Big Fame, Little Bodies: The Vineyard's Dwarf Sisters Could Sing, Dance and Act — But Never On Sunday

From Martha's Vineyard to Broadway —and back — with the famous 19th-century show-girl dwarfs, Lucy and Sarah Adams.

Once you learn which of the Campground cottages belonged to them, you will always think of those two ultra-talented petite women as you pass by. It’s that spacious yellow home at Fourth and Rock, set diagonally back from the Wesley Hotel, with views across a wide lawn out to the harbor.

And while the Campground cottages are often referred to as “doll houses”, a perfect designation for a dwarf’s dwelling, this one’s designed along ample lines.

The famous show-girl dwarfs, Lucy and Sarah Adams had stocked their home with scaled-down furniture, but the house is genuinely large; A-Rod could stride easily through these rooms.

Not that the Campground would appeal to big and bad boys such as A-Rod. The Campground is still sedate, with rose gardens beyond compare, and martinis consumed more indoors than out; an after-effect of long-ago in-house temperance laws that, in retrospect, make the later 19th Amendment look mild.

But back to the little people: From ancient Egypt to modern times, dwarfs have served as subjects of fascination. Unfortunately for them, this attention had seldom been wholesome.

Aristotle, who often seemed to sit back and scratch his goatee (or whatever facial hair might have fringed his jaw line), and make pronouncements without actually checking stuff out, declared that animals, children, and dwarfs were of limited intelligence.

Royal courts throughout the ages stocked dwarfs in their inner circles for no other reason than that they considered them hilarious. Dress them up in courtier clothes and ask them to recite poems or perform gavottes or somersaults, and the entire entourage was convulsed in laughter.

Along the way, these sardonic fans found out that their targets of ridicule were, just like themselves, people of intelligence, wit, and sentience (only perhaps with more sensitivity).

You can learn a fascinating amount of the history of dwarfs from an excellent book, The Lives of Dwarfs, Their Journey From Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation, by Betty M. Adelson (Rutgers University, 2005).

A dwarf could not have done better than to be born in the early 1860s, as were Lucy Palmer Adams in 1861, and Sarah Butler Adams, in 1863, at Nab’s Corner in Chilmark, to a sea captain father, Moses Adams, and a nice mom, Susan Adams.

And while we’re bandying about the name Adams, these Adamses were direct descendants of Samuel Adams. Yes, the beer guy (I kid old Samuel.)

The girls were born a normal size, but I’m thinking (as Aristotle might have done, without researching the matter) that dwarf babies, should they present themselves as such, would need to slide out of the womb the size of Barbie dolls, and since this is something we never hear about, it’s safe to assume (again, I’m wearing Aristotle’s cap), this never happens.

Lucy and Sarah, however, after arriving in the world as plump little babies, grew so imperceptibly that they were shortly thereafter “diagnosed” as dwarfs. Or midgets; that distinction has basically gone by the wayside. All little people, in this p.c. world, are labeled dwarfs, although those with the rounder lines and the problematical joints, especially in the hips and knees, are handed the medical term of achondroplasia.

This latter classification comes with health risks. I myself had a dwarf friend, Esther, in the seventh grade, very companionable, funny, and warm, much liked by classmates. Usually you can shake a seventh-grader and very little compassion and open-mindedness drops out, but none of this was true of Esther’s many friends. She died at the age of 13, and the entire school mourned her passing.

At their own one-room schoolhouse, and later at Dukes County Academy, the Adams sisters were passed around like toys, picked up and cuddled and treated as babies, something to which today’s p.c. groups and psychologists would put a stop.

"I remember we used to be in great demand to play 'baby,'" Lucy Adams told Vineyard Gazette reporter Elizabeth Bowie Hough in 1921, when Hough interviewed the sisters at their West Tisbury home. "The girls used to hire us, giving us some childish trinket, to be their babies for the season."

But, let’s be real here; how many of us wouldn’t love to be lifted and hugged and kissed and told how beautiful we are all the live-long day? Lucy and Sarah grew up feeling like the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s knees, a perfect preparation for a future as stars in show biz.

