Looking Back

Rose and Philippe Nicol, photographed in a Manchester studio likely in 1906.

MANCHESTER IS KNOWN as the birthplace and childhood home of one of P.T. Barnum’s most celebrated performers, George Washington Morrison Nutt (1848-1881).

Commodore Nutt, as he was affectionately known, rivaled fellow dwarf Gen. Tom Thumb (Charles Sherwood Stratton, 1838-1883) as one of Barnum’s top headliners.

For a time in the early 20th century Manchester was home to two other dwarfs who found success in the circus world, Philippe and Rose Nicol. They would eventually reside in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and would become known as the Count and Countess Nicol. Their extraordinary story holds a special place in the history of little people in North America.

Philippe Adélard Nicol was born in 1881 in the town of Saint-Henri-de-Lévis, Quebec, Canada. He was one of 13 children born to Alexandre Nicol, a carpenter, and Josephine-Philomène Brousseau. It is often mentioned in biographical sketches about Philippe that he was the seventh son of a seventh son. In the folklore of many cultures, this rare circumstance was believed to indicate that the child was born with magical abilities and charms. This does not seem to have been the case with Philippe, nevertheless he was quite remarkable.

At 6-foot-3, Alexandre Nicol likely towered above his peers, and his wife, at 5-foot-9, was also taller than most women of the era. With the exception of Philippe, the Nicol children would grow to be average or tall in stature.

When Philippe was a few months old, it became clear that he was a dwarf. There were opportunities for unusual children like him due to the insatiable curiosity of the public, so when Philippe was 3 years old, he was taken away from his home and put on display in circus sideshows. Over the next several years Philippe worked for Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, which had been associated with P.T. Barnum until his death in 1891. He was also hired by the Sells Brothers Circus, which became the Forepaugh-Sells Brothers Circus in 1900. Philippe was always accompanied by a relative who would care for him, and his family was well paid.

In 1887 the Nicols immigrated to Manchester, N.H. Philippe continued to work in circuses in the summers, and he appeared on stage in vaudeville acts in the winter months. He attended school in Manchester for about three months each year, and also found time to peddle newspapers at the corner of Bridge and Elm streets. At about age 12 Philippe started taking business courses, and when he was 15, he began traveling alone and managing his own financial affairs.

The Nicols lived at different addresses on both the east and west sides of Manchester. By 1900 the family was residing in what was known as the Flat Iron district in the McGregorville neighborhood of the West Side. This was a dense collection of wooden structures along McGregor Street bordered on the north by Amory Street and on the south by Putnam Street.

In 1903 Philippe, then 22 years old, gave up the traveling life and opened his own confectionery and variety store in the Flat Iron district. One of his acquaintances was the cellist and music publisher Octave Champagne of Lowell, Mass., who was also the agent and manager of the famous Quebec strongman Louis Cyr. Octave introduced Philippe to Rose Dufresne of Lowell. Rose, who was six years younger than Philippe, was also a dwarf and a circus performer. After a short courtship the two were married in the chapel of the rectory of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church in Lowell on Nov. 21, 1906. The local French-language newspaper, Le Clairon, reported that Philippe was 3 feet tall, while his wife was 4 inches taller.

The newlyweds lived in the Flat Iron district and Philippe continued to operate his store. In 1910 the couple relocated to Lowell where Philippe managed a variety store in Lowell’s Franco-American section. But it appears that he and Rose grew restless, so within a few months they were touring with circuses in the southern United States and in Europe. In 1913 Philippe and Rose decided that they wanted to settle in a place where they could enjoy a prosperous life, so they moved to the bustling cosmopolitan city of Montreal.

Next week: The Count and Countess Nicol and their “palace” in Montreal.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at auroreeaton@aol.com or at www.facebook.com/AuroreEatonWriter.