Historic circus ‘freak’ had Bernards roots
‘Zip the Pinhead,’ born in Bernards, rose to national fame
WILLIAM HENRY JOHNSON
By W. JACOB PERRY
August 17, 2012
BERNARDS TWP. – He was known to millions across the nation and his death 86 years ago made the front page of The New York Times, yet hardly anyone knows he was born in the township.
William Henry Johnson, an African-American born in Liberty Corner in 1857, gained fame and renown as a freak show attraction in P.T. Barnum’s traveling circus under the name, “Zip the Pinhead” or “Zip the What Is It?”
Johnson stood less than five feet tall and had an unusually small, conical head that captured the imagination of circus promoters.
For nearly 50 years, in an era of racial stereotyping, he was dressed up in a fur suit and billed as the survivor of a lost species.
But Johnson was far from a hapless spectacle. He developed an act in which he sang and danced and endeared himself to audiences.
The New York Times said only Tom Thumb and singer Jenny Lind rivaled Johnson as circus performers, “but some say that neither exceeded Zip in popularity.” It is said that more than 100 million people saw him.
Johnson left here as a child and later lived in Bound Brook. Although some circus histories have mentioned his place of birth as “Liberty Corners,” his local roots have been virtually forgotten.
Even The Bernardsville News, in a 1926 article on his death, said nothing of his origins.