No, not a prequel to The Thief, the Cook, His Wife and Her Lover, it’s a CDV by an unidentified photographer of Tom Thumb, his wife, and her sister Minnie Warren.
The latest addition to the collection of Tom Thumb images, this was one I hadn’t seen before. Clipped corners aside, it’s in quite good condition overall. Certainly the image is very clear and sharp, and the print has minimal wear. In the conversation I had with Zoe Trodd, the co-author of Picturing Frederick Douglass, she triggered an interesting thought. The main thesis of Picturing Frederick Douglass is that he is the most-photographed American of the 19th century. I was skeptical of this as his images on the secondary collector market are not common, however the book does document her case rather thoroughly, with 150-some distinct images of him known. This got me to wondering how many different images of my favorite subject to collect are there. I’ll enumerate the Tom Thumb images I have below:
These are the ones I have in my collection. I know there are more out there that I don’t have (one particular one from the wedding, and at least two from the London Stereoscopic Company). This puts me at 15, eighteen if you count the ones I know but don’t have. It’s a far cry from the 150 of Frederick Douglass, but I’m going to keep hunting and collecting and tallying up. Having been a star of stage and circus for most of his life, he was dependent on publicity for his career and would have worked hard to keep his image in the public eye.
The newest addition to the collection of CDVs of little people sideshow performers – Admiral Dot, age thirteen.
I would take his age, height and weight in this photo with a grain of salt – the producers of these CDVs were prone to mis-statement, exaggeration and even outright lies about the subject’s physical traits as part of the sideshow hype. Fat men and women were often described as sometimes a hundred plus pounds bigger than they were. “Giants” were often endowed with an additional six or seven inches in height. In this case, I’ve managed to wangle a series of Admiral Dot at three different ages- 13, 14 and 18. In the span of five years he’s gained an inch (not unbelievable) and only five pounds.
Admiral Dot was born Leopold Kahn in San Francisco. He had two brothers, also little people, who also went on to become sideshow performers – Major Atom and General Pin. He began his career working for P.T. Barnum, but went on to perform with other companies of little people, married another little person, Lottie Swartood, and have two children before dying from the Spanish Flu during the 1918 epidemic at the age of 59. While I do have images of Major Atom, I have yet to come across one of General Pin – he must not have had the career his two siblings did.
Here is my CDV of Major Atom. Can you see a family resemblance?
I haven’t been collecting much lately as I’ve been focused (pun intended) on shooting and creating images more. However, in a casual perusal of Ebay the other day I found this image. I’ve been wanting a CDV of Che Mah for a while. This one is rather faded and not in the best of condition, but I jumped on it as A: it was a reasonable price, and B: CDVs of Che Mah don’t show up all that often. I’ll shop around for another one in better condition later, but having this one fills a gap in my collection.
About Che Mah:
Like many sideshow performers, Che Mah had an exotic backstory. It was claimed that he was born in Ningpo in 1838 off China’s coast on the island of Choo-Sang and discovered by Barnum on one of his worldwide scouting expeditions. The reality is likely more mundane. After his death the book This Way to the Big Show: The Life of Dexter Fellows made the claim that he was Jewish and from London.1
Regardless of his ethnicity and country of origin, Che Mah was a popular attraction and throughout his career he worked in the Barnum & Bailey Circus, Kohl and Middleton dime museum in Chicago and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Unlike many of the more diminutive performers of his day, he married a women far larger than he. His first wife, Louisa Colman was a normal-sized trapeze artist, his second, Norah Cleveland, weighed 200 pounds. Norah and he divorced after 14 years of marriage on the grounds his wife would not provide enough sex.2
Upon retirement, he bought a farm in rural Indiana but working a farm proved to be too difficult. He sold the farm and brought a house in Knox. Che Mah died in 1936 and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Knox, Indiana.
1.Hartzman Marc, American Sideshow. New York: Tarcher. 2006. 27. Print.
2.Homberger, Francine. Carny Folk. New York: Citadel. 2005. 1-3. Print.
It’s been a very long time since I collected any additional CDVs. Perhaps a year or more. So I was overdue. Here is another one of my circus freaks (I’m using the period appropriate term for them, no disrespect meant to any little people who might find the term offensive): Admiral Dot, a contemporary and colleague of Tom Thumb. This is my third CDV of Admiral Dot, but the first one to have the photographer identified on the verso. The other two were from negatives sold to E & HT Anthony who then reproduced them with their own stamp, no other credit supplied.
