The Sicilian Fairy

On April 12, 1824 at his Westminster residence, Carlton House, King George IV was receiving visitors. Lo and behold, introduced by the famous physician Sir Everard Home, a tiny little figure, dressed in a richly embroidered gown, suddenly came forward before the king: a little girl, 9 years old but no taller than 50cm.
Her high-pitched voice and extraordinary features very much amazed the sovereign, who “expressed great pleasure at her appearance.

Reporters, equally astonished, were unable to talk about the child except by relying on the fantastic register, describing her as some kind of pixie:

Only imagine a creature about half as large as a new-born infant; perfect in all parts and lineaments, uttering words in a strange, unearthly voice, understanding what you say and replying to your questions; imagine, I say, this figure of about nineteen inches in height and five pounds in weight,-and you will have some idea of this most extraordinary phenomenon. […] Her effect on the viewer is deeply unsettling. So astonishing is her appearance that he cannot quite believe what he is seeing: she challenges both logical expectations and rational inquiry. […] Her size so flouts the ecpected categories of humanity that she cannot be classified as such. She is […] somehow not quite real: a ‘tolerable sized doll’, a ‘creature’ perfect in all parts and lineaments, uttering owrds in a strange unearthly voice . Here is the fairy of your superstition in actual life […]. The pigmy of ancient mythology brought down to your own day.

(Sights of London, Literary Gazette, 1824)

The “Sicilian Fairy” (this was her nickname) was actually named Caroline Crachami.
Sir Everard Home had seen her for the first time a few days before, presented to the curiosity of the audience for a shilling-two, if one wanted to go on stage to examine her closely and play with her a little.

Home, as a surgeon and anatomist, was very interested in Caroline from a scientific point of view, so he had returned to the show several times. The physician had been immediately noticed by the individual exhibiting the child, a certain Dr. Gilligan, who had wasted no time in circumventing him; taking advantage of his colleague’s high connections, he had quickly succeeded in introducing his Sicilian Fairy to the court. It was this lust for success (and the gains it would bring) that decreed Gilligan’s downfall and, unfortunately, sealed little Caroline’s fate as well.

The Carlton Palace appointment had indeed caused a stir, and the London press began to take an interest in the “smallest dwarf the world had ever seen.” All this attention, however, did not play in Gilligan’s favor: journalists began to notice that something was not quite right.

The doctor claimed to be the child’s father, boasting of Italian origins; too bad he had a heavy Irish accent. Already someone in the audience had exposed him, shouting, “Does the Palermo you say you were born in happen to be in the County of Cork?”

When even in the newspapers people began to question Gilligan’s authorship, he was forced to publish a pamphlet entitled A Brief Memoir of Miss Crachami, the celebrated Sicilian Dwarf.
According to this publication, Caroline was born in Palermo on November 15, 1815, to parents of normal stature. At birth she weighed only one pound (450 g) and measured between 18 and 20 cm in length. Her father, Luigi Emanuele Crachami, was a theater musician like his wife. The couple had three other adult children, all of normal size; once Caroline was born, they had shown her to the Duchess of Parma and other nobles to seek financial support, but without luck. In any case, they had always refused to exhibit her for money. They had then moved to Ireland, where they had another child of normal height.

The pamphlet glossed nicely over Dr. Gilligan’s equivocal role: how come he was now exhibiting Caroline in London? What did he have to do with it? How had he obtained her parents’ permission?

In any case, the crowds eager to see this latest mind-blowing novelty grew larger and larger, and the shifts for the poor child became exhausting. Every day, despite her failing health, Caroline sat on a small throne, dressed in lace like a doll; she had to satisfy the curiosity of spectators who tried to get a reaction from her by handing her shiny objects or inciting her to dance.

On June 3, 1824, after receiving more than 200 spectators in a single evening, Caroline Crachami died of exhaustion during the carriage ride to her quarters on Duke Street.
But her sad story did not end at all that day.

When news of her disappearance was published in the press, the dark secret behind the “Sicilian Fairy” finally came to light. Luigi Crachami, the child’s father who worked at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, learned of his daughter’s death from the very newspapers.
Some time before, given Caroline’s poor health, he had had her examined in Dublin by Dr. Gilligan; the doctor advised him to take the child to London where the climate, according to him, was better. The Crachamis, however, did not have the means to move; Dr. Gilligan had been so interested in the little girl’s health that he had offered to accompany her himself, free of charge, to the metropolis. To cover expenses, he had obtained the parents’ consent to expose Caroline occasionally, and only for the planned short stay.
In fact Gilligan, unbeknownst to the parents, had organized a full-scale tour, taking Caroline first to Liverpool, then to Birmingham and Oxford and finally landing in London.

Within days of Caroline’s death, therefore, Louis Crachami arrived in the capital, distraught with grief and anger but determined to take back his daughter’s corpse and bring it back to Ireland for burial. He turned to the magistrates to figure out how to reclaim the body and prevent it from being dissected and displayed in some anatomical collection; however, the task proved more arduous than expected, as the judge was unable to issue an order on the matter.

Meanwhile, Dr. Gilligan was busy squeezing the last money out of the little body: having loaded it onto a cart, he had gone to all the major medical schools. Fighting against time, Luigi Crachami also began making the rounds of all the universities, but he was evidently late: each time he heard that Gilligan had been there the day before trying to sell the little girl’s body.

Crachami finally arrived at Sir Everard Home’s door. Not knowing who was in front of him, Home immediately let slip, “Ah, you’re here about the dwarf’s body!” Once he realized that this Italian was the child’s father, Sir Everard evidently felt guilty, for it was he who had referred Dr. Gilligan to the Royal College of Surgeons.
He gave the distraught Crachami a check for £10 to appease him, and a pass to the Museum. Once there, however, the father discovered that it was too late: the anatomists and students at the College were so eager to examine the body that they had already begun.
According to the papers, the dissection was already well underway, and “the body of his darling progeny mangled in the most dreadful manner.” The articles went on and on (in the sensationalistic and fanciful manner of the time) describing the scene of the devastated father who, weeping bitter tears, clung to the dismembered little corpse while friends tried to persuade him to let go of the remains.
In the end Luigi Crachami was prevented from bringing the body home, and the father returned to Dublin empty-handed. Nothing more was heard of Dr. Gilligan, although it was rumored that he had fled to France after making a total of 1,500 guineas from the whole enterprise (when Caroline was alive, and then selling her corpse).

Annotation regarding the acquisition of the remains of the Sicilian Fairy in the Hunterian Museum Donation Book.

Not even at that point did the child’s body cease to be exhibited as a curiosity of nature.
After making casts of her face, arm, ankle and left foot, the Fairy was prepared by the College’s anatomists. Her tiny and fragile skeleton until recently was still on display at the Hunterian Museum in a glass case amid those of giants Charles Freeman and Charles Byrne.

Caroline Crachami’s story holds one last surprise, if possible even more heartbreaking.
From dental and bone analysis of the skull, it was determined that at the time of her death the child was not nine years old, but only three. Gilligan had therefore also lied about Caroline’s age: the audience would have been less impressed by her stature if they had known she was so young.

Shown for a shilling
Would be thy killing,
Think of Crachami’s miserable span!
No tinier frame the tiny spark could dwell in
Than there it fell in —
But when she felt herself a show — she tried
To shrink from the world’s eye, poor dwarf! and died!

(Thomas Hood, Ode To The Great Unknown, 1825)