The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness

Gaby Wood

In the centre of the room there are two skeletons. Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, faces the front. His skeleton, tainted brown because of the speed and secrecy of its preparation, is seven feet ten inches tall. So towering are the bones, and so impossibly hefty is their accompanying leather boot, that it’s easy to walk past without noticing the adjacent filigree form. Mounted at eye-level, with its back to you as you look at the giant, is the skeleton of Caroline Crachami: tiny, clean, almost transparent. It stands with the support of a metal rod, which is threaded along the spine and pokes out from the skull. The vertebrae could be beads in a large necklace, the ribs starched lace, the fingers fallen milk teeth. The height given for the whole is one foot ten and a half inches. The smallness and the proportion of the thing (an adult shape the size of a newborn) are breathtaking, and from the back it is possible to see the articulated ivories (the marionette shoulders, the butterfly hips) as a work of art, a windless mobile. But the view from the front makes its one-time personhood inescapable: bottomless eye-sockets, a dark triangle for a nose, a pointless smile.

Caroline Crachami was once Europe’s most famous dwarf. There was some confusion about what happened to the body after her early death: it had been sold, or stolen; there were conflicting accounts. What is certain is that Caroline Crachami died in 1824, and that her skeleton is now on display in the Hunterian Museum in London. Cabinets full of specimens line the walls; each jar is labelled with a letter and a number in 18th-century ink. I walk past an opossum’s prehensile toes, a monkey’s foot, a cross-section of a camel’s hoof, a horse’s shin. On the higher shelves are smaller things – bats and frogs and sea-horses; a fledgling toucanet.

The Hunterian is part of the Royal College of Surgeons. It is sometimes used for teaching, and is open to the public. John Hunter (1728-93), the first person to articulate an elephant’s skeleton, was the younger brother of William Hunter. Both men were pioneering teachers of anatomy. John set up the museum to house his anatomical collection, which has been called his ‘great unwritten book’. Other such collections were either mere taxonomies or else forms of entertainment – ghoulish sideshows. Hunter’s idea was to categorise the specimens so that they would speak for themselves, and explain the way he thought nature worked. His Physiological Series was designed to show the interrelation of structure and function in living things – plant, animal or human. The exhibition cases are divided not according to species but according to actions: walking and running, or digestion. Hence the opossum’s toes next to a gorilla’s hand, or a boar’s jaw next to the dental pulp of an Indian elephant. Hunter’s exhibits worked up from the most simple examples to the most complex, so that even those who were just beginning to study anatomy or physiology could understand. When he died, the museum contained 13,682 specimens.

In his spare time, Hunter was a collector of other things. The objects he gathered as curios and those he needed for his research overlapped, as did the anatomical lessons and the sideshows. Hunter’s biographer, John Kobler, claims that he owned a portrait of Caroline Crachami among his paintings of freaks. Though the painting is in the Hunterian collection, it can’t have belonged to Hunter, since he died before Crachami was born. He can’t, therefore, have known about the skeleton either, but it is part of his curious legacy that the girl’s body should have been brought here.

Below the skeleton, near the floor, is another exhibit: a small, glass-covered box containing a few Crachami relics – a pair of silk socks, grey ballerina slippers with black bows and the inscription of the shoemaker on the inside, a thimble, a ruby ring. They might all have belonged to a doll. In among the possessions, as if they were the same kind of remnant, are wax casts of their owner: the foot the shoes used to fit, the arm whose fingers wore the ring and thimble, a death mask. It’s an odd mix, a kind of clinical shrine. The prime purpose of the wax and the skeleton must be to prove that the small human existed; that someone at this institution once held her in his hands, made casts of her body, and articulated her skeleton. They may be intended as evidence, but they look more like trophies; either way, they are invitations to work backwards, to find out what the child’s life was, and how, in death, she came to be here.

