"Despite the very disagreeable weather a splended audience filled the opera house Friday evening to listen to the little Esquiman, Miss Olof Krarer, in her graphic though simple description of life in Greenland... curiosity as to her manner and appearance entered in no small degree into her success here as elsewhere... [she had] well rounded arms upon which, as also upon her hands, one caught the flash of gems whose presence and unmistakable geniuneness denote that she is reaping her reward out of the curious ones who throng to hear her... [she] was frequently interrupted by applause."
--The Sandusky (Ohio) Daily Register, Feb. 12, 1890
I have to stretch the boundaries of my blog a bit to tell this tale; luckily, I have a lenient editor.
I was poking around in the curio-filled basement of my old farmhouse when I came upon a big pile of musty old textbooks. One of them was Geography by the Brace System by John F. Wicks (Chicago: Flanagan Publishers, 1892). I read through the book and was amazed that anyone would be so heartless as to foist this tome upon young children. It is filled with tiresome facts such as: “There are four hundred and thirteen species of trees to be found within the limits of the United States, sixteen of which, when perfectly seasoned, will sink in water.” And the lesson plans are something else. An example: “Describe a coal mine. Take your pupils and visit one, and, experience proves, that it will be one of the pleasant and never to be forgotten lessons.”
I kept flipping the pages and came upon a story that made my eyes widen. It seems the author attended a very interesting talk of Miss Olof Krarer, an “Esquimaux” or “Mongolian” from the polar regions. She was only forty inches tall but was a striking figure nonetheless. In her lecture, Miss Krarer described life in Greenland, and the account was horrifying.
“They never cook anything, but eat raw, frozen, saltless meat and blubber, oil and blood… the children have no playthings and are not allowed to play or make any noise. Their parents command them to sit down and point out a place on the floor, and there they sit shivering until permission is given them to rise. From the constant habit of folding the arms to keep themselves warm, their arms are bowed at the elbows… If they are naughty their parents do not whip