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)

The Venice Dwarf

Even the hospital, in Venice, is a Renaissance masterpiece: the facade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco, which opens into Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, is considered one of the greatest architectural and artistic jewels of the lagoon city.
Right next to the main entrance, located in the spaces of the former Scuola di Santa Maria della Pace, it is possible to visit the small “Andrea Vesalio” Museum of Pathological Anatomy.

The birth of the collection can be traced back to 1874, when the hospital’s anatomical dissector was recommended to preserve the most relevant anatomopathological specimens. From that time on, the collection was regularly supplemented, particularly thanks to the work of Giuseppe Jona. The museum houses the death mask of Jona himself, an extraordinary figure of a physician and a man who under in 1943 committed suicide in order not to reveal to the German authorities the names of the Jews left in Venice.

The museum consists of one small room, and has nine display cases with dry and liquid preparations. Among the osteological exhibits are bone tumors, hyperostosis, trauma, a collection of 10 femurs and 32 skull caps showing various pathologies. A collection of ancient calculi shows how this affliction, in the days when it could not be treated promptly, could become a very serious problem. The liquid preparations, on the other hand, are principalmnte designed to illustrate certain diseases that affected the Venetian lagoon in particular, related to epidemics (tuberculosis), to once-common diseases (leprosy), or to glassmaking.

But it is one preparation in particular that attracts attention, in a display case placed right in the center of the room: the whole body of a male affected by various malformations, including kyphosis and dwarfism.
The striking details of this find, with a stature of 67 cm and an estimated age of around 50 years, are many. The shrunken body still possesses hair, facial hair, but most importantly-uncommon detail-it still has eyes in situ.

The visible incision on the skull is typical of an autopsy, but it is the two large sutures on the chest and back that are unusual. After the autopsy, evidently this gentleman was prepared for museum purposes. Initially scholars thought the method used was tannization by Lodovico Brunetti, the same anatomist who prepared the “Punished Suicide“. Tannization was an anatomical preservation process that involved, after cleaning and degreasing the tissues, ultilizing them with tannic acid diluted with demineralized water and dehydrating them with compressed hot air.

But when this Venetian artifact was inspected radiographically, it was discovered that it was devoid of internal organs, which had been replaced by a filling material. This gentleman was eviscerated, his skin removed, dehydrated, and finally repositioned on his previously treated skeleton by filling the remaining empty cavities with tow or other material. This is thus an authentic human taxidermy, the same procedure used for stuffing animals.

I have often been asked over the years why we do not “stuff” human beings. The answer is that it’s been tried, but the results are not particularly good. Over time, dried human skin tends to shrink, becomes brittle and easy to crack, and any prosthetic eyes eventually emerge unnaturally. The color of the epidermis is also not kept particularly true, and the questionable results of this technique can be seen in the few taxidermies in anatomical museums (below is a display case of human taxidermies at the Museum of Sanitary Art in Rome).

The taxidermied human specimen from Venice is truly unique, both because of the decision to prepare it in this rather unusual way and because of the pathologies it illustrates. And, like all “integral” anatomical specimens, it also encourages our emotional reaction: it is impossible not to wonder what kind of life this man, dwarfed and hunchbacked, had in the Venice of the second half of the 19th century; what hardships and pains he suffered, but also what desires and happiness he might have known, before ending up eternalized in a museum. The treatment meted out to him, commonly used for animals, might seem like a final affront, but it actually relates back to a fervent period of continuous experimentation, in which countless different techniques were tried out to perfect the art of anatomical preparation.

Personally, therefore, I find both specular aspects, pathos and pietas, moving and humane. The pathos of the human subject that forms the basis of the anatomical object, the often anonymous existence behind any preparation, with its sometimes tragic uniqueness; and the pietas that is inherent in the medical vocation as well as in the desire to preserve deformity and disease for the purpose of study, to understand their mystery and to try, if possible, to cure and alleviate the suffering of others.

The Royal Dwarf Wedding (S02E03)

In this episode of season 2 of Bizzarro Bazar, produced in collaboration with the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia: the secret behind the grotesque wedding organized by Tsar Peter the Great; the story of a sperm whale cub that beached in Italy in the 1930s; the black flood that swept a neighborhood in Boston in 1919.

