1902 Encyclopedia > Dwarf


DWARF (Saxon dwerg, dweorg; German, Zwerg), a term applied to men, animals, and plants that fail to reach even the mediocrity of growth natural to their respective classes. It is also otherwise applied. In France, for instance, a yolkless egg is termed "un oeuf nain," or dwarf egg; and an imitation of fine English cloth is called "nain Londrin," technically "London dwarf."

The nanus or pumilo of the Romans might be a dwarf by nature or a person dwarfed by cruel art. In the former case, his lack of height found compensation in increased strength, as exemplified in the line by Propertius, "Nanus et ipse suos breviter concretus in artus," &c.; in the latter, where growth had been early suppressed by the dealers who manufactured monstrosities for fashionable people in Rome, weakness bred contempt. The nanus, or, if he were more than usually diminutive, the nanium, was exposed to application of the proverb, "nanus cum sis, cede," equivalent to "little people must not be in our way!"

Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren wedding image

The wedding of "General Tom Thumb" (Charles Stratton) and Lavinia Warren in 1863

Various have been the recipes for dwarfing children from birth. The most effective, according to report, was anointing the back bone with the grease of moles, bats, and dormice. It is also said that pups were dwarfed by frequently washing their feet and backbone ; the consequent drying and hardening of those parts hindered, it was alleged, their extension. In England, the growth of boys intended for riders in horse-races is kept down to some extent by the weakening process of "sweating."

There is a familiar story of a partnership entered into between a dwarf and a giant. The dwarf had the intellect, the giant had the strength; the result of this limited liability was that the giant received all the blows, and the dwarf all the profits. The partnership was consequently broken up. A fact, of which we are reminded by this fiction, occurred in Austria in the 17th century. To please the caprice of an empress, all the giants and dwarfs in the empire were brought together to Vienna, and were lodged in one building. The dwarfs were told they had nothing to fear from the giants; but the latter were soon put in bodily fear of the dwarfs, who made the life of their stupendous companions unbearable by teazing them, molesting them, tripping them up, and unscrupulously robbing them. The giants, with tears as big as pearls in their eyes, prayed the authorities to relieve them from the persecution of their tiny enemies, and the prayer was granted. At a later period, another German princess promoted marriages among dwarfs, but without succeeding in the object she had in view. When Lady Mary Wortley Montague was in Germany, in the last century, she found that a dwarf was a necessary appendage to every noble family. At that time English ladies kept monkeys. The imperial dwarfs at the Viennese court were described by Lady Mary as "as uggly as devils" and "bedaubed with diamonds." They had succeeded the court fools, and exer-cised some part of the more ancient office. Absolute princes could not stoop to familiar discourse with mankind of less degree. Therefore did they hold dwarfs to be outside humanity, made intimate associates of them, and allowed them an unrestrained freedom of speech, by the exercise of which the dwarfs imparted to their masters wholesome truths which on the lips of ordinary men would have been treason. One of the kings made a prime-minister of his truths which a minister of ordinary stature would have been afraid to utter.

It could not have been for this reason that Stanislas, ex-king of Poland and duke of Lorraine, was so attached to his dwarf, Nicholas Ferry, otherwise known as "Bébé," for this dwarf was weak in mind and body. Bébé was one of three dwarf children of peasant parents in the Vosges. He was 3 feet in height, and his fame has not died out at Nancy and the department of the Meurthe. At his death in 1764 he was in his twenty-third year; and, among the fine phrases of which his epitaph is composed, the world is still assured that Bébé was "chéri du nouvel Antonin."

But Bébé was not so remarkable a dwarf as Richebourg, who died in Paris in 1858, at the age of ninety. He was only 23 inches in height. In his childhood he was a servant (without especial duty) in the Orleans family. In later years, Richebourg was their pensioner. He is said to have been put to strange use in the Revolutionary period, -- passing in and out of Paris as an infant in a nurse’s arms, but with despatches, dangerous to carry, in the little man’s baby wrappings! At present, on the Continent, Russia and Turkey alone have a common sympathy for dwarfs. At the court of the sultan, should the dwarf, besides being of elfish height, be deaf, dumb, and qualified to hold a place of among the official eunuchs, the poor creature is accounted as a priceless treasure.

