Russian Giant Born 6 June 1878 in Kasciuki, Belarus, Feodor Andreevich Machnow (Фёдар Андрэевіч Махноў) went from peasant farmer in Tsarist Russia to an international sensation, almost overnight. His success rested on an obvious trait: his height. Standing between 8' 3" (2.54m) and 9' 3" (2.82m) as an adult, Machnow was the tallest man in the world and this was enough to attract gawking and paying crowds of people wherever he went. Before reaching the age of 25, his stature would take him from his native Belarus to dozens of points across Europe and to North America, where he was the centerpiece of theatrical shows. As his fame grew, so did his relative financial fortune, but it's unclear just how both affected him for the better.
Just days after arriving in the United States, Machnow and his wife were received by President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. While touring, the couple received a great deal of concurrent pickup in the press; it was apparent that scientists, politicians, business leaders and the broad general public couldn't seem to get enough of Machnow's presence during his stay in the U.S. He was a spectacle in an age that could gasp in awe at human difference and variation, while at the same time ruthlessly demand conformity to a vanilla orthodoxy.
Machnow had just concluded a promotional tour in the United Kingdom when he and his wife, Euphrosyne, took a first class cabin on the S.S. Pretoria sailing from Dover to New York and arriving at Ellis Island on 16 June 1906. He obviously stood out from the 200+ passengers onboard, so much so that after landing at Ellis Island he attracted the attention of immigration officials, who promptly detained them both.
Like other vulnerable individuals who were detained for no obvious reason other than abject discrimination—mainly in the form of racism and ableism—there was something about the Machnows that caused inspectors to balk. The fact that they traveled first class, had more than $50 each to their names and were going to be staying at the posh Waldorf Hotel in New York City, didn't seem to matter.
He and his wife were held before a Board of Special Inquiry on the presumed grounds that they were a Likely Public Charge (LPC). The ship's manifest that documents their arrival at Ellis Island is curiously devoid of any discernible reason for leveling a LPC determination.They were released a day later on 17 June 1906, but not before having Sherman capture a photo of him and the Commissioner of Immigration. Like a number of other detainees that Sherman photographed, Feodor and Euphrosyne Machnow were technically not immigrants to the U.S., but rather non-immigrant aliens. They left Ellis Island and quickly gathered a great deal of attention, seemingly from every corner of society. And incredibly, just a few days after their designation as a Likely Public Charge, they would be at the White House visiting with President Roosevelt. Yet it seems Machnow was greeted merely as an example of extreme physical aberration.
Machnow toured throughout the U.S. in 1906 and attracted attention wherever he went, including in the national press which featured a number of unkind and unflattering stories about their character and habits along with downright bizarre stories assessing the scientific value of what Machnow represented. While in the U.S., he could only speak through an interpreter, but most "interviews" with him paint a portrait of an individual who is both patronized and ridiculed for his otherness. A human oddity that represented an intersection of a burgeoning race science and popular culture.
While Machnow himself was not a circus performer, or sideshow attraction, it seems that the same motives were at play on the part of onlookers. He was aberrant. He was the show.
Machnow died in the village of his birth (Kasciuki, Belarus) in 1912. He was only 34.
Burmese Born 6 September 1883 in Mergin (Mergui), Myanmar, Smaun Singh Hpoo (ား မောင်စံစီဖို) first came to the U.S. as a non-immigrant alien in 1900 with his sister, Fathma. While still in their teens, they spent approximately two years traveling around the states, connecting with various circuses and theatrical enterprises, where their pronounced dwarfism was apparently quite a hit with the general public. Each stood under three feet tall and together were being billed in nationally syndicated news as "The Indian Pygmies –the smallest coloured midgets living." The siblings had already attained great notoriety across Europe before landing at Ellis Island.
Much like Machnow, the Singh Hpoo's were celebrities of sorts due to their abnormal size—just in the opposite direction. Each was billed as the world's tallest and the world's smallest, but without the efforts of impresarios and agents that would put them through elaborate tours and public performances across the globe, they most likely would never have left the remote places they were born into.