Directed & Animated by Francesco Erba.

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.

The Devil and the Seven Dwarfs

A pale sun just came up that morning, when a soldier came knocking at the Angel’s door. He would never have disturbed his sleep, if he wasn’t sure to bring him a tryly exceptional discovery. Once he heardthe news, the Angel dressed up quickly and rushed towards the gates, his eyes burning with anticipation
It was May 19, 1944, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Josef Mengele was about to meet the largest all-dwarf family ever recorded.

The Ovitz family originated from Rozavlea, a village in the district of Maramureș, Transilvania (Romania). Their patriarch was the itinerant rabbi Shimson Eizik Ovitz, who sufferd from pseudoachondroplasia, a form of dwarfism; over two marriages, he had ten children, seven of which were stricken by his same genetic condition. Five of them were female, two males.
Dwarfism made them unfit for heavy work: how could they solve the paradox of having such a large family with virtually no labor force? The Ovitzs decided to stick together as much as possible, and they embarked in the only activity that could grant them a decent life: entertainment.

They founded the “Lilliput Troupe”, a traveling show in which only the seven dwarf siblings performed onstage; the other, medium-height members of the family warked backstage, writing sketches, preparing costumes or managing their next gigs. Their two-hour show mainly consisted of musical numbers, in which the family covered popular hits of the day on especially tailored instruments (small guitars, violas, violins, accordeons). For 15 years they toured Central Europe with huge success, the only all-dwarf act in the history of entertainment, until Nazism’s dark shadow reached them.

In theory, the Ovitzs were bound to die. First of all because they were observant Jews; and secondly, because they were considered “malformed” and, according to the Aktion T4 euthanasia program their lives were “unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben). At the time of their arrival in Auschwitz, they were twelve. The youngest was a 18-months-old child.

Josef Mengele, nicknamed the “Angel of Death” (Todesengel), still remains one of the most sadly infamous figures in those unimaginable years of terror. In the tales of the survivors, he is without doubt the most enigmatic and unsettling character: a cultivated and elegant man, with doctorates received in anthropology and medecine, fascinating as a Hollywood star, Mengele possessed another face, one of violence and cruelty which could burst out in a totally disinhibited way. According to some accounts, he could bring sugar to the children in the nomad camp, play the violin for them, and shortly after inject them with chloroform on the operation table or personally carry out a mass execution. As the camp’s physician, he often began his day by staning on the platform and selecting with a gesture of his hand who among the newly arrived deportees was fit to work and who was destined to be eliminated in the gas chambers.

He was known for his obsession with twins, who according to his studies and those of his mentor Otmar von Verschuer (who was well-informed about his pupil’s activities) could undisclose the ultimate secrets of eugenics. Mengele carried out human experiments of unprecedented sadism, infecting healthy individuals with various diseases, dissecting live patients without anesthesia, injecting ink into their eyes in order to make them more “aryan-looking”, experimenting poisons and burning genitals with acid. Mengele was not a mad scientist, operating under cover, as was first understood, but was backed by the elite of German scientific community: under the Third Reich, these scientists enjoyed an uncommon freedom, as long as they proved their research was going in the direction of building a superior race of soldiers – one of Hitler’s obsessions.

“I now have work for 20 years”, Mengele exclaimed. As soon as he saw the Ovitz family, he immediately ordered that they be spared and arranged in privileged living quarters, where they would be given larger food portions and enjoyed better hygiene. He was particularly interested in the fact that the family included both dwarfs and middle-height individuals, so he ordered the “normal” members also to be spared from gas chambers. Hearing this, some other prisoners from the Ovitz’ village claimed to be blood-related to them (and the Ovitz of course did not deny it), and were moved along with them.

In exchange for their relatively more comfortable life, in respect to other inmates – their hair was not shorn, nor were they forced to part from their clothes – the Ovitzs were subjected to a long series of experiments. Mengele regularly took blood samples from them (even from the 18-months-old child).

