In the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans of all ages flocked to exhibits of people with physical abnormalities, more commonly called “freak shows.” P.T. Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame, played a major role in popularizing freak shows, touring nationally and internationally with performers such as General Tom Thumb and the giant woman Anna Swan. These kinds of human curiosity exhibits proved to be very profitable, and it was a path pursued both by “agents” and parents of children with physical anomalies.
Fred A. Pickering was one such businessman who realized the lucrative nature of human exhibits. Pickering ran his agency out of Boston’s Old State House in the 1870s, organizing shows of musical performers and human curiosities. Because of the seedy reputations of some freak shows, Pickering made a concerted effort to prove his shows and exhibits were professional and dignified. He asserted that the audiences of his shows were composed of only the most refined and distinguished people of Boston, and he managed his agency as a legitimate business.
In the 1870s, one of Pickering’s most famous acts was the “Fairy Sisters.” The Fairy Sisters were two young girls named Cassie and Victoria Foster, who were advertised as the “smallest persons in the world.” Born in Nova Scotia, Cassie and Victoria toured New England as performers from 1872-1873. In an 1873 issue of the New England Medical Gazette, it was reported, “their ages are six and three; their weight twelve and six pounds…They are well-formed and perfect in every respect, and have always enjoyed good health.” The Fairy Sisters exhibit, usually accompanied by a musical performance, showed off their diminutive stature, special clothing, and tiny furniture. Unfortunately, the two sisters both passed away at a very young age, only touring for about two years.
After the death of the Fairy Sisters, their younger brother Dudley Foster was also exhibited because of his dwarfism. Known professionally as “Hop-O’-My-Thumb,” Dudley Foster saw some success as an entertainer, even being presented to Queen Victoria.
The John J. Burns library holds a small amount of promotional material relating to Fred A. Pickering and the Fairy Sisters in the Greater Boston Area Collection. The collection includes Pickering’s business card, a promotional advertisement of the Fairy Sisters exhibit, a poem about the sisters published in the Portland Star, and a management contract for the exhibit. For more information, please see the finding aid, or contact the Burns Library at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Sarah Nitenson, Burns Library Archives Student Assistant & BC ’15
Annapolis Heritage Society. “The Foster Midgets.” Accessed February 26, 2015, http://www.annapolisheritagesociety.com/collections-artifacts-from.html.
Collins and Chambers collection. Finding aid at William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Accessed February 26, 2015, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/clementsmss/umich-wcl-M-4400.12col?view=text.
Fairy Sisters promotional ephemera, 1872-1873, Box 1, Folder 4, Greater Boston Area Materials, MS.2013.020, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.
Sweet, Matthew. Inventing the Victorians: What We Think We Know About Them and Why We’re Wrong. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014.
Talbot, I.T., ed. The New England Medical Gazette, vol. VIII. Boston: Otis Clapp and Son, 1873, p. 289.