Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tombstone Tuesday - Little Men

Hiram and Barney Davis
Waino and Plutano "Wild Men of Borneo"
Mound View Cemetery, Mount Vernon, Knox, Ohio

A year ago this month I discovered that I was related to Hiram and Barney Davis. They are my Half Great Uncles. They are better known as Waino (Hiram) and Plutano (Barney), the "Wild Men of Borneo". Both traveled the world with the P. T. Barnum Circus. Originally 'discovered' by Lyman Warner sometime between 1848 and 1852, they were exhibited first in rooms and halls, then in dime museums around the country for about 30 years. They came to the attention of P. T. Barnum around 1880, after which they toured for another 20 years in the USA and Europe.

Robert Bogdan writes at length about Hiram and Barney in his book "Freak Show". Many things are mentioned in this book that I had not seen prior in my research of these two men. There is definitely conflicting information to what I have found in my research; however, keeping in mind that so much of their true identities was kept secret due to their popularity as circus freaks, it does not surprise me that there is so much mis-information on these two men.

Both Hiram and Barney were dwarfs, weighing about 45 pounds each. Both had light hair and blue eyes, which would in my opinion contradict their origins. Somehow this was explained and audiences whole-heartedly accepted them as they were billed. At first Hiram and Barney were told to talk gibberish and to scurry about the platform snapping and snarling. This fasade did not fit their true character, which was gentle and reserved, and as time went on their exhibition emphasized their great strength. Barney and Hiram would lift men who volunteered from the audience, even very heavy men. 

Hiram and Barney continued to work until Hiram became ill in the early 1900s. He died 16 Mar 1905 in Waltham, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Barney died 31 May 1912 in Waltham, Middlesex, Massachusetts. Although their tombstone gives birth dates of 1925 and 1927, it is more likely that Hiram was born in 1929 and Barney in 1931, both in New York.

To me, Hiram and Barney's story is a bittersweet one. I've seen the original document where their mother, Catherine Porter, signs her rights away to her two sons. How did she feel? Did she regret doing this at any time? As of this writing it appears that she does have some regrets as there are references to court cases surrounding the custody of these two men as late as 1880. But was this regret or was it as some sources state, just a means to obtain some of the money from their success? It is reported that Hiram and Barney made at least $120,000.00 in their 50 years as circus freaks. That's a lot of money for the late 1800s, early 1900s. I have not obtained any court case documents at this time, other than guardianship papers. It is not known just how much contact Catherine had with her sons after they started their careers, other than a few visits early on. Neither Catherine or her two sons could write so I doubt there was any written correspondence. Supposedly there was a court case around 1880 that would proclaim the two men as dead.

I will be doing more intensive research into these two men in the future. Right now I do know that they were very fortunate, unlike so many others who were exploited during this time period. So many circus freaks were just discarded and left to their own means after their usefulness was over. Hiram and Barney were treated like members of the Warner family, and lived with descendants of Lyman Warner until their deaths. Guardianship was always with someone living in Knox County, Ohio. Their last guardian was Lewis B. Houck, an attorney in Knox County. He did make a trip to Massachusetts to investigate their care and found them to be well-cared for by the Warner family.

In addition to Hiram and Barney, Catherine and her first husband, David Davis, had three other known children: Jennetta, Cordelia, and Esquire Davis. Catherine and her second husband, William Porter had two known children: Leander and Francis Porter. It is from Leander that I descend. In upcoming posts I will write more about these children.

Finding these two men was a total surprise. No story was handed down about them. I find that odd, but I think there was some sort of embarrassment. Whether that was because they were circus freaks, or because they had been 'sold' I do not know.


  1. Many thanks for this insightful and sympathetic blog article. I look forward to reading about your further research.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I have done more research into Hiram and Barney and I should post what I've found here soon.