She was exhibited as Miss Crachami, the Sicilian Fairy, or Sicilian Dwarf. Not much is known about her; what there is comes from a pamphlet written to accompany the original exhibition, three reports in the Times, a number of contemporary allusions, and several articles written for medical journals in a subsequent attempt to figure out her condition. In 1978, Richard Altick put together the pieces of her story in The Shows of London. Until very recently (as far as I could tell), Altick was the only person outside the medical profession who had written about her this century. Now Jan Bondeson, whose paper on her appeared in the American Journal of Medical Genetics in 1992, has published a book aimed at a wider audience, called A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities, which includes, among chapters on spontaneous human combustion and maternal impressions, a section about Crachami, a lightly rewritten version of his earlier article.[*]

More curiously, Christine Borland, one of the artists shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, has as one part of her exhibition at the Tate Gallery an installation devoted to the Sicilian Dwarf and the Irish Giant. The installation is called After a True Story – Giant and Fairy Tales, and is made up of four pieces, one on each wall. There are two plates of glass, positioned like shelves, and two books, held open at the same page. The smaller piece of glass, which is placed low down on its wall, is covered with an impression in dust of Crachami’s skeleton. It is a delicate stencil, made as one might decorate a cake with icing sugar. A light shines onto the glass so the shadow of the dust-shape falls on the wall. The giant is stencilled on a larger pane, placed high up on the other wall. Each body throws a soft white, barely visible double image of itself at the viewer, a shade of a shade. The leather-bound books are two copies of something called Giant and Fairy Tales (they look like antiquarian relics, though I can’t find a record of the book’s publication). Crachami’s life story is on the left-hand page, the giant’s on the right. Both are said to be adapted from the display panel at the Hunterian Museum. It is difficult to know whether the glass and the dust, beautiful and haunting though they are, would work without the stories in the book. They are made to work together, but the point of the piece, and the force of it, seem to come mainly from the words.

The convergence of interest in these remains must say something about the kinds of stories we are ready to hear. Or about anatomy or memory – our relationship to our insides or our relationship to the dead.

In the weeks before she died, Crachami had been exhibited at 22 New Bond Street in London. This was 20 years before Phineas Taylor Barnum arrived from America with Tom Thumb. The Times declared Crachami ‘unquestionably the most curious of all the dwarfish candidates for public favour that have visited this metropolis’. The ‘Brief Memoir’ in the 1824 exhibition pamphlet claims her as ‘the smallest of all persons mentioned in the records of littleness’.

She was born in Palermo, or so the story goes, the day after the Battle of Waterloo, making her nine years minus 15 days when she died. Her penniless Sicilian parents moved to Ireland, where her father was hired as a musician by the Theatre Royal in Dublin. But Caroline was consumptive, and when a Dr Gilligan, who showed a peculiar interest in the child, told them that the climate in England would be better for her health, the parents allowed her to go with him. They agreed that Gilligan would exhibit their daughter for a short period of time once they reached London, since he insisted that, ‘as a man of science, he was anxious that such an extraordinary phenomenon should not be lost to the physiological world.’

Crachami was exhibited in Liverpool, Birmingham and Oxford before reaching her fashionable exhibition room in Mayfair. She was quite a hit. The Morning Chronicle began its report: ‘There are some persons who emerge from obscurity of a sudden, and from being known by nobody, become the leading topic of conversation and the centre of a brilliant circle.’ Within a few weeks that brilliant circle was said to include ‘different branches of the Royal Family’, ‘more than three hundred of the nobility’ and ‘nearly three thousand distinguished fashionables’. On 12 April, she was received at Carlton Palace by King George IV, who, it was reported, ‘expressed great pleasure at her appearance’. So many people came to see Crachami that she was soon exhausted. In fact, she may have died of exhaustion, though it was more probably TB. On Thursday, 3 June, she received more than two hundred visitors. That evening (according to the Times) ‘a languor appeared to come over her, and on her way from the exhibition-room she expired.’

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[*] Tauris, 250 pp., £10.95, 27 November, 1 86064 228 4.