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THREAD: People with #dwarfism are frequently stereotyped in popular culture, but a lot of our real history remains largely unknown to those who consume such stereotypes.

Comfortable? Cool. Let me tell you about 'Count' Joseph Boruwlaski, 1739-1837.

'Count’ Joseph Boruwlaski was born to average height parents, into a poor family, in Poland in 1739.

He was one of six children – three of which, including him, had #dwarfism.

Joseph’s father died when he was 9.

When the family’s finances became desperate, a local noblewoman, the Starostin de Caorliz, persuaded his mother to let her own/adopt Joseph, who then lived with her for several years.

The rich local buying / adopting poor #dwarf kids is a common theme in #dwarfism history.

And while it's hard to insist these kids would've fared better in poverty, this practice seems more like buying a pet then adopting a child per se.

From what I’ve read it seems only Joseph’s #dwarf siblings were bought/adopted this way.

I can’t help but think a genuinely concerned rich friend would financially support a poor family, instead of taking the child for entertainment.

But whatever, back to Joseph…

When the Starostin became pregnant, Madame Humieska took ownership of Joseph.

She took him to Turkey and Vienna, presenting him to European nobility.

The curiosity around Joseph's #dwarfism meant she had many more visitors than usual. He was an asset for her own benefit. 

Joseph learns to dance and to play the violin and guitar.

As a Court #Dwarf, he is constantly subjected to strangers touching him.

He is forever being “caressed”, picked up, put on people’s laps, and fondled.

It’s all a bit gross.

While he revels in the attention he receives from royalty, he’s acutely aware of just how shallow these relationships and exchanges are.

He was not “unconscious of being… only looked upon by others as a doll… only an animated toy”.

He recounts a heart-wrenching story in which Mme Humieska and friends speculate, in his presence, about “how pleasant it would be” to make him & *his sister* have children, to see how small their kids would be.

The conversation is punctuated by him “weeping bitterly”.

Reflecting on the painful episode, he writes: “They believed themselves entitled to dispose of me without my advice, but even looked upon me as being merely physical, without morality, on whom they might try experiments of every kind”.

They arrive in Lunéville in France where, at the home of exiled Polish King Stanislaus I, Joseph encounters another Court #Dwarf, Bébé.

Court Dwarfs were often given infantilising nicknames. Bébé is French for “baby”.

Boruwlaski was called “Joujou”, meaning “Toy”.

Bébé – real name Nicholas Ferry – belonged to Stanislaus I.

The King readily stokes a rivalry between Ferry and Joseph – taunting Ferry, calling him “a little machine”, making him “violently agitated”. 

For the King, such conflict between #dwarf people = entertainment.

Ferry allegedly attacks Joseph, but the King stops him.

Boruwlaski then supposedly prevents the King from punishing Ferry, who, we’re told, dies shortly after from “jealousy”. 

Actually - tragically - Ferry actually died from a brain tumour, aged just 22.

After his death Ferry’s body was “boiled and his skeleton recovered” so he could remain an object and a spectacle – even in death. 

After all, why would you bury someone you don't consider to have human value?

It’s interesting and unsettling to see how, far from feeling solidarity with Bébé and recognising the similarity of their situations, Joseph uses Bébé – both in the court and in his memoirs – to boost his own standing in the eyes of both the King and the reader.

So Joseph is displayed around Europe...

Being intelligent and articulate helps him dismantle some stereotypes about #dwarfism

He recounts how a Princess told him he challenged her assumptions that #dwarf people “are ill-favoured by nature”, mentally and physically.

But he remains primarily a plaything, even to his supposed friends.

Count Oginski teaches Joseph music, but then - in a scene strongly reminiscent of the pie and Jeffrey Hudson - uses Joseph as a prop at a banquet, hiding him in a vase to 'surprise' the Count’s guests.

Court #Dwarfs were essentially pets, not people.

They were exploited for their owners’ whims, indulged to a degree – perhaps they were dressed in posh clothes, attended banquets, or even taught music, dancing or foreign languages. 

But they were not *free*.

Though Joseph is exhibited across Europe, he is never paid – enforcing his dependency on Humieska. 

He's “totally indebted” to her for escaping poverty.

He knows contravening her wishes could mean losing everything. The stress of this "visibly impaired" his health.

Joseph falls in love - with Isalina Barboutan, an average height 'lady-in-waiting'.

I'd love to know more about the bullshit she must’ve endured, at that time, for loving a man with #dwarfism, but, sadly, I couldn't find much about / from her.

When Mme Humieska learns Joseph is in love, she imprisons him in his room for a fortnight & replaces the guard.

She demands he renounces Isalina, or leave.

He leaves.

He describes himself as being "now at large", as if free from a prison.

But he is broke, penniless.

He and Isalina are married but Joseph, now a father and “having no other education but such as was analogous to his size", is "reduced to the sad necessity of appearing in public" for money - an idea he previously considered beneath him.

Joseph is persuaded to make money by exhibiting himself and giving concerts. He travels across Europe, Britain, and Ireland, playing for money, for the next 20 years.

But the success of these concerts is often dependent on whether a generous friend pays his overheads.

Sometimes, he does a runner – without playing his overheads.

Another time, he and an associate stage a complex but ingenious fake fight - using fake blood - to get out of paying the rent!

In later years Joseph repeatedly tries to make money by setting up a subscription service to his memoirs - of which he publishes several editions. 

Finally, he pulls it off and he’s able to retire, in Durham, North East England, in 1812.  

Boruwlaski’s memoirs – the edition I’ve read - take three forms:

first, they serve as a sort of sycophantic thank you letter – lavishing gratitude on a dizzying number of Europe’s nobility.

Second, they’re another form of performance.

Joseph knew his readers would objectify and fetishize him, and, I think, he plays into this.

After all, his memoirs are a money-making scheme and he needs people to subscribe. 

It’s worth noting that, according to the preface, there was printed a second edition of his memoirs in which he included “many interesting facts” that he’d previously “supressed” but which he thought would “entertain” his readers.

Third, they are, in places, as raw and honest as a diary.

This is when we can get a better understanding of what life as a Court #Dwarf was really like for him – bridging, as he did, the shift from Court Dwarf to Freak Show exhibitions. 

Joseph “the Little Count” Boruwlaski died in 1837, aged 98.

Here in Durham, his portrait hangs on the wall of the Town Hall. His belongings are displayed in a glass cabinet.

My size excludes me irrevocably from the common circle of society… how painful a reflection.”

Joseph Boruwlaski, 1739-1837

Sources: Boruwlaski, J. The Memoirs of The Celebrated Dwarf, Joseph Boruwlaski; Webb, S. In Search of the Little Count; Adelson, B. The Lives of Dwarfs.
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