Known as the 'Sicilian dwarf' and the 'Sicilian fairy'
Born 1815? Died 1824

Only imagine a creature about half as large as a new-born infant; perfect in all its 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 19 ½ inches in height and 5 pounds in weight, and you will have some idea of this most extraordinary phenomenon. 1

Reputedly born at Palermo in Sicily in 1815, and supposedly only eight inches in height and weighing only a pound at birth, Caroline Crachami arrived in England from Dublin in 1824 accompanied by a 'Dr Gilligan' who exhibited her in Liverpool, Birmingham and Oxford before taking her to London where she was again exhibited at a set of rooms in Mayfair.

She caused something of a sensation wherever she appeared in public; each day a steady stream of a hundred or more people would pay their shilling to see her tottering about rather unsteadily, hear her say 'Good, good,' and pat her stomach when given a biscuit, and tap her foot in time to music. For an extra shilling visitors were even given the opportunity to 'handle' her. At London the cream of Society came to see her, including king George IV as well as "more than three hundred of the nobility and nearly three thousand distinguished fashionables". Unfortunately the strain of her public appearances appears to have been too much for Caroline. She already suffered from consumption, and on the 3rd June 1824, after receiving more than two hundred visitors, it was reported that "a languor appeared to come over her, and on her way from the exhibition room she expired".

After her death Dr Gilligan promptly sold Caroline's corpse to the anatomist John Hunter for £500, without worrying himself about little details such as obtaining her parents consent. Her father rushed to London in an attempt to prevent her dissection, but arrived too late; the surgeons had already begun their work. They duly promised that they would do nothing more to her body in order to get rid of him and so her father left for Ireland to "communicate the dreadful intelligence to his wife". Caroline's skeleton now resides at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, together with a few other mementoes of her life including a pair of her silk socks and slippers, a thimble and a ruby ring.2


Caroline is medically significant as being the first recognized individual suffering from what is known as primordial dwarfism. In 1960 Helmut Paul George Seckel cited her as an example of what was afterwards called Seckel's syndrome, although there has been much debate in the professional community regarding the exact definition of this syndrome and the precise diagnosis of Caroline's condition.

There remains no definitive evidence regarding her place and date of birth, and given the circumstances of her appearance in England, it appears more likely that she was Irish rather than Sicillian. It has now been established that her dental age was 3 years (plus or minus 6 months) at death, and so it has been suggested that commercial considerations may well have led Dr Gilligan to misrepresent her age, and that she was much younger than her stated age of nine.

Her life has since inspired a play The Smallest Person and the artist Christine Borland borrowed her skeleton, together with that of Charles Byrne, the 7ft 10in tall 'Irish Giant', and used them as stencils to construct an installation that was displayed at the Tate Gallery as part of her submission for the Turner Prize in 1997.


NOTES

1 According to the contemporary description of a journalist William Jerdan.
2 Note that the modern day medical profession appears just as unconcerned about the moral questions raised by John Hunter's activities as their nineteenth century predecessors.


SOURCES

  • Berkovitz BK, Grigson C, Dean MC. Caroline Crachami, the Sicilian dwarf (1815-1824): was she really nine years old at death? Am J Med Genet. 1998 Apr 1;76(4):343-8. Abstract at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=9545099&dopt=Abstract
  • Jeffery N, Berkovitz BK. Morphometric appraisal of the skull of Caroline Crachami, the Sicilian "dwarf" 1815?-1824: a contribution to the study of primordial microcephalic dwarfism. Am J Med Genet. 2002 Aug 15;111(3):260-70.
    Full text available at the University of Liverpool website (www.liv.ac.uk see AJPA-118.pdf)
  • Where We Were: A Little Bit Of History http://www.primordialdwarfism.com/medmain2.htm
  • Seckel's syndrome http://www.whonamedit.com/synd.cfm/869.html
  • Reviews of The Smallest of All Persons at
    http://www.richmondreview.co.uk/books/smallest.tml
    http://www.profile-books.com/procat/1998/wood_01.htm

Further reading;

Gaby Wood The Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness (Profile Books, London 1998)

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