Piebald is a word often used to describe animals with large black and white spots, however in the golden age of sideshow – and even long before that – it was used to describe human beings with this unusual skin condition.
Contrary to what one may assume, piebalding is not related to albinism and is instead caused by dominant mutations of an altogether different set of genes in a condition known as Vitiligo These mutations can occur in persons of any color. However, persons of African heritage with vitilligo make up the bulk of sideshow performers – often called leopard or zebra people – and are the subject of most of the medical history – most of that early history is filled with racist statements and ignorance.
The first image depicting ‘piebalding’ in a human being occurred in the pages of Histoire naturelle by Buffon. A lithograph features a young girl – around the age of five – standing amid an exhibit of curiosities with a two-tone body. Buffon never met the child first hand but owned
an original painting the lithograph was based upon. The painting was done by an unknown Columbian artist in 1740 and bore the following inscription:
Despite this rather detailed pedigree, many naturalist of the day insisted that the child was the result of a white and a negresse and that to preserve the honor of the Society of Jesus it was written that both parents were slaves. Later, that diagnosis was changed, by Buffon, to include the union of a slave and an albino.
Despite the fact that many other children were born with piebald – John Richardson Primrose Bobey (1774, Jamaica), Magdeleine (1783, St. Lucia) George Gratton (1808, St. Vincent) and Lisbey (1905, Honduras) – Buffons odd hypothesis stood as fact for nearly two hundred years.