The Sad Story of The Sicilian Dwarf
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 30 SEPTEMBER 2018
Had you been walking down New Bond Street in the year 1824, your eye might have been caught by a sign inviting you to visit the ‘Naturorama’ at No. 23, which stood at the corner of Conduit Street. And had you put your hand in your pocket, you would have gained access to an inner room with seventeen dioramas displaying model landscapes and scenes from history.
You would also have had the opportunity to gaze at a human exhibit dubbed ‘The Sicilian Dwarf’. Her name — or so you would have been led to believe — was Caroline Crachami. She was nine years old but measured just over twenty-two inches in height. What follows is her story, and you should be warned that it is almost unbearably sad.
The trumpeter of Palermo
She was indeed Sicilian, or, to be precise, half-Sicilian. Her father had been born in about 1792 in Palermo, although there was nothing Sicilian or even Italian about his name, which was Vogel. His family might have been German, or Dutch, or Jewish. He was a musician, and in 1809, when still in his teens, he enlisted as a trumpeter in the Chasseurs Britanniques, an infantry regiment that at the time was stationed right opposite Sicily in Calabria. He was of average height, with dark hair, dark eyes and a sallow complexion.
The Chasseurs Britanniques originated as a regiment of French royalists fighting with Britain against the revolutionary armies. When Vogel enlisted, he gave his first name as Louis, and it is possible that he adopted — or was given — the French equivalent of what might well have been Luigi or Ludwig. He went in as a private in the regimental band, but in due course he rose to the rank of sergeant. As well as fighting in the Peninsula, he was sent to North America on board HMS Ramillies at the outbreak of the War of 1812. When the Chasseurs were disbanded in 1814, Vogel travelled to Mallow in County Cork in Ireland, where he reenlisted as a private in another infantry regiment, the 40th (2nd Somersetshire), serving with the 1st Battalion at Waterloo.
But the key moment for our story was not 18 June 1815 but 26 August 1814, when Private Vogel married Margaret Norton in Mallow. By then he had half-anglicised his name to Louis Foghell, and it would not be too long before he called himself Lewis Foghell. Soon after their marriage Margaret gave birth to a daughter. They named her Caroline. And she — Caroline Foghell — would one day entrance London society as the tragically diminutive Sicilian Dwarf or Sicilian Fairy.
A little bird
The German word ‘Vogel’ means ‘bird’, which is oddly apt as Caroline would never even get to two feet. Her affliction came out of the blue, for she had a sister and three brothers, all younger than her, and all of normal height. She could walk but she was not very sure on her tiny feet. She had darting eyes and was delighted by anything that glittered, anything bright. Her voice was a shrill whisper and she spoke only a very few words. She liked fine clothes and had a taste for music. And she became resolutely attached to anyone who treated her kindly.
And, ironically, it was out of kindness that in 1823 the Foghells made a fateful decision. They were living at the time in Dublin, and there they allowed Caroline, who would have been about eight years old, to be seen by a young doctor of the name of Gilligan. And this Dr Gilligan was going to play a very significant — and deeply disgraceful — part in the fate of poor Caroline.
Michael Gilligan worked at the Lying-In Hospital — now the Rotunda Hospital — in Rutland Square. He was Irish but had trained at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, where he had received membership in 1820, before qualifying a few years later as a Doctor of Medicine at the medical school in Edinburgh with a thesis on strictures of the urethra. Although the circumstances in which Gilligan came to know the Foghell family are not known for certain, it is quite possible that he encountered them at the maternity hospital when Caroline’s younger sister, Jane, was born.
A change of name
Now Gilligan persuaded Caroline’s parents that her health would be improved in the warmer climate of England. Faced with the inevitable cost of such an enterprise, they gave Gilligan permission to defray expenses by exhibiting their daughter to fee-paying audiences of medical men. Who knows if the poor child’s parents were naive, or simply desperate? And who knows if they would have handed their daughter over in the first place if they had had the slightest notion what Gilligan would do?
But hand her over they did, and away she went across the slate-grey Irish Sea to Liverpool. She was as fragile as a sparrow and in poor health, and she would never see her home in Dublin again.
And now a rather queer fact: Caroline Foghell became Caroline Crackham. Where and when this change of name occurred is something of a mystery. But there was a carter by the name of Crackham — Thomas Crackham — in Liverpool at the time of the 1841 census. And it is a fair guess that Gilligan hired the carter and in a moment of entrepreneurial inspiration gave Caroline his name.
All through the autumn of 1823 Caroline was exhibited as ‘Miss Crackham’ in the public showrooms of Liverpool. She sat from ten in the morning until nine at night, earning shillings and sixpences for Gilligan, who told half the truth in the notices he placed in the press by announcing that she came from Palermo. He passed himself off as her father. But he could not fool everyone, and one attentive visitor, hearing not a Sicilian but an Irish accent, asked him ‘whether it was Palermo in the county of Cork where he was born’. Gilligan then
leered at him in an arch manner, scratching his head for a moment, and rubbing his cheek with his hand, as if puzzled how to treat the question. At last, he winked his eye, and putting his finger to the side of his nose, said, ‘Och! I see your honour’s a deep’ un! Sure, you’re right; but don’t peach!’.