The sisters loved to sing and dance and, moreover, they had natural talent. They were also super pretty, Sarah with dark hair, big green eyes, a pert nose and chiseled features. Lucy was fair, with pale blue eyes in a moon-shaped face.

Both wore the fashionable blobs of hair set like fallen Mickey Mouse ears over their forehead, but at least they were spared the other hair style of the era – the severe center part with hair pulled back in the tightest bun this side of ballet companies.

The dwarf sisters started out dancing and singing in church benefits around the Island. News of their talent traveled across the water. None other than Mrs. Tom Thumb of the General Tom Thumb Company, came to the Vineyard to audition these bewitching young ladies.

Their widowed mother, a churchwoman of the old purse-lipped school, cringed to think of her daughters being leered at by mainland audiences. Rouge and lipstick? The smell of greasepaint, the roar of the crowds? Men at the back door with roses and bracelets? She was only persuaded when Mrs. Thump promised the girls would never perform on the Sabbath.

And you know what? During their decades of theater, they never did.

The Adams girls debuted in New York in 1880. Lucy, 19 years old, stood 4-feet, 1-inch and weighed 65 pounds. Sarah, 17, stood 3-feet, 8-inches and weighed 51 pounds.

From the very start, they yearned to be noticed for their genuine talent, minus what we might call today the freak factor. To that end, they threw themselves into singing, dancing, and acting lessons.

Their popularity soared overnight. Songwriters composed hits for them. Their names lit up marquees all over America. A new vessel in New York Harbor was christened Lucy And Sarah Adams.

After the lure of bling and bangled costumes and frou-frou musical numbers wore thin, the sisters booked their own venues, and directed their talents to psalms and other inspirational numbers. Their talent had turned to ministry.

In later years, they converted the family homestead into a tearoom, The Sign of the Spinning Wheel. Guests nibbled chocolates and caramels as the sisters stationed themselves at the organ and sang a medley of songs.

The diminutive Liza Minellis of that era inherited that yellow house in the Campground from a cousin, They spent many happy years there, as who would not? 

Sarah died in 1938 at the age of 75. Lucy carried on into her 90s. She attributed her good health and longevity to (groan!) a diet of zero vegetables. “I eat meat and potato and plenty of gravy,” she confided to a newspaper reporter.

Oh, and she drank three or four daily glasses of milk. We can only speculate that this milk habit derived from a 19th century childhood when milk (up until the late 20th century) was thought to promote height in kids. Think of all the barrels of milk imposed on the Adams girls over a life-time!

In December of 1954, Lucy died two weeks short of her 94th birthday.

I’m buying milk! High octane. None of this 2% bullboody.

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steve auerbach April 22, 2013 at 01:45 PM
Cool tale, Holly. Too bad there's no surviving films of the sisters. Speaking of dwarves, my favorite character in the complicated HBO series, Game of Thrones, is Tyrion Lannister, played by the actor (who happens to be a dwarf) Peter Dinklage. He brings absolute integrity, gravity and thoughtfulness, as well as a terrific self-deprecating sense of humor to the role. Here is a man who deserves to be taken seriously.
charlie April 22, 2013 at 02:12 PM
Fun and informative Holly..I shared with our Martha's Vineyard Antique Photos friends on Facebook.
Holly Nadler April 22, 2013 at 03:28 PM
Thanks Steve and Charlie! These were too ladies who had great integrity along with their considerable talent. And I'm telling you, once you know that's their former house at Rock & Fourth, set back from the harbor, you ALWAYS think of them! (Steve, now that I know you and Phyllis have HBO, can I run over and watch Bill Maher from time to time?)
Tina April 23, 2013 at 01:55 AM
A charming story, Holly! I recently read about a little person who was training for the Boston Marathon, but I'm not sure if she actually ran.
Bill W April 24, 2013 at 04:17 PM
I loved this story, any recordings of their singing survive, and if so where can it be found? Bill


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