What is it?
I was struck by this picture of “Zip the What is It”.
Zip was born William Henry Johnson in Liberty Corners, NJ in 1857 to William and Mahalia Johnson, former slaves.
He was hired by Barnum into the American Museum in 1860. Zip’s stage intro came mere months after the publishing of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species.” Barnum quickly capitalized, displaying Zip as the “missing link”.
His nickname, “What is it,” was coined by none other than author Charles Dickens, who commented to Barnum while watching one of Zip’s frantic performances. Zip would stand erect in a cage, wearing a fur suit, groaning and bounding about for his audience, much like an ape. Sometimes he would use tools in an awkward way and he’d dance, making the audience believe that he was tame.
He became one of Barnum’s most popular performers and remained with the circus until his death in 1926. He died a wealthy man, thanks to his manager, Captain O.K. White, who claimed he never saw Zip unhappy except when he wasn’t on tour. Rumor has it that on his deathbed, his final words to his sister were, ‘Well, we fooled ‘em for a long time’.