Section: Features

‘Wild Men’: the circus performers buried in Mount Vernon

‘Wild Men’: the circus performers buried in Mount Vernon

Hiram and Barney Davis, whose headstone is pictured here, were raised in Mount Vernon. They were famous for their small stature and remarkable strength. | BEN NUTTER

On March 17, 1905, hundreds attended the funeral of Hiram Davis, famed circus performer, at Mound View Cemetery in Mount Vernon. A train had carried Davis’ body from the Massachusetts home of his caretaker and impresario, Mr. Warner, as per Davis’ wishes. According to his obituary in the Mount Vernon Republican, many attended out of fascination with Davis’ dwarfism. “The services were largely attended,” wrote the Republican, “many persons being present out of curiosity to look upon the body.”

Hiram Davis stood at three feet, six inches tall, and his younger brother, Barney, was notably shorter. According to multiple reports of their performances, they were also extraordinarily strong. During their performances, the brothers would often lift men who were six feet tall, or wrestle audience members.

Hiram and Barney’s parents, David and Catherine Davis, were English. Hiram, the older brother, was born in England. Shortly after Hiram’s birth, the family moved to New York before settling in Tiverton township in Knox County, where Barney was born. In 1842, Catherine was widowed, putting the family in financial straits. According to the Republican, a “washboard peddler” — who the newspaper identifies as M.E. Warner, but in others sources is called “Lyman Warner” — approached Catherine. Warner made an offer to purchase the siblings, who were 15 and 17 at the time, as a circus attraction. Catherine accepted.

Although the identity (and given name) of Warner is ambiguous, he was instrumental in the Davis brothers’ career as the “Wild Men of Borneo,” a traveling exhibit in which the brothers wore furs and were instructed to speak in “gibberish languages” in order to impersonate the Dayak natives of the Indonesian island of Borneo. The Davis brothers’ success was largely due to the prevalence of xenophobic and ableist attitudes in the United States at the time.

The brothers’ dwarfism is well documented, but their cognitive ability is still a point of contention. While most sources state that the brothers were “mentally disabled,” the rarely cited article in the Mount Vernon Republican, which referenced interviews Hiram’s relatives, says that the brothers were “bright mentally.”

The brothers performed across the United States, including showman P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan, which would eventually burn down, boiling two whales alive. They also toured extensively in Europe, particularly England, Germany and France. By the end of their lives, the brothers had collectively earned $200,000 from their performances, a massive sum for the 19th century. After their separation, the brothers initially maintained regular contact with their mother, who remained in Knox County until the day of her death, either directly or through Warner. However, after the first couple of years, the brothers ceased all contact beyond the sending of checks.

Barney Davis was also buried in Mound Cemetery in Mount Vernon after his death in 1912. Their shared grave can still be viewed at the cemetery, it’s headstone engraved with the phrase “Little Men.”

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