THE BOOK NOOK: Bizarre circus kidnapping story available in paperback

“Truevine — Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: a True Story of the Jim Crow South” by Beth Macy (Back Bay Books, 421 pages, $17.99)

During her time as a newspaper reporter in Roanoke, Va., the writer Beth Macy knew the best story in town but she never had much luck reporting on it. That story involved two brothers from that area who had been kidnapped in 1899 and forced to work in a circus freak show as virtual slaves.

The brothers, George and Willie Muse, were laboring in a tobacco field one day when the young boys had simply vanished. Their mother, Harriett, was devastated. The boys’ unusual appearance due to a lack of skin pigmentation caused by albinism had apparently attracted the attention of some circus-freak hunters.

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One of the brothers, Willie, lived to be 108. A few years ago, Macy was scrolling through Facebook when she noticed that someone had posted a picture of the Muse brothers. That chance sighting reminded her that she had never been able to get to the heart of their story. That was when she decided to write a book about them.

The amazing product of her intrepid investigative reporting is the book “Truevine — Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: a True Story of the Jim Crow South.” Macy dug into newspaper archives and circus records to piece together the strange history of two frightened young boys who grew up in and spent most of their lives with various circuses.

Their abduction from that tobacco field remains a mystery. Their mother insisted they were kidnapped. The two boys were forced to perform for sideshow patrons who gawked at them.

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Advertisements proclaimed the brothers were from exotic countries and even from another planet.

When the boys were first taken, their captors told them to stop crying and that their mother was dead. Some years later the boys came through Roanoke with a circus. They had grown accustomed to their unusual lives. Their mother was in the crowd that day. She recognized George and Willie right away.

And they recognized her. That day Harriett Muse fought for their freedom and she got them back. Try to imagine the scene — the Muse boys see their mother after believing she was dead and she refuses to allow the circus to continue to hold her boys captive. She brought them home. If that sounds like a Hollywood moment it very well could be; the book has been optioned for a film.

They didn’t stay home very long. The circus had become their life. They went back on the road. But now they were being paid for their work. And on the occasions when the paychecks would stop being mailed to their mother she would send out her enforcer, a determined fellow from Roanoke. He would track down the brothers and make sure the paychecks started flowing again.

These mysteries are still worth your reading time

The author, who grew up in Urbana, knows a great story when she finds one and she is relentless in her research. She found out George and Willie were gifted musicians who could instantly play practically any musical instrument. They traveled the world and their earnings liberated their mother from a life of poverty.

You can hear my interview with Beth Macy Sunday morning at 10:30 on WYSO (91.3 FM).

Vick Mickunas of Yellow Springs interviews authors every Saturday at 7 a.m. and on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.


What: A book signing and talk by Beth Macy for "Truevine — Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother's Quest: a True Story of the Jim Crow South."

Where: Books and Co. at The Greene, 4453 Walnut St. in Beavercreek

When: Sunday, Nov. 19 at 2 p.m.

About the Author