In the fall of 1847, farmer and slave owner William Macon Waller was walking a coffle of about two dozen slaves from Amherst County, Va., to Natchez, Miss. Once in Mississippi, he planned to sell them to settle some debts.
The group was traveling what’s been called the “overland route,” 900-some miles through Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. While Waller probably rode a horse or a mule, it’s likely the slaves walked as far as 25 or 30 miles a day. Some were small children.
During the journey, Waller wrote letters home to his wife, Sarah. He wrote about a variety of things, among them the progress they’d made, if any of the slaves had been sick, and about things he saw along the way.
Writing from Washington County, Va., on Oct. 4, 1847, Waller tells Sarah about a fascinating family he saw in Wythe County:
In passing on, I meet occationally [sic] rare if not interesting sights. At one house in Wythe County I saw a family of many children four of whom two males & two females were dwarfs.
The mails [sic] one thirty-eight and the other twenty not as large by a good deal as Ben. The females one twenty-seven and the other fully grown not as large as Mat. All the senses of each perfect. The balance of the children of good sise [sic] and their parents large.
The family that so intrigued Waller was the Walters family of Wythe County, Va., four members of which — Hiram, Roxana, Catharine and William — were dwarfs, or as we’d say today, “little people.”
According to newspaper accounts from across the U.S., for many years the siblings performed as the “Virginia Dwarf Family.” Hiram, the oldest, used the stage name “Major Walters.” It was apparently a common practice at the time for people in show business to use military titles.
A Nov. 5, 1836, article in the Charlotte (N.C.) Journal tells of a visit the Virginia Dwarf Family made to that city:
The Dwarfs—We among a number of other citizens of this place, paid a visit to the family of Dwarfs exhibited in this town on Saturday evening last, and we were truly astonished at this singular freak of nature.
The oldest of the four, Maj. Hiram Walters, was 26 years old last April, weighs 43 pounds, and is 3 feet 7 inches high. His sisters, Miss Roxana, who is 20 years of age, weighs 30 pounds, and is 3 feet high, and Miss Catharine, is 18 years old, weights 30 1/2 pounds, and is 3 feet 1 inch high, and his brother Master William, is in his ninth year, weighs 22 pounds, and is 2 feet 1 inch high.
These four dwarfs are children of the same parents and are perfectly formed. They are cheerful and communicative, and altho’ uneducated, they are very shrewd in their remarks.
Their combined weight is 125 1/2 pounds. Their father, Mr. Michael Walters, of Virginia, accompanies them, and carries with him certificates, to show that they are the offspring of himself and wife.
We think them well worthy the attention of the curious.
As one might expect, most stories about the Virginia Dwarf Family were politically incorrect by today’s standards, including observances such as this one made in the Augusta (Ga.) Constitutionalist:
The Major … is full of life, and when his two sisters have him by the arm, struts as large as a peacock. He appears to be of a lively turn; says he should like to get married, could he find a young lady to his fancy, and he seems to think, with the old Dutchman, that a ‘man ish [sic] a man, if he’s no bigger as my dumb [sic].’
It appears that sometime around 1851, younger brother William left show business. Perhaps he was seeking a life out of the spotlight. If he was, he didn’t find it. When William married Elizabeth Sawyers in August of that year, newspapers all over the country took notice, running this story from the Wytheville Republican:
Married, in Ashe, North Carolina, on Wednesday, 13th ultimo, Mr. Wm. Walters (a dwarf, about twenty three years old, and no more than thirty inches tall, and weight thirty five pounds) to Miss Elizabeth Sawyers (a full grown woman) daughter of Martin Sawyers, all of Wythe county, Virginia.
When William and Elizabeth had a daughter, Jane, four years later, it also didn’t escape the curiosity of the press. On Aug. 30, 1855, the Richmond Dispatch reported that “full grown” Elizabeth was “very dutiful and obedient to her little lord, and their union has been blessed by a fine baby, which shows no signs of dwarfage!”
