Much has been made of the startling transformation made by Naomi Grossman into the popular and loveable American Horror Story character of Pepper. People have been asking if Pepper was a real person -perhaps from the heyday of Freakshows – and the answer is both yes and no.
The character of Pepper is based and inspired by on the incomparable Schlitzie the Pinhead.
The true identity of the pinhead known as Schlitzie is debatable but the current common consensus is that Schlitzie was born as Simon Metz on September 10, 1901 in the Bronx, but that truly isn’t important. What is important is that Schiltzie’s indomitable spirit was infectious, and is still contributing popular culture. Contrary to the American Horror Story character of Pepper, Schlitzie was actually a boy. Shlitzie was advertised as a girl, and his ever present moo-moo attire only added to the ruse.
Schlitzie’s birth parents remain mysterious figures, and little is know of them. It’s commonly believed that they ‘sold’ their special child to a showman for display quite early on as it seems as though Schlitzie was always a part of one sideshow or another.
Despite his rather traumatic beginning, Schlitzie would go on to be one of the most beloved attractions of all time.
Pinheads were staples of circus sideshows and curious freakshows for many years. Often billed as forgotten tribes of aztecs, missing links and even alien offspring. The pinhead condition, known clinically as microcephaly, often came with a stunted intellect – hence Schlitzie’s child-like demeanor.
Schlitzie looked at the world with an innocent wonder and people loved him for it.
Like Pepper, Schlitzie was also briefly institutionalized, but he was eventually freed to rejoin the sideshow family he loved.
Schlitzie was a sweetheart and loved by all who knew him. His impish antics entertained millions of people and his roles in Tod Browning’s film Freaks and opposite Bela Lugosi in the Island Of Lost Souls are iconic. Schlitzie has inspired comic book characters, as well as characters in film. Now he has inspired another creation- Pepper of American Horror Story.
While there were several other famous freakshow pinheads, none were as endearing as Schlitzie. Naomi Grossman has managed to capture a little piece of what made Schlitzie so special, and the fans of American Horror Story love Pepper because of it.
For more information on Schlitzie, read his full entry here.
Image: from the author’s personal collection.