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)

Rita Fanari: The Last of the Dwarfs

ROLL UP! ROLL UP! The great phenomenon of nature, the smallest woman in the world, 70 cm tall, 57 years old, weighing 5 Kg. RITA FANARI, from UXELLUS. She has been blind since the age of 14 and yet she threads yarn throug a needle, she sews, and all this in the presence of the public. She responds to any query. Every day at all hours you can see this great phenomenon.

So read the 1907 billboard announcing the debut on the scene of Rita Fanari. Unfortunately it was not a prestigious stage, but a sideshow at the Santa Reparata fair in the small town of Usellus (Oristano), at the time a very remote town in Sardinia, a community of just over a thousand souls. Rita shared her billboard – and perhaps even the stage – with a taxidermy of a two-headed lamb: we can suppose that whoever made that poster added it because he doubted that the tiny woman, alone, would be able to fascinate the gaze of passers-by… So right from the start, little Rita’s career was certainly not stellar.

Rita Fanari was born on 26 January 1850, daughter of Appolonia Pilloni and Placito Fanari. She suffered from pituitary dwarfism, and her sight abandoned her during adolescence; she lived with her parents until in 1900, when they probably died and she was adopted, at the age of fifty, by the family of Raimondo Orrù. This educated and wealthy man exhibited her in various fairs and village festivals including that of Santa Croce in Oristano. Since she had never found a husband, Rita used to appear on stage wearing the traditional dress for bagadia manna (elderly unmarried woman), and over time she gained enough notoriety to even enter vernacular expressions: when someone sang with a high-pitched  voice, people used to mock them by saying “mi paris Arrita Fanài cantendi!” (“You sound like Rita Fanari singing!”).

Rita died in 1913. Her life might seem humble, as negligible as her own stature. A blind little woman, who managed to survive thanks to the interest of a landowner who forced her to perform at village fairs: a person not worthy of note, mildly interesting only to those researching local folklore. One of the “last”, those people whose memory is fogotten by history.

Yet, on closer inspection, her story is significant for more than one reason. Not only she was the only documented case of a Sardinian woman suffering from dwarfism who performed at a sideshow; Rita Fanari was also a rather unusual case for Italy in those years. Let’s try to understand why.

Among all congenital malformations, dwarfism has always attracted particular attention over the centuries. People suffering from this growth deficiency, often considered a sign of good luck and fortune (or even divine incarnations, as apparently was the case among the Egyptians), sometimes enjoyed high favors and were in great demand in all European courts. Owning and even “collecting” dwarfs became an obsession for many rulers, from Sigismund II Augustus to Catherine de’ Medici to the Tsar Peter the Great — who in 1710 organized the scandalous “wedding of dwarfs” I mentioned in this article (Italian only).

The public exhibition of Rita Fanari should therefore not surprise us that much, especially if we think of the success that human wonders were having in traveling circuses and amusement parks around the world. A typical American freak show consisted exactly in what Fanari did: the deformed person would sit on the stage, ready to satisfy the curiosity and answer questions from the spectators (“she responds to any query“, emphasized Rita’s poster).

Yet in the early 1900s the situation in Italy was different compared to the rest of the world. Only in Italian circuses, in fact, the figure of the dwarf clown had evolved into that of the “bagonghi”.

The origin of this term is uncertain, and according to some sources it comes from the surname of a Bolognese chestnut street seller who was 70 centimeters high and who in 1890 was hired by the Circus Guillaume. However, this nickname soon became a generic name identifying a unique act in the circus world. The bagonghi was not a simple “midget clown”, but a complete artist:

The bagonghi does not merely display his deformity, he performs – leaping, juggling, jesting; and he needs, therefore, like any other actor or clown, talent, devotion and long practice of his art. But he also must be from the beginning monstrous and afflicted, which is to say, pathetic. Indeed, there is a pop mythology dear to Italian journalists which insists on seeing all bagonghi as victims of their roles.

(L. Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, 1978)

A few examples: the bagonghi Giuseppe Rambelli, known as Goliath, was an acrobat as well as an equestrian vaulter; Andrea Bernabè, born in Faenza in 1850, performed as an acrobat on the carpet, a magician, a juggler; Giuseppe Bignoli, born in 1892 – certainly the most famous bagonghi in history – was considered one of the best acrobatic riders tout court, so much so that many circuses were fighting for the chance to book him.

Giuseppe Bignoli (1893-1939)

After the war Francesco Medori and Mario Bolzanella, both employed in the Circo Togni, became famous; the first, a skillful stunter, died trying to tame a terrible fire in 1951; the second hit the headlines when he married Lina Traverso, who was also a little person, and above all when the news brok that a jealous circus chimpazee had scratched the bride in the face. A comic and grotesque scene, perfectly fitting with the classical imagery of the bagonghi, who

can be considered as a sort of Harlequin born between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, and that quickly became a typical character, like those of the commedia dell’arte. The bagonghi is therefore a sort of modern masked “type” that first appeared and was developed within the Italian circus world, and then spread worldwide.

(M. Fini, Fenomeni da baraccone. Miti e avventure dei grandi circensi italiani, Italica Edizioni, 2013)

Going back to our Rita Fanari, we can understand why her career as a “great phenomenon of nature” was decidedly unusual and way too old for a time when the audience had already started to favor the show of diversity (a theatrical, choreographic performance) over its simple exhibition.

