159: The English ‘Hottentot Venus’, 1840
Fairs can be traced in England over several centuries (Hull Fair dates from the 13th century) attracting crowds. It has been the memoirs of showmen and the newspaper reports of rowdy behaviour that supply information: often dubious. Showmen earned their living by exhibiting people who were different to the majority as well as providing other entertainments including games, boxing contests and other trials of strength, competitions and other challenges. There were menageries, small zoos that were taken around and exhibited for a small fee (see page 084). These entertainments seldom appeared on the theatrical stage, and appealed to a market that was unlikely (or able) to read newspaper adverts. Documentation is thus sparse.
It is also international, with Chang Gow the Chinese giant (see page 080) appearing in England and Australia, and Abomah (see page 003), apparently born in Carolina as Ella Grigsby, who was in Australia, and Germany in 1911 as well as England. The Life and History of Mme Abomah does not appear to have survived in Copac-linked libraries in Britain.
The Hull Packet newspaper of 20 November 1840 reported on an inquest in Leeds, on ‘a black woman, of the name of Elizabeth Magnes’. Ill for a long time, ‘she has been exhibited for six years and a half, at several Leeds fairs, in one of the booths kept by a man of the name of Crockett, as a Hottentot Venus. Though to all appearances a perfect Hottentot, having thick, coarse, curly hair, and a perfectly black skin, she was an English woman, being born in London, of a black father and white mother. She was a woman of extraordinary strength, and was in the habit of lifting heavy weights, equal to the weight of three men on her back, and swinging round with them. She had been ill for six months’.
John Crockett who owned the booth ‘had three children by her’ but had recently married another woman, ‘who is exhibited in the same booth as a Canadian giantess, a most prodigious woman, betwixt six and seven feet high’. That had led to talk of foul play, but the inquest revealed inflammation in the brain and right lung, and a severely diseased left lung, all ‘increased by excessive drinking’. ‘Death from natural causes’ was the verdict.
The original Hottentot Venus had been exhibited in England from 1810, and died in France in 1815. Elizabeth Magnes had been given that title to attract fairground audiences, obviously. The registration of death has her surname as Magness, and there is a suggestion she may have married in Greenwich in London in 1838 but no ‘John Crockett’ is listed then (there is a John Stansfield). The National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University was unable to locate any details.
The showman ‘Lord’ George Sanger told of his father touring with ‘savage cannibal pigmies of the Dark Continent’ in his Seventy Years a Showman (1910) who were the children (aged nine and ten) of a black woman and an Irishman, obtained in Bristol. The chance survival of a postcard put name and face to one African-descent fairground worker in 1900s England (see page 037); the well-respected elephant act of Moses ‘Eph’ Thompson toured as far as Russia (see page 140); and one-time boxing booth participant James Johnson’s brief memoir of 1914 shows another aspect of fairground performers (see page 130). The life of the English Hottentot Venus may have lacked the indignities of the original Sartjee Baartman whose body was displayed in Paris until 1982 and returned to South Africa in 2002, eight years after Nelson Mandela made that request. But we do not know and in view of the exaggerations and lies of show-business, we may never know the fate of Elizabeth Magnes(s).
See also pages 003, 073, 080, 087, 098 and 115.
THIS PAGE WAS STIMULATED BY ALLISON EDWARDS WHO GAVE ME A COPY OF THE INQUEST REPORT IN THE 1840 HULL NEWSPAPER. MANY THANKS
Alerted to this page when a brand new post, my friend Bernth Lindfors of Texas said that in London in 1838 a black woman named as Kaitus Vessula entertained people at a fair in Hyde Park, and then was in the provinces. This may be the same person as Elizabeth Magnes(s). See Lindfors, Early African Entertainers Abroad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014, pp 28, 199 n 27) and John Johnson Collection, Oxford. She appeared in Aberdeen and seems to have been a South African who had been in Britain since 1836. In mid-December 2015 Lindfors kindly provided a copy of page 2 of Reminiscences of a K.C. by lawyer Thomas Edward Crispe (published by Methuen in London in 1909 and by Little, Brown & Co., Boston, in 1910). Crispe aged five recalled Victoria’s coronation day in 1838 and that his uncle took him to the fair in Hyde Park ‘and there introduced me to the Hottentot Venus … On this steed of Africa, I, a featherweight, was placed a-straddle, and holding to a girdle round her waist – the almost sole article of her apparel – I plied a toy whip on the flanks of my beautiful jade, who, screaming with laughter, raced me round the circle’. He also wrote she had a strength ‘which enabled her to carry a drayman round the arena with inconvenience’ (page 2).
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