Wolf

  • Reply October 13, 2011

    magda

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mb7Bq5u2mZQ&feature=channel_video_title I think this is the sma condition, very sad ….

  • Reply October 25, 2011

    shelly boyle

    What a beautiful story about Sclitzie. It is truly a miracle thst he survived and managed to live such an interesting life. I’m sure he had to endure a lot of unkind treatment but hopefully the good outweighed the bad.

  • Reply October 27, 2011

    Flora

    I am now a fan of Schlitze, I just saw the movie “Freaks” and he really tugged on my heartstrings. What a wonderful sweet story. May he rest in peace and his legacy will live forever!

  • Reply October 31, 2011

    Miss H

    @ Libby on 9th November 2008 — I believe the touching memorial you refer to is here: http://www.findadeath.com/Deceased/s/shlitze/gravesidememorial.htm

    @ Wolf Krakowsi on 3rd April 2011 — Thank you so much for the testimonial. I’m grateful you shared it. I myself have never had the opportunity to meet someone with microcephaly, but a human being is a human being, and I personally believe that the “smallest” of them is capable of changing the world.

  • Reply March 13, 2012

    Me

    I’m unsympathetic and have no feelings towards the average human being, the only people that I respect are animals and the mentally disabled; as they know not right from wrong. It is truly amazing that he was able to live to adulthood. Excellently written article. Love the website.

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