I’m really starting to think of these circus performer CDVs as a subspecies of occupational image – they’re showing the performers in their stage attire, doing what they do to get paid. It’s not exactly the same thing as a cobbler with a leather apron, some awls and a shoe, or a cooper with a hammer, metal hoops and barrel staves, but nonetheless, they are enacting for the camera that which they do professionally.
Another addition to my collection – a pair of so-called pinheads who were part of the circus freak circuit in the United States during the 1870s. These two gentlemen are at the present time unknown to me. I’ll do some research and see if their identity can be determined. While I love collecting images of circus freaks (or even just anonymous vernacular images) from the famous photographers of the era, I think the obscure, little-known or unknown photographers in small American towns are just as cool if not cooler, because they truly represent a slice of American culture, largely vanished today. I like the unpolished-ness of the image – two men sitting on a bench of some sort, covered with a rug or blanket. The posing is straightforward and unsophisticated, yet it does have a certain aesthetic sensitivity that makes it appealing.
Pinheads suffer from Microcephaly – a genetically-influenced condition where their brain cavity does not grow at a normal rate and their head ends up being abnormally small. They usually suffer from mental retardation and may also have motor dysfunction and seizures. They were a popular sideshow attraction and often were portrayed as “the missing link” between man and ape, and in the case of Zip the Pinhead (perhaps the most famous pinhead of all, although it is debatable that he was a true microcephalic – he displayed normal or near-normal intelligence and did not suffer seizures or motor dysfunction), he would come out on stage in a cage like an animal and make shrieks and howls. Zip had a 67-year career in the circus and sideshow entertaining, dying in 1926 at or about the age of 80.
Pardon the completely coincidental and generally inappropriate reference to the first two atomic bombs. Today for your viewing pleasure we have Frank Williams, professional sideshow fat man, who according to his bio data on the back of the CDV weighed in at 487 lbs at just 18 years of age.
According to the Circus Historical Society, he was touring with the King & Franklin New Colossal Shows and Great Wild West in 1888-1890 as part of their sideshow. On a side note, in doing some quick research on Frank, I saw a lot of threads pop up using an image of Frank to start a nasty, snarky discussion of modern-day obesity. It may be true that there are more obese people today than there were 120 years ago, but it’s no excuse for nastiness to those alive today or those long dead. To me it’s victimizing Frank as a sideshow freak all over again, but I wonder how he’d feel about it as exhibition as a sideshow freak was his chosen profession.
Next up, a more pleasant note, is an anonymous CDV of a little person in policeman’s costume with a gigantic fake mustache escorting a pretty girl in a frilly dress. Nothing more is known about it, as there is nothing on the verso either printed to identify the photographer or handwritten to identify the subjects.
Yet another in my collection of circus freaks from the late 19th Century. In this scan of the card I’ve deliberately tweaked the scan of the back of the card to make the imprinting more readable. You’ve got to love the fact that their ages were left blank, to be penciled in, but their height and weight were printed. It makes me very suspicious of all three figures – Victorian-era circuses were known for intentionally over/under-stating data to make their particular freaks seem all the more extreme as a draw to customers. “Barnum’s fat man weighed 325 lbs! Ours weighs 450!” when in reality Barnum’s fat man was 275 and theirs just breaks 280. Ditto for giants – many of the circus giants were described as being somewhere between seven and eight feet, when in fact they were a bit north of 6’6″. It would have been hard for the average Victorian to gauge, as they often were paired on stage with little people, and the average height in 1870 was around five feet six inches, as opposed to five feet 10 today, so someone standing six feet nine would have looked even taller. Tom Thumb’s height bounced around in official descriptions of the time as well, frequently knocking three to six inches off his actual height (at his passing at age 45, he was 3 feet 4 inches tall).
Frank Wendt was the successor to Charles Eisenmann, taking over Eisenmann’s studio in 1893 upon his death, and running it in New York City until 1898, when he moved to New Jersey. Wendt is best known for photographing circus freaks, but he also worked with the general theatrical trade and more mainstream portrait customers as well. For more information about Wendt, check out Frank Wendt Photographs: The Wondrous World of Frank Wendt