Schlitzie The Pinhead

Schlitzie The Pinhead

While still up for debate, Schlitzie (The Pinhead) was born in the Bronx on Sept. 10, 1901 (d. Sept. 24, 1971) as Simon Metz. Schlitzie. He was born with the medical condition microcephaly, and was an American sideshow performer.

Simon Metz

Microcephaly

microcephaly comparison illustration

A side-view illustration showing a baby with microcephaly (left), and a baby with an average head (right).

Microcephaly is a condition that is characterized by an extremely small brain and cranium as well as a small stature. Many times, microcephaly results in intellectual disabilities. It is said that Schlitzie’s intellectual functioning was that of a three- or four-year-old and that he stood about four feet tall.

Obviously, due to his intellectual disability, he was unable to care for himself and only spoke words consisting of one syllable. However, he was able to form a few simple phrases. Moreover, Schlitzie could perform simple tasks and understand most of what others said to him. He also had a quick reaction time and mimicked others well.

a little boy with microcephaly

A little boy with microcephaly.

The Exploitation of Individuals with Microcephaly Dates Back to the 1800’s

Exploiting individuals with microcephaly was nothing new. In the 1800’s, a set of twins with microcephaly were put on display (Pip and Flip). Although the twins were born in Georgia, they were billed as the “Twins from the Yucatan,” which may be why individuals with microcephaly (including Schlitzie) were sometimes exhibited as the surviving members of an ancient race (Aztecs).

In addition, individuals with microcephaly were frequently exhibited as a species other than homo sapiens (i.e., “The Missing Link,” “The Monkey Girl,” “The Pinhead”), or simply as an oddity – “What is It?” and even as “Not of This World.” Throughout his lifetime, Schlitzie was put on display as all of these things.

As a Sideshow Performer

Since early childhood, Schlitzie was moved from one Freak Show to the next. During his career, he worked with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, Tom Mix Circus, the Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, the Dobritsch International Circus, Foley & Burke Carnival and the Clyde Beatty Circus. Due to Schlitzie’s career as an outdoor entertainer, he became a popular cultural icon.

Schlitzie and Pop Culture

fictional character Zippy the Pinhead

From time to time, Schlitzie’s appearance and story are mirrored in pop culture. For example, the Ramones wrote a song about him, entitled Pinhead. The television series, American Horror Story: Freak Show created a character based on him and the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead is also based on Schlitzie.

As an Actor


Schlitzie’s first onscreen appearance was in the film “The Sideshow” (1928). However, he is best known for the role he played in the movie “Freaks” (1932), which, at the time, was widely controversial: In fact, the United Kingdom banned the movie for 30 years. He also appeared opposite Bela Lugosi and Charles Laughton in the movie “Island of the Lost Souls” (1932).

Despite the fact that his entertainment career came about due to his unique physical characteristics, it was his adventurous, infectious spirit that captivated those around him.

Schlitzie Considered by Many a ‘Ray of Sunshine’

Although he was popular with his audiences, without a doubt, his biggest fans were his caretakers and his colleagues: Schlitzie was considered a ray of sunshine. He was sociable, affectionate, loved to sing, dance and enjoyed nothing more than being the center of attention. Many believe that his childlike enthusiasm, amazement with the mundane, unconditional love and everlasting innocence were the traits that influenced the way those around Schlitzie viewed him.

His Attire Led to Him to Being Billed as a Female

Most likely due to his attire Schlitzie was frequently billed as a female. It is theorized that the reasons for this feminine attire (muumuu) included his need for additional room to wear an adult diaper as well as the desire of his promoters to make him look more unusual for paying audiences. For those around him, whether Schlitzie was male or female seemed irrelevant as the people who were close to him varied their pronouns between male and female, indiscriminately.

George Surtees Becomes Schlitzie’s Adoptive Father

In 1936, as Schlitzie did not have a biological family, George Surtees chose to become his legal guardian. He legally adopted him and gave him his surname – Surtees. George Surtees served as a loving, caring father until he passed away in 1965. After her father’s death, Surtees’s daughter placed Schlitzie in a Los Angeles County Hospital.

Sadness and Depression

Schlitzie remained committed until Bill Unks, a sword swallower, recognized him. Since it was the off-season for outdoor entertainment, Unks was working at the hospital. He noticed that Schlitzie was sad and that he appeared depressed. It was obvious to Unks that he missed his life with the carnival, his friends and the admiration of the crowds. Eventually, hospital authorities determined that the best treatment for Schlitzie was to allow him to return to his life with the carnival. He became a ward of showman Sam Kortes (Unk’s employer) and happily returned to carnival life.

Always the Entertainer

Schlitzie never fully retired, although he eventually settled in an apartment in downtown Los Angeles, near the MacArthur Park Lake, where he was cared for by his colleagues. During his final years, he was frequently seen sitting on a bench with his guardian feeding the ducks and the pigeons, and performing for those who passed by.

Gone, but Never Forgotten

actor from the movie Freaks

A screenshot of Schlitzie (TheHMA.net).

Schlitzie continued to enchant those around him until he passed away at 70-years-old. Initially, he was buried in an unmarked grave; however, his fans collected money to buy him a proper headstone and give him a proper burial.

Although it may seem cruel that Schlitzie was put on display due to his unique physical characteristics and simple-minded behavior, Schlitzie Surtees knew of nothing else and loved his career as an entertainer. Despite his unique characteristics and intellectual disabilities, he was a ray of sunshine to those around him.

The Zika Virus

Zika Virus

Cases of Microcephaly Likely to Increase, Worldwide

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), if current infection rates of the Zika virus continue at their current rate in Puerto Rico, 1 in 4 people in Puerto Rico will become infected with the virus.

Precautionary Advice from the CDC

Pregnant women, women who become pregnant while the virus is still in their system and the men who impregnate women with the Zika virus still in their systems have an increased risk for their baby being born with microcephaly. However, the CDC has set forth a time-frame for individuals who become infected with the Zika virus to follow if they are interested in starting a family.

Final Thoughts…

Although there are individuals infected with the Zika virus in 49 states, as of Oct. 2016, Florida is the only state that has locally-acquired cases of the virus. There is no way to predict the number of families that will be affected by the Zika Virus. However, due to the current threat of the virus, we are faced with the possibility of a substantial increase in the number of children who will be born with microcephaly: I am hopeful that these children will be accepted and loved for who they are. Let each of us embrace their differences and enjoy the warmth of their sunshine, simplicity, and enthusiasm.

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