Written accounts of inmate doctors shed further light on the endless anthropological measurements and comparisons between the Ovitzs and their neighbours, whom Mengele mistook for family. The doctors extracted bone marrow, pulled out healthy teeth, plucked hair and eyelashes, and carried out psychological and gynaecological tests on them all.
The four married female dwarves were subjected to close gynaecological scrutiny. The teenage girls in the group were terrified by the next phase in the experiment: that Mengele would couple them with the dwarf men and turn their wombs into laboratories, to see what offspring would result. Mengele was known to have done it to other experimental subjects.

(Koren & Negev, The dwarfs of Auschwitz)

The “White Angel” kept a voluntarily ambiguous relationship with the family, constantly walking a fine line between mercyless cruelty and surprising kindness. In fact, although he had already gathered hundreds of twins, and could sacrifice them if need be (accounts tell of seven couples of twins killed in one single night), he only had one family of dwarfs.
Still, the Ovitzs didn’t indulge in false hopes: they were conscious that, despite their privileges, they would die in there.

Instead, they lived to see the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945. They walked for seven months to get back to their village, only to find their home looted; four years later they emigrated to Israel, where they resumed touring with their show until they eventually retired in 1955.

Mengele, as is known, escaped to South America under a false name, and during his more than thirty years as a fugitive his legend grew out of proportion; his already terrible deeds were somewhat exaggerated until he became a demon-like character trowing live children in the ovens and killing people just for fun. Reliable accounts evoke a less colourful image of the man, but no less unsettling: the human experiments carried out at Birkenau (and in China, at the same time, inside the infamous Unit 731) rank among the most dreadful examples of scientific research completely detaching itself from moral issues.

The last survivor in the family, Perla Ovitz, died in 2001. Until the end, she kept recounting her family’s tale, encapsulating all the helplessness and painful absurdity of this experience, which she could not possibly explain to herself and to the world, in a single sentence: “I was saved by the grace of the devil“.

Further material:

An excerpt from the documentary The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz (available here), featuring Perla Ovitz.
Giants: The Dwarfs of Auschwitz (Koren & Negev, 2013) is the main in-depth research on the Ovitz family, based on interviews with Perla and other Auschwitz survivors.
Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz (Lagnado & Dekel 1992) is an account of Mengele’s experiments on twins, with interviews with several survivors.
– The video in which Mengele’s son, Rolf, recounts his meeting with his father – whom he had never knew and who was living incognito in Brazil.
The truth about Cândido Godói, a small village in Brazil with a high twin births rate, where in the Sixties a strange German physician was often seen wandering: did Mengele continue his experiments in South America?

Adam Rainer

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Della sfortunata vita di Adam Rainer ci sono arrivati pochissimi dettagli biografici, eppure la sua storia è un caso davvero unico nei registri della medicina.
Nato in Austria nel 1899, a Graz, Adam non sembrava inizialmente differente da tutti gli altri bambini della sua età, nonostante fosse piuttosto minuto e gracile. D’altronde i genitori erano di statura normale: il padre era alto 1.75m e la madre 1.65m.

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Entrato nella fase dell’adolescenza, però, divenne presto evidente che la sua maturità fisica si sviluppava a rilento, e la sua statura rimaneva limitata. La corporatura fragile e debole lo escluse dal servizio di leva nel 1917 e nel 1918: durante gli esami medici, la sua statura venne accertata attorno a 1.38m (anche se le fonti sono discordanti al riguardo – c’è chi parla di 1.22m, chi addirittura di 1.18m). Quale che fosse l’altezza esatta, la diagnosi fu ufficialmente quella di nanismo, che normalmente si indica per stature inferiori a 1.45m. Eppure i medici notarono anche uno strano particolare: nonostante la piccola stazza Adam aveva dei piedi molto grandi (taglia 43).

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Non ci è dato di sapere se in questo periodo Adam sognasse di poter guadagnare ancora qualche centimetro, se rivolgesse al cielo qualche intima preghiera per avvicinarsi a una statura normale; ma certo non poteva immaginare che questa sua segreta speranza si sarebbe presto trasformata nel peggiore degli incubi.