The same article also reported that William’s older brother, Hiram, had no intention of marrying:
He wouldn’t get married, he said — he wasn’t such a fool — he wasn’t so green as his brother to be moping at home with his wife and baby — not he. He was going to be free, and go where he please — he was.
In May of 1861, Hiram, Roxana and Catharine, accompanied by their younger sister, Nancy, and two showmen, John Burnell and J.H. McDaniel, arrived in New York City aboard the schooner Mary Harris.
There, according to the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers, the Virginia Dwarf Family was scheduled to perform at Barnum’s American Museum:
More Novelty — At Barnum’s American Museum there is a most extraordinary family of dwarfs on exhibition. They consist of Major Walters, fifty-one years old, and only thirty-eight inches in height, his two sisters Roxana and Kate Walters, forty-two and forty-five years of age, and only thirty inches in height, and a younger sister, who stands five feet and nine inches in height. The family are from Virginia and the Major declares himself a staunch Union man and ready to fight for the government.
What happened to Hiram, Roxana and Catharine after that isn’t clear. All three appear to disappear from the public record after June of 1861.
One story that made it home to Wytheville was that the siblings died of smallpox in New York in 1861 and were buried at Weehawken Cemetery in North Bergen, N.J. Newspapers do report smallpox in the area at that time, but the cemetery has no record of their burials.
Interestingly, showman John Burnell, who married Nancy Walters, was buried at Weehawken in 1881, after dying penniless in New York. It’s unknown at this point if Nancy, who died in 1884, also is buried at Weehawken.
Another story that made it home was that Hiram, Roxana and Catharine died sometime during the Civil War, while performing in Europe. It’s said they were even presented to the King and Queen of England.
(I’ve found no evidence of that, either, but perhaps it was a more romantic story to tell than dying of smallpox.)
Things didn’t work out so well for William, either. William was reportedly a rough character, prone to brandishing weapons. In April of 1859, while running a grocery store in the east Tennessee town of Union, William shot and killed a man named Elijah Cross.
William was charged with and convicted of murder, as reported in the North-Carolinian and other newspapers. The North-Carolinian also revealed a motive:
Convicted of Murder — Wm. Walters, a dwarf, well known about Bristol, has been convicted at Blountsville, Tenn. of murder in the first degree. Walters shot a man named Cross for making improper overtures to Mrs. Walters, who is said to be a woman of unusual personal attractions.
What happened after that is unclear. A Dec. 7, 1859, article in the New Bern (N.C) Daily Progress indicates William was granted a new trial and the case was moved to nearby Greeneville, Tenn.
Some have said the conviction was eventually overturned.
It hardly matters, however, as William was to face a bad end himself a few years later. On Dec. 30, 1863, the Wytheville Dispatch reported the following, under the headline “Murder in Wythe County”:
We are informed that Wm. Walters, the little dwarf (who was only 3 feet 2 inches high and 40 years old) was murdered on the evening of the 24th, by a man named Roberts.
It appears that they were returning together from a still-house at which place Walters had exhibited a considerable amount of money to possess which by Roberts, is thought to have led to the commission of the horrid deed.
Roberts was heard to say by a man named Etter that he had killed Walters, but pretended it was done in self-defence [sic]. Roberts is still at large but it is thought cannot escape as he is well known.
A decade later, William was still making headlines, if only as part of an apparent feud between rival area newspapers and without sympathy from reporters. On Feb. 4, 1873, the Bristol (Tenn.) News reported the following:
The Wytheville Enterprise says the dwarf Wm. Walters was not killed in the manner stated by the correspondent of the Courier Journal, but that his taking off occurred in a gambling spree near Cullop’s mill in Wythe Co., Va., with one Steve Roberts a wooden legged individual, who, because Walters won all his money, cut his throat from ear to ear, and then limped out of Virginia into Kentucky, and has never been heard from since.
Well, well! Cock Robin being dead, it is immaterial who killed him.