190121-news-lookingback

An undated photo of Philippe Nicol, Jr. (center) and his mother Rose Nicol (right), and an unidentified woman on the front stairs of the the so-called Midgets Palace in Montreal. Photo from the collection of the author.

FORMER CIRCUS PERFORMERS Philippe and Rose (Dufresne) Nicol found prosperity and stability in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. They settled in this cosmopolitan city in 1913 after having spent much of their lives on the road traveling with circus sideshows. The two dwarves had also lived in Manchester, N.H., and in Rose’s hometown of Lowell, Mass.

The Nicols created a popular tourist attraction in Montreal, the Palais des Nains — the Midgets Palace. They created a charming apartment for themselves on the first floor of their townhouse where everything was in miniature to suit their small size. Visitors would pay a fee to peer into the rooms and watch the Nicols live their daily lives. Count Philippe and Countess Rose Nicol, as they called themselves, were always dressed in fine clothing, and conducted themselves with dignity. The Palace was a success, as was Philippe’s doll repair shop, which he operated on the premises.

The birth of their son Philippe Nicol, Jr. in 1926 was celebrated as a miraculous occasion as dwarf couples were rarely able to have children in those days. Prince Philippe, as he was affectionately known, was a dwarf like his parents. He grew up in the Palace under the constant gaze of the public. The Nicols were touted in souvenir photos as “The Smallest Family in the World.” An ad in a 1938 Montreal guidebook included a drawing of the family on the front stairs of their home, with Philippe Sr. and Philippe Jr. in formal suits with top hats, and Rose in a fur-collared coat with a corsage. The ad read “Visitez La Famille des Lilliputiens dans leur Palais Royal,” which translates as “Visit the Family of the Lilliputians in their Royal Palace.” The ad promised a refund if the visitor wasn’t satisfied.

After Philippe, Sr. died in 1940 at the age of 58, Philippe, Jr. had a difficult time adjusting. He was aware that his father had very much wanted him to become as great a man as his hero, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the revered Canadian Prime Minister who served from 1896 to 1911. But Philippe, Jr. did not share his father’s ambitions. He turned for a time to a life of petty crime, mostly committing burglaries. In 1949 an “alienist” (psychological expert) working for the city of Montreal warned Philippe, Jr. that the only cure for him would be a “severe lesson,” that is, jail time, which he seems to have avoided. To earn a living legally, Philippe, Jr., who was 4 feet tall, became a wrestler on the midget fighting circuit in the United States. He appears to have led a lonely life, and he died on April 6, 1992 in Montreal.

Rose passed away in 1964 at age 76 in the small town of St. Philippe d’Argenteuil in Quebec, located about 55 miles west of Montreal. In 1972 the Midgets Palace was sold to 24-year-old Huguette Rioux. A little person herself, she was an actress who performed in movies in minor roles. She was also the founder and first president of the Canadian Midgets Association, which provided support and encouragement to little people, helping them to find schooling and jobs, and making social opportunities available to them. The Palace became the association’s headquarters.

After a few years the organization became inactive, but Huguette stayed on as the in-house manager of the unique house museum. For many years she served as its devoted curator and guide, and she continued to be a passionate advocate for little people. She and her 6-foot-tall husband, Real Bastien, lived upstairs from the museum in normal-sized rooms.

In 1984, Manchester author Robert B. Perrault wrote about his visit to the Midgets Palace in an article in The Manchester Journal newspaper. In it he quoted Huguette Rioux: “It isn’t very pleasant to see people staring, laughing at us. Sometimes I get very annoyed and ask them what they’re looking at or why they are laughing. That usually stops them in their tracks.”

The Midgets Palace was sold in 1992, and the building was modernized. Over the years it has been used for different purposes and is no longer recognizable as the famous home of the Count, Countess, and Prince Nicol.

Next week: The story of Chester native Benjamin Brown French.

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