A sorpresa, all’età di 21 anni, Adam ricominciò a crescere. Le sue mani e i suoi piedi raggiunsero proporzioni abnormi (il piede arrivò alla taglia 53 nel 1920), il suo volto cominciò a deformarsi e la sua schiena ad incurvarsi, sotto la spinta di questo nuovo e inarrestabile sviluppo.
Alla fine degli anni ’20 la vista di Adam cominciò a calare drasticamente, tanto che il suo occhio destro divenne quasi cieco. Anche l’udito si abbassò, rendendolo sordo dall’orecchio sinistro; camminare divenne difficoltoso a causa della curvatura della schiena. Quella crescita che durante l’adolescenza non era mai avvenuta, ora sembrava destinata a non fermarsi più.

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Tra il 25 agosto 1930 e il 23 maggio 1931 Adam Rainer venne esaminato da due dottori, Mandl e Windholz. La sua altezza era ormai di 2.16m, e Rainer mostrava chiari sintomi di acromegalia: mani e piedi enormi, fronte e mascella sporgenti, labbra ingrossate e denti grandi e distanti l’uno dall’altro. Durante gli esami, i due medici scoprirono che la causa di tutto ciò era un tumore alla ghiandola pituitaria (l’ipofisi): un cancro presente da ormai dieci anni, che aveva portato a una produzione eccessiva di ormone della crescita.

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Il 2 dicembre 1930 Adam Rainer venne operato dal prof. Hirsch e qualche mese dopo l’operazione la sua altezza risultò invariata. Putroppo però l’inarcarsi della sua schiena era ulteriormente peggiorato: questo significava che l’operazione per fermare la sua crescita non era riuscita, e Adam stava ancora allungandosi inesorabilmente.

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Costretto a letto dalla sua malattia, Adam visse ancora 20 anni dopo l’operazione. Morì il 4 marzo 1950, dopo aver raggiunto un’altezza di 2.33m – o, secondo altre fonti, addirittura di 2.39m.

È ricordato negli annali medici (e nel Guinness dei Primati) come l’unico uomo ad essere stato sia un nano che un gigante.

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(Le foto e gran parte delle info provengono da The Tallest Man, sito interamente dedicato al gigantismo).

Le nozze dei nani

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Pietro il Grande, Zar e Imperatore di Russia, era un personaggio enigmatico e anticonvenzionale, ed aveva una passione per tutto ciò che era deforme. Fin da quando aveva ammirato, nel 1697, le famose collezioni anatomiche di Frederik Ruysch (su questo anatomista c’è un nostro articolo qui) aveva deciso di costruire una propria camera delle meraviglie che avrebbe ospitato le forme più curiose e impensabili partorite dalla Natura: una sorta di grandioso museo sulla conoscenza del mondo.

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La sua Kunstkamera, enorme wunderkammer che conteneva collezioni acquistate da Ruysch stesso, da Albertus Seba e da numerosi altri naturalisti e anatomisti, fu completata nel 1727. Vi trovavano posto innumerevoli esemplari di feti deformi, umani e animali, e tutto un campionario variegato di preparazioni anatomiche, minerali, e dei più disparati e rari reperti naturali. Ad un certo punto Pietro il Grande promulgò addirittura un editto, richiedendo alla popolazione di spedire al museo ogni feto malformato, da qualsiasi parte della Russia, affinché entrasse a far parte della sua collezione.

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Ma la sua passione per le curiosità umane era particolarmente accesa nei confronti delle persone affette da nanismo. All’epoca i nani erano presenti in tutte le corti europee, e venivano impiegati come giullari o come semplici oggetti di dileggio e divertimento vario. Dovevano stupire gli ospiti saltando fuori dalle torte appena portate in tavola, spesso nudi, o danzare sui deschi, cavalcare minuscoli pony, e via dicendo. Ai nostri occhi moderni tutto questo appare senza dubbio crudele, ma come al solito dovremmo cercare di calarci nel contesto dell’epoca: forse una vita simile, per quanto avvilente, era preferibile a quella, infinitamente più impietosa e feroce, che avrebbe atteso un nano al di fuori delle mura di corte.

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C’è da dire poi che alcuni dei “padroni” dei nani divenivano, com’è naturale, i più sinceri amici dei loro piccoli protetti: sembra per esempio che il famoso astronomo Tycho Brahe non si separasse mai dal suo nano di fiducia, divenuto una sorta di consigliere. Anche Pietro il Grande (che, detto per inciso, misurava più o meno due metri d’altezza) aveva il suo nano favorito e servitore fedele, Iakim Volkov, e per celebrare le sue nozze decise di mettere in scena uno dei matrimoni più indimenticabili della storia.