Liverpool briefly showed an interest in Miss Crackham — the Earl of Sefton took his family along to gawp at her — but she was not the fairground wonder Gilligan hoped she would be. And as the days shortened, and colder winds blew, he took her away. They went first to Chester and from there to Manchester. Then after a spell in Birmingham they headed down south, arriving in London early in the spring of 1824.
Fully Sicilian at last
Gilligan found lodgings in Duke Street in St James’s belonging to a gentleman’s outfitter by the name of Dorlan, a stone’s throw from the house in New Bond Street where our unhappy narrative began. By now, in a bizarre version of a word ladder, her name had changed from Crackham to Crakhame to Crachame to Crachami, and her transformation from Irish to Sicilian was complete.
According to The Morning Chronicle she was presented to George IV at Carlton House, perched on a state bed and dressed in a magnificent robe. Gilligan had arranged the presentation through the distinguished surgeon Sir Everard Home, and Caroline’s new celebrity helped line his pocket, for he was now able to charge her London visitors more than twice their northern counterparts. No doubt the West End address had something to do with it as well, but no amount of metropolitan glamour altered the fact that Caroline was being cynically exploited, and in any case in June of that year a chronic cough developed into tuberculosis, and she died.
Even in death she was worth a brief announcement in the press. An obituary of sorts was printed in The Dublin Journal, in which it was claimed that on the day she died, which was Friday 4 June, she had received ‘upwards of 200 visitors’. Gilligan had been alarmed to see ‘a languor’ steal over her diminutive frame as evening fell. He had put her in a carriage, but she had expired by the time it reached their lodgings in Duke Street.
On reading the news of their daughter’s death — and can there be a more heartrending way to learn that your child has died? — the wretched Lewis and Margaret Foghell left Dublin immediately in order to take possession of her remains. They were accompanied by Margaret’s brother, an actor in the Dublin Theatre by the name of Mr King, and, on arriving in London at a late hour, they put up at the Saracen’s Head in Farringdon. The next day they went to 23 New Bond Street — they must have got the address from the papers — and were told where Gilligan had been lodging. But the news in Duke Street was that the doctor had disappeared on the Monday, defaulting on the twenty-five shillings rent and taking with him the body of the dead girl.
After making frantic enquiries, Foghell was advised by Dorlan to call on Sir Everard Home at his address in Sackville Street. There he learnt that Gilligan had some time ago made a lucrative arrangement with his fellow members of the Royal College of Surgeons, by which, in the event of Caroline’s death, he would hand over her remains in exchange for twenty-five pounds. Foghell sought the advice of Mr Roe, the magistrate at the court house in Marlborough Street, who informed him that only a coroner now had the power to recover the body from the college and that it might in any case already be too late.
Farewell my darling progeny
And indeed it was too late. For on fleeing his Duke Street lodgings, the despicable Gilligan had done the rounds of the schools of anatomy, quadrupling his asking price to a hundred pounds. When all refused, he visited Home, and, assured by him that the College would in due course make him an offer, went away. Home handed over the body for dissection. Work started on the Tuesday and continued on the Wednesday, and it was on the Wednesday that Foghell appeared in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, clutching a permit from the great surgeon that allowed him to view the body of his child. We are told that he
was in a very excited state, and he clasped the corpse in his arms with much emotion,
but really, of course, so awful a scene defies description. Home had already given Foghell ten pounds and a promise to report the matter to the King, and it was now left for the medical gentlemen in the dissecting room to prise him away from the anatomised body of his child. He left only after they promised that — in the words of the report that appeared in The Times — no further dissecting of the body of ‘his darling progeny’ would be done.
Who knows what Foghell actually saw? The dissection notes have survived, but they are very distressing, and this is not the place to quote them at length. Even so it ought to be said that ‘not the slightest appearance of fat’ was found in any part of the body. And it is perhaps especially poignant that the fontanelle had not ossified, as if Caroline had lived her nine years in a permanent state of infancy, which in a sense she had.
Lewis Foghell moved from regiment to regiment. He had already transferred from the 1st Battalion to the 12th Dragoons after Waterloo, and now, in the years that followed Caroline’s death, he served in the 66th Foot and the 60th Rifles, receiving his discharge in 1842. He was a musician from beginning to end, and only days after he left the army he was performing in a concert at the town hall in Bolton, playing a solo on the cornopean for which he received an encore. In the 1851 census he was living in Kenmore in Perthshire. He was fifty-eight years old and a professor of music. He had a servant — Jessie McKenzie — but there was no mention of Margaret. She must have remarried, or died. Lewis was a long way from Dublin, and from London, and from the nightmare that had taken him from New Bond Street to Duke Street, and from Duke Street to Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
As for Michael Gilligan, it was said at the time that he had escaped abroad. But he went no further than Ireland, where he practised at an address at Ormond Quay overlooking the Liffey. Later he moved up to Edenderry in King’s County — now County Offaly — where he undertook workhouse and hospital duties until his death in 1879. He was in his eighties when he died. He had lived a long life, with time enough in it, one would have thought, to reflect on and maybe even to feel remorse for the past.