Schlitzie was one of America's greatest circus and sideshow performers. He worked in various circuses for decades during the twentieth century and left a definitive mark on the performance scene.
Many people still don't know the story of this legendary trouper, though. Because he was abandoned by his family at a very young age, many details about his origins are based on speculation. Schlitzie was born with microcephaly, a disease that made his head much smaller than normal (hence the "pinhead" moniker) and gave him the mental capacity of a 3-year-old. He was also quite small, only ever growing to a height of 4 feet.
Schlitzie's disabilities rarely stopped him - he loved performing and took on the world with a smile. His exuberance and love of life set him apart from other sideshow performers and landed him a spot in the hearts of many Americans at a time when acceptance of those with differences wasn't all that common.
Microcephaly is a very rare disease that only affects one in several thousand babies. Recently, it's unearthed a new flurry of attention because it can be a side effect of the Zika virus. Usually those with microcephaly can be identified by their abnormally small heads at birth and then by stunted growth as they develop. The disease affects brain maturation and can cause epilepsy, cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, and issues with hearing and vision. It is possible for babies born with microcephaly to develop normally, but that rarely happens.
Much about Schlitzie's early history is unknown. His official birthplace, birth date, and name cannot be agreed upon with absolute certainty but most sources agree that his true name was Simon Metz and that he was born in the Bronx in 1901. Interestingly, both last names that were credited to him throughout his life (Metz and Surtees) can be traced back to his handlers. Some other sources report that the performer was born in 1890 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There were also rumors that he was born in Yucatan, Mexico but that may have had something to do with the fact that he was occasionally billed as "The Last Of The Aztecs."
Several accounts of Schlitzie's early life mention that he had a sister named Athelia who was also born with microcephaly. It's extremely difficult to track down information about his relatives, including his potential sister, but some sources report that the siblings came from a wealthy family. Supposedly, their parents were ashamed of the microcephaly-affected children and sold them to a sideshow where they eventually split up.
Schlitzie was preceded by another performing "pinhead" named Zip (pictured above) and there were several other performers with microcephaly during that time period. Because of their uncommon appearance, many of them ended up in sideshows. Today, the general public is much more aware of people with physical and mental differences and Lester Green is a modern performer with microcephaly who goes by the name "Beetlejuice." He has made many appearances on The Howard Stern Show.