Lo Zar diede istruzioni al suo assistente Fyodor Romodanovsky di raccogliere tutti i nani residenti a Mosca e mandarli a San Pietroburgo. I “possessori” dei nani avrebbero dovuto vestirli a festa, con capi pregiati alla moda occidentale, riempiendoli di ninnoli e gioielli d’oro e parrucche da gran signori. Molte di queste piccole persone erano in realtà contadini e semplici paesani, dalle maniere tutt’altro che signorili.

Il giorno del sontuoso matrimonio, il corteo nuziale era formato da una settantina di nani in abiti e paramenti nobiliari, arrivati a San Pietroburgo su una carovana di pony: la cerimonia fu seguita da tutte le persone di normale statura fra risatine strozzate, colpi di gomito e sguardi increduli. Ma un serissimo Zar in persona celebrò le nozze, e pose delicatamente sul capo della piccola sposa la corona di fiori. Una volta giunti al banchetto, nel palazzo Menshikov, i nani vennero fatti accomodare ad alcuni tavoli in miniatura al centro della stanza, mentre tutte le altre tavolate erano disposte a cerchio intorno ad essi. Secondo i resoconti dell’epoca, le risate accompagnarono l’intera cena, mentre i nani si ubriacavano, cominciavano delle piccole risse, e i più vecchi e brutti ballavano sgraziatamente a causa delle gambe corte e storte.

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C’è qualcosa, però, di un po’ sospetto. Ricordiamo che Pietro il Grande aveva viaggiato nelle più raffinate corti d’Europa, e aveva cercato di modernizzare il suo Impero per renderlo più vicino e più conforme (almeno nelle sue intenzioni) alla progredita civilizzazione occidentale. E personalmente, attraverso il suo museo delle meraviglie, si era sempre adoperato per combattere l’idea antiquata che le anomalie fisiche fossero mostruose e spaventose: si trattava ai suoi occhi di sfortunati accidenti della natura, che uno spirito illuminato doveva riconoscere in quanto tali, senza per forza riderne o esserne terrorizzato. Allora, perché organizzare un matrimonio simile?

Al di là del puro intrattenimento che certamente avrà avuto la sua parte, secondo alcuni storici questa cerimonia, come tutti gli altri spettacoli farseschi che Pietro amava organizzare, mostrava un sostrato simbolico che forse non tutti erano in grado di cogliere. Era uno sberleffo in piena regola, ma non tanto rivolto contro i nani – quanto piuttosto contro la sua stessa corte di nobili. Pietro voleva mettere in scena una specie di specchio deformante, una caricatura vivente dei suoi ospiti di statura “normale”. Guardatevi!, sembrava dire quel grottesco matrimonio, siete dei lord e delle dame in miniatura, imbellettati e avvolti in raffinati abiti che però vi sono poco familiari. Siete ancora dei piccoli zotici che giocano a fare i “grandi”, gli “adulti”, e non vi accorgete che l’Europa ride di voi.

Che questa lettura dell’evento sia plausibile oppure no, il matrimonio suscitò comunque un certo scalpore, anche in tempi in cui di “politicamente scorretto” non si era ancora sentito parlare.

Mini-Kiss

I Mini-Kiss sono una tribute band dei Kiss. Come tutte le tribute band, si vestono come i loro beniamini, suonano esclusivamente il loro repertorio e li imitano in tutto e per tutto. Ma i Mini-Kiss hanno qualcosa di unico: i membri della band sono tutti affetti da nanismo. Questo non impedisce loro di riproporre l’hard-rock spettacolare e colorato di Gene Simmons e compagni… in versione “ridotta”.

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Anche dopo la morte nel 2011 di Joey Fatale, loro leader e fondatore, i Mini-Kiss continuano ad esibirsi con ottimo successo. Ecco il sito sito ufficiale.

(Scoperto via Ipnosarcoma, uno dei nostri tumblelog preferiti!)