In 1902, Fathma fell ill and died suddenly in Beaumont, Texas at the end of the first U.S. tour for the brother and sister duo. Shortly thereafter, Smaun went back to Europe with his manager—who had apparently adopted both brother and sister years earlier—and they carried on touring with similar engagements but now as a solo act. They returned to the U.S. in 1905 and despite Smaun's obvious physical attributes that should have labeled him "undesirable" by immigrant inspectors, he landed at Ellis Island and entered the U.S. without incident.
However, Smaun's entry on the S.S. St. Louis ship's manifest from 7 October 1905 has the acronym "SI" written next to his name, then crossed out. So for whatever reason, one inspector overruled another and Smaun was neither detained nor held before a Board of Special Inquiry. Sherman's photo of Smaun therefore most likely dates from the very day of his landing. Given the amount of photographic artifacts depicting Smaun Singh Hpoo that have survived to this day, by the time Smaun came to the U.S. he must have been quite used to having his photo taken. Sherman only captioned the photo "Burmese", as if Smaun represented some typical native specimen from the former Province of British India. He was not.While in New York, Smaun would perform at the Victoria Theatre (owned by Oscar Hammerstein) for a number of engagements, most of which seem to involve him doing choreographed gymnastics, conducting an orchestra, and what can only be described as ableist physical comedy. Now he was being billed as "the smallest, most perfectly formed man in the world" and would be featured on a raft of promotional material such as postcards, souvenirs, and broadsides. Syndicated newspaper articles would promote or recount his performances all across the U.S. and the coverage was strikingly similar to the way Machnow was portrayed. Whereas Machnow was cast as gentle but a bit slow, Smaun was smart, impulsive and arrogant. Both were treated with utter ridicule.
Royaume de LilliputAfter New York, Smaun went on to tour the U.S. for approximately two years—mostly through the vaudeville circuit—before returning to Europe. He came back to the U.S. again in 1910, traveling together with dozens of other European dwarfs who had come to perform at New York's now defunct Hippodrome Theatre. The show promised to be a "fairyland for the children [and] a novel treat for their parents". According to the advertisement, it appears that the entire group, including Smaun, was a part of 'Royaume de Lilliput', a Paris-based troupe in existence since the 1890s. One can only guess at what the performance entailed, but it clearly wasn't high art or a sympathetic way to portray disability.
Though I've been unable to determine Smaun's ultimate fate, he appears to have stayed with the 'Royaume de Lilliput' until the late 1920s.1 In that time he would travel the world over several more times, but the stories written about him in the press never seem to have gotten any better. Just as early accounts of Fathma and Smaun highlighted their dysgenic but irresistible appeal while the siblings were still in their teens, subsequent reporting on Smaun's appearances remained predictably insensitive.
Sherman's photos of Feodor Machnow and Smaun Singh Hpoo are no different than the many others of them printed in newspapers, broadsides, and postcards—not unlike photos made with animals at a zoo. But in this particular case we also see the Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner of Immigration (Robert Watchorn and Joseph E. Murray) who presided over the massive exclusion/inclusion mechanism of Ellis Island, in the same frame.2 If Machnow was a half meter shorter and Singh Hpoo a half meter taller and both were trying to enter the country as full-fledged immigrants, would they have been allowed to enter?
Why did the extremes of human physicality simultaneously evoke fascination and the relaxation of restrictionist procedure at Ellis Island? Would they have been "normal", it's unlikely that Watchorn and Murray would have posed with Machnow and Singh Hpoo.
Notes1 A 1929 feature length article in Washington D.C.'s The Evening Star reports on the 'Royaume de Lilliput' and mentions the now "Prince Smaun" as a member.
2 Interestingly, both Murray and Watchorn were themselves immigrants to the United States. Smaun was also featured in another photo taken by Sherman in the February 1917 issue of National Geographic, again standing next to an Ellis Island official.