The early history of British dwarfs is less studded with wonders than the record of dwarfs of the classical times. Britain has nothing to compare with Philetas of Cos, the little tutor of Ptolemy Philadelphus. Aelian would have us believe that Philetas was so light as well as diminutive that he wore leaden weights in his pockets to prevent his being blown away. Nor does any British chronicle register such minute marvels as the couple of dwarfs possessed by Julia, the niece of Augustus, namely, Coropas and Julia’s little. handmaid Andromeda. The height of both was 2 feet 4 inches. This, however, was little less than the stature of the Aztec dwarfs who were exhibited (and were publicly married) in London some twenty years ago. It is not that British annals or tradition can be said to be entirely silent on dwarfs as wonderful as Aelian’s. The earliest, known by the now generic name of "Tom Thumb," presents himself to us in the ancient ballad which begins with the record that "In Arthur’s court Tom Thumb did live." Antiquaries, on probably no better foundation, are content with placing the proto-Thumb at the court of King Edgar. It is certain that such shrunken samples of humanity figured in great festivals, as we see their foreign brethren in some of the pictures of the Italian and Spanish masters. The first English dwarf of whom there is authentic history was presented to Queen Henrietta by the duchess of Buckingham, as he stept out of a pie at a banquet. This was Jeffery Hudson of Rutlandshire. He was born in 1619, and was only 1 1/2 feet high from his eighth year to his thirtieth, after which he grew to the stature of 3 feet 9 inches, and never went beyond it. His life was not made up of court pleasures. He fought two duels, -- one with a turkey-cock, a battle recorded by Davenant, and a second with Mr Crofts, who came to the meeting with a squirt, but who in the more serious encounter which ensued was shot dead by little Hudson, who fired from horseback, the saddle putting him on a level with his lofty but unlucky antagonist. Twice was Jeffery made prisoner,—once by the Dunkirkers as he was returning from France, whither he had been on homely business for the queen; the second time was when he fell into the hands of Barbary corsairs. In each case his liberty was soon purchased. But Jeffery died in prison, nevertheless. He was accused of participation in the "Popish Plot," and in 1682 this dwarf died in the Gate House, in the sixty-third year of his age.

Contemporary with Hudson were the two dwarfs of Henrietta Maria, Gibson and his wife Anne. They were married by the queen’s wish; and the two together measured only a couple of inches over 7 feet. They had nine children, five of whom, who lived, were of ordinary stature. Edmund Waller celebrated the nuptials, Evelyn designated the husband as the "compendium of a man," and Lely painted them hand in hand. Gibson was miniature painter to Charles I, and drawing-master to the daughters of James II., the Princesses Mary and Anne, when they were children. This Cumberland pigmy, who began his career as a page, first in a "gentle," next in the royal family, died in 1690, in his seventy-fifth year, and is buried in St Paul’s, Covent Garden. The last court dwarf in England was Coppernin, a lively little imp in the service of the Princess (Augusta) of Wales, the mother of George III. The last dwarf retainer in a gentleman’s family was the one kept by Mr Beckford, the author of Vathek and builder of Fonthill. He was rather too big to be flung from one guest to another, as used to be done at after-dinner tables, when the wine had got the better of common sense.

Of exhibited dwarfs in England, the most celebrated was the Pole, Borulwaski, whom fashion patronized in the last century and forgot in the present one. He was then a yard and 3 inches in height, and he had a sister shorter than himself by the head and shoulders. Borulwaski was a handsome man, a wit, and something of a scholar. He travelled over all Europe; and he -- born in the reign of George II, 1739 -- died in his well-earned retirement near Durham, in the reign of Victoria, 1837. Borulwaski, buried in the above-named city, lies by the side of the Falstaffian Stephen Kemble. The companionship reminds one of that of the dwarf skeleton of Jonathan Wild by the side of that of the Irish Giant, at the Royal College of Surgeons, London.

In the year in which Borulwaski died, 1837, the line of publicly exhibited dwarfs was continued by the birth of the existing American pigmy, Charles Stratton, better known as "General Tom Thumb." In 1844 he appeared in England, where his grace, vivacity, and good humour made him popular, from the royal family to the general public, before whom he acted at the Lyceum Theatre. He also made his appearance on the stage in Paris. After extensive travel in both hemispheres, he again visited England in 1857, but the dwarf man, despite many personal and intellectual qualities, was less attractive than the dwarf boy. In the year 1863 the "General" married the very minute American lady, Lavinia Warren (born in 1842), with whom he has seen many lands, and they are now enjoying honourable retirement in their own. (J. DO.)

The above article was written by John Doran, Ph.D., author of History of Court Fools, Memories of our Great Towns, Their Majesties' Servants: Annals of the English Stage, etc.

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