The fact that her act was more rudimentary than those performed in the rest of Italy can be undoubtedly explained with the rural context she lived in, and with her visual impairment. A handicap that, despite being advertised as a doubtful added value, actually did not allow her to show off any other skill other than to put the thread through the needle’s eye and start sewing. Not exactly a dazzling sight.
Rita was inevitably the last among the many successful dwarfs, little people like her who in those years were having a huge success under the Big Top, and who sometimes got very rich ( “I spent my whole life amassing a fortune”, Bignoli wrote in his last letter). As she was cut off from actual show business, and incapacitated by her disability, her luck was much more modest; so much so that her very existence would certainly have been forgotten, if a few years ago Dr. Raimondo Orru, the descendant and namesake of her benefactor, had not found some details of her life in the family archives.

But those very circumstances that prevented her from keeping up with the times, also made her “the last one” in a more meaningful sense. Perhaps because of the rustic agro-pastoral context, her act was very old-fashioned. In fact, hers may have been the last historical case in Italy of a person with dwarfism exhibited as a pure lusus naturae, an exotic “freak of nature”, a prodigy to parade and display.
In mainland Italy, as we said, things were already changing. Midgets and dwarfs, well before any other “different” or disabled person, had to prove their desire to overcome their condition, making a show of their skills and courage, performing exceptional stunts.
Along with this idea, and with the definitive pathologization of physical anomalies during the twentieth century, the mythological aura surrounding exceptional, uneven bodies will be lost; and a gaze of pity/admiration will become established. Today, the spectacle of disability is only accepted in these two modes — it’s either tragedy, the true motor of charity events and telethons, or the exemplum, the heroic overcoming of the disabled person’s own “limits”, with all the plethora of inspirational, motivational, life-affirming anecdotes that come with it.

It is impossible to know precisely how the villagers considered Rita at the time. Was she the object of ridicule, or wonder?
The only element available to us, that billboard from 1907, definitely shows her as an admirable creature in herself. In this sense Rita was really someone out of the past, because she presented herself in the public eye just for what she was. The last of the dwarfs of times past, who had the capacity to fascinate without having to do acrobatics: she needed nothing more than herself and her extraordinary figure, half old half child, to be at least considered worthy the price of admission.

On the ethics of our approach to disability, check out my article Freaks: Gaze and Disability.
I would like to thank Stefano Pisu, beacuse all the info on Rita Fanari in this article come from a Facebook post he wrote on the page of the Associazione culturale Julia Augusta di Usellus.
Pictures of the original billboard are shown here courtesy of Raimondo Orru; his findings on Rita’s life are included in the book Usellus. Costume popolare e matrimonio (Edizioni Grafica del Parteolla, 2000).

Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 1

Almost every post appearing on these pages is the result of several days of specific study, finding sources, visiting the National Library, etc. It often happens that this continuous research makes me stumble upon little wonders which perhaps do not deserve a full in-depth analysis, but I nonetheless feel sorry to lose along the way.

I have therefore decided to occasionally allow myself a mini-post like this one, where I can point out the best bizarre news I’ve come across in recent times, passed on by followers, mentioned on Twitter (where I am more active than on other social media) or retrieved from my archive.

The idea — and I candidly admit it, since we’re all friends here — is also kind of useful since this is a time of great excitement for Bizzarro Bazar.
In addition to completing the draft for the new book in the BB Collection, of which I cannot reveal any details yet, I am working on a demanding but thrilling project, a sort of offline, real-world materialization of Bizzarro Bazar… in all probability, I will be able to give you more precise news about it next month.

There, enough said, here’s some interesting stuff. (Sorry, some of my own old posts linked here and there are in Italian only).

  • The vicissitudes of Haydn’s head: Wiki page, and 1954 Life Magazine issue with pictures of the skull’s burial ceremony. This story is reminiscent of Descartes’s skull, of which I’ve written here. (Thanks, Daniele!)
  • In case you missed it, here’s my article (in English) for Illustrati Magazine, about midget pornstar Bridget Powers.
  • Continuing my exploration of human failure, here is a curious film clip of a “triphibian” vehicle, which was supposed to take over land, water and the skies. Spoiler: it didn’t go very far.

  • In the Sixties, the western coast of Lake Victoria in Tanzania fell prey to a laughter epidemics.
  • More recent trends: plunging into a decomposing whale carcass to cure rheumatism. Caitlin Doughty (whom I interviewed here) teaches you all about it in a very funny video.

  • Found what could be the first autopsy ever recorded on film (warning, strong images). Our friend pathologist says: “This film clip is a real gem, really beautiful, and the famous Dr. Erdheim’s dissecting skills are remarkable: he does everything with a single knife, including cutting the breastbone (very elegant! I use some kind of poultry shears instead); he proceeds to a nice full evisceration, at least of thoracic organs (you can’t see the abdomen) from tongue to diaphragm, which is the best technique to maintain the connection between viscera, and… he doesn’t get splattered at all! He also has the table at the right height: I don’t know why but in our autopsy rooms they keep on using very high tables, and therefore you have to step on a platform at the risk of falling down in you lean back too much. It is also interesting to see all the activity behind and around the pathologist, they were evidently working on more than one table at the same time. I think the pathologist was getting his hands dirty for educational reasons only, otherwise there would have been qualified dissectors or students preparing the bodies for him. It’s quite a sight to see him push his nose almost right into the cadaver’s head, without wearing any PPE…”

  • A long, in-depth and thought-provoking article on cryonics: if you think it’s just another folly for rich people who can’t accept death, you will be surprised. The whole thing is far more intriguing.
  • For dessert, here is my interview for The Thinker’s Garden, a wonderful website on the arcane and sublime aspects of art, history and literature.