By BETH MACY and JEN McCAFFERY
The Roanoke Times
Nancy Saunders often awoke to voices in the darkness.
Gawkers flocked in the early morning hours to the front door of her family's frame house in Northwest Roanoke -- calling for Eko and Iko, her great-uncles.
The year was 1961, and black people and white people alike wanted to know:
Were Eko and Iko really savages? Cannibals? Ambassadors from Mars?
And were the light-skinned brothers black or white?
Sometimes, her great-uncles would do as they had throughout their careers: They would oblige the curious.
Other times, Nancy, a sixth-grader at the all-black Harrison School, would order the people to go away. As her great-grandmother, Harriett Muse, had done decades before, Nancy fought to protect her great-uncles.
Either way, the gawkers were disappointed. Those who did see Eko and Iko -- the names bestowed upon the brothers by sideshow promoters -- didn't gaze upon the fearsome creatures they'd heard about -- savages with wild hair and tribal loincloths.
Instead, in their place stood two men. Willie Muse, 68, and George Muse, 71.
Old men, retired from the circus after more than 60 years. No massive dreadlocks. No Martian insignia. George's close-cropped hair was white, Willie's was reduced to peach fuzz.
But the voices Nancy heard were insistent, at home and in school.
Her uncles were wild men. Trapped in a cage. Forced to eat raw meat.
Nancy knew the truth.
During the pre-TV era when carnivals and circuses were front-page news, Eko and Iko had been two of the best-known "freaks" to star in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sideshows.
How the brothers made it to the big top big time, performing in glamorous cities all over the country and even for the queen of England, is not a glossy success story.
George and Willie Muse looked different -- they were albinos, born to black parents in rural Franklin County in the 1890s. In an era clouded by racism and a public fascination with human oddities, their milky-white skin determined the course of their lives. Eventually, it catapulted them to fame.
The Muse brothers achieved renown at a time when bounty hunters for circus showmen canvassed the globe, from the jungles of Africa to the backwoods of the rural South. Searching for the next act that would bring in big money, they would promote their finds as new scientific discoveries.
As circus showmen spun exotic tales about their acts, the story of how George and Willie came to join the circus achieved mythic status. For generations, the Muse family insisted the brothers were kidnapped and forced to work in the circus.
In Roanoke's black community, the tale of the Muse brothers was told in whispers and warnings, handed down through four generations.
"My parents grew up hearing that story," says Reginald Shareef, a political science professor at Radford University and historian of black Roanoke. When parents told their kids to stick together with friends, it was the Muse kidnapping they were talking about. Neighborhood kids would tease: "If you go to the fair, you might get kidnapped like Eko and Iko."
The story seemed so incredible that the young Shareef, now 50, had a hard time believing it. But eventually an adult took him aside and told him, "No, that really happened."
Newspaper accounts from that era tell a different story from the family's, a discrepancy that may be explained by racism -- in white society and the newspaper itself -- and the passage of years. It's unclear exactly where the truth lies.
By cobbling together what remains of family recollections, circus records and press accounts -- which sometimes conflict -- the journey of Willie Muse can be told at last.
When George died in 1971, Nancy decided her Uncle Willie had had enough: of reliving the kidnapping, of being gawked at, of performing his old circus songs for passersby.
Of being a freak.
For three decades, Nancy nursed Willie as he grappled first with blindness, then old age. And she shielded him.
She said no to reporters who wanted to interview the once famous freak.
She said no to historians who wanted to record his journey.
"I was his guardian, and I said to everyone, Leave him alone. He's had enough of people looking at him, she recalls. "He was on retirement. Besides, anyone that God had left here for that long, he deserved respect."
Willie Muse died this spring, on Good Friday. He was 108 years old.
Now, Nancy has agreed to tell his story.
"Because he was special," she says. "Just special."
And, "to make sure everybody knows my uncle wasn't no damn fool."
And, "because I'm tired of all these myths that my uncle was crazy, and he was in a cage."
She will talk about the tunes he loved to sing and play, about his adventures among the bearded ladies and sword swallowers, and about the many Roanokers who came together in his last years to shepherd him toward a dignified death, at home, in his own bed.
But she will not answer the question: Which one of the famous duo was Uncle Willie? Was he Eko or Iko?
She never knew him by either of those names.
He was not a freak, she says firmly. "He was Mr. Willie Muse.