When small is big

You don’t always have to be big to make a large impact. In fact, Huntsville’s “doll lady” achieved international renown precisely because she was not big. In 1902, when 18 years old and fully developed, Cora Shay stood only 32 inches high and weighed just 32 pounds.

          An adult in miniature, Shay was an oddity of nature. She fascinated all who met her – including the King and Queen when she was presented to the regal couple when making a royal tour among their Canadians subjects in 1901.

          A midget enthralls people the same way anything rendered in miniature does – be it an extensive model train display, a ship in a bottle, or the entire Bible printed in a book the size of a postage stamp.  The scale allows us to see the familiar in a totally different way.

          When the tiny perfect rendition of something familiar is another human being, we are even more amazed, as the “doll lady” of Huntsville proved. Cora Shay was a remarkable character whose specialty was captivating those who met and spoke with her. On first appearance, she might have seemed to strangers like a fairy, a creature of make-believe delight which, until that moment of encountering Cora, had only been known to populate childhood fantasy tales.

          She seemed like a toy, or a sculptor’s small-scale rendition of a human being. But people’s expectations were tricked. The wee person functioned normally. She was not a toy. She was not an artifice.

          “She is possessed of all her faculties and is very sprightly in manner,” her hometown newspaper, The Huntsville Forester, enthusiastically reassured readers on September 12, 1902. “She is a most interesting conversationalist, a lover of the beautiful.”

          What went unstated was the further astonishment, “How can this be?” Although midgets and dwarfs have long joined other “freaks of nature” in the tents of travelling circuses, the only thing freakish is the huckster’s promotion and display of humans who depart from the norm, or who suffer a disability or defective formation.

          One thing that was not small was Corita’s earnings. People paid admission to see her, and her tours carried her far and wide, often with brother-in-law Joe Walker of Huntsville accompanying her. By April 3, 1903, the Forester reported, as she was about to head off on another tour through the United States, ”Our little Cora is a grand lady while on her travels. She commands a salary that would make a president of a bank happy.”

          By 1905, again performing in the United States as part of the touring Bostock Show, about the only thing that had grown larger was her name, from Cora to Corita. This upgrade was more alliterative for show biz entertainment: “Step this way, folks, and see with your own eyes the world’s smallest woman—Corita Shay!” Corita also sounding more like a diminutive term of endearment.

HELP!  The above is an early draft of an article about Cora Shay, posted here in the hope anyone with more info about her — the Canadian counterpart to Tom Thumb, famous in the United States circus circuits — will reply and share your leads or stories with me.

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About patrickboyer

Canadian author and publisher; lawyer and university professor; former Member of Parliament.
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5 Responses to When small is big

  1. This small blog carries the seed of a large book! Singularly predisposed to being the centre of attention in every company this little lady had the wit to rise to each occasion and must have had a more satisfying existence than any actor. I was once in the company of such a creature when I hosted a dinner party in Dublin. Totally self contained and with enviable self confidence, she dominated the party and left the impression that her job as a chiropodist was a glamourous occupation to which one might aspire. I remember her presence and the questions that arose around her very vividly and how she overshadowed her tall and handsome husband who was a well known television journalist.

  2. J. Betts says:

    I googled Corita the Doll Lady out of curiosity and was delighted to read your account of her. She was my great, great aunt ( my mother’s grandfather’s sister) and my mother shared stories with us children about walking down the street with her and holding her hand. My mother said she also smoked which looked very strange on such a small person. I didn’t realize that she made a good living. The family lore said that she had fallen in love but her family forbade her to marry in case the marriage produced more little people!Her brother, Orville Shay was also a little person who was a powerful preacher. There is a book called Roots of Muskoka by Joe Cookson with great pictures.

  3. Linda Shay Johnstone says:

    cora shay was my grandmother’s (mary shay) aunt. feel free to contact me if you would like more information on cora. both my grandmother and grandfather are still alive and have alot of stories about her.

  4. Judi says:

    I have gone to this site again today but am surprised that there never seemed to be any follow up by the author based on his request here for people who knew Cora or knew of her to respond. My daughters response above (Linda Shay Johnstone) indicates our family connection and I remember my Mother telling us stories of her Aunt Cora. First hand stories will be few and far between. Sad that the connection will end with the last generation although we, from the Shay clan, try to stay as current as we can on the comings and goings of Cora’s family.

  5. Pamela Shay says:

    I am also a Shay from huntsville and have done a project on my family in high school i have loads of info

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