By Rachel Dworkin, archivist
Everywhere she performed, Millport native Sarah “Sadie” Belton received rave reviews. In 1881, the Columbus Daily Evening Republic wrote, “The singing of Miss Sadie Belton is especially good, and her dramatic ability would do credit to any star actress.” The Cuba Evening Review described her as “The wonder and admiration of all.” Yet, it wasn’t her prodigious talent that made her famous. No, what Sadie Belton was most famous for was her height.
At just 33 inches tall, Belton was one of the so-called midget performers who took the world by storm in the mid-1800s. Today, the word midget is considered highly offensive and the preferred terms are Little Person or dwarf. Born in Millport in 1842, she first took to the stage sometime in the 1860s touring under the stage name of “Fairy Queen.” In her early days, she mostly worked in traveling freak shows. In 1868, she was working at one called Miss Belton’s Museum of Wonders, although it was actually run by a man named Professor Carruthers. Around 1877, she joined Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. The company was different from the freak shows. They put on actual plays like Jack the Giant-Killer and Gulliver’s Travels. Most of the cast were fellow dwarfs with just a couple of conventionally-sized folk to play Gulliver or the giant. She worked with them until 1891 when she helped form the Royal Midgets before retiring from the stage by the end of the decade.
Flier for Deakin’s Lilliputian Comedic Opera Co.
At the time, dwarf performers were hugely popular. Like Belton, most of them got their start in freak shows as objects of curiosity. In 1842, showmen P.T. Barnum and Charles Stratton (better known as General Tom Thumb) changed things up by adding impersonations, musical numbers, and actual acting. By the time Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. was touring, dwarf entertainers had moved from carnival tents into respectable theaters. The actors were no longer “freaks,” but legitimate actors. And yet said actors’ size remained the main draw and source of the audience’s amusement. “The little folks show a keen appreciation of the humor of the situation in which they find themselves, and sustain their parts with a self-possession which is laughter-provoking,” the Swanton Courier wrote of Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. on January 3, 1879. More than a few reviewers marveled at just like real actors Belton and her co-stars were.
There are over 200 medical conditions which can result in dwarfism. Belton was a pituitary dwarf whose stature was likely the result of a growth hormone deficiency. Most of her co-stars had similar issues. Today, there is a debate among the Little Person community as to whether or not dwarfism is a disability. It’s certainly not for me to decide that, but their dwarfism certainly had a profound impact on the lives of Belton and her associates.
Display of Belton’s clothing at the Schuyler County Historical Society, 1976
Life for such performers wasn’t easy and they were often exploited. P.T. Barnum purchased Stratton from his parents when he was just five-years-old and his situation was in no way unique. Sadie Belton was at least an adult when she began touring, and even she ran into difficulties. It apparently wasn’t unusual for strangers to just pick her up and cuddle her. In 1868, she secretly married fellow freak-show performer George Luther Saxe (stage name Brother Joseph) in an attempt to protect herself from the abuses of her employer, Professor Carruthers. When Carruthers found out, a fight broke out and Saxe was arrested on the grounds the marriage must be somehow illegal owing to her childlike stature. In the end, the marriage was annulled without charges and Belton left the show in the company of her mother.
Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. turned out to be a much better fit for Belton. By the 1870s, she was raking it in. In 1878, she temporarily misplaced a diamond necklace at a Massachusetts hotel. The Elmira paper which reported the incident noted “It is unusual for Chemung County girls to have diamonds.” After retiring from the stage, she purchased a home in Harrisville, Rhode Island where she lived until her death on April 14, 1915 at age 73. She is buried in a family plot in Millport.
Rachel Dworkin is the archivist at the Chemung Valley Historical Society. For more information about the museum and to see more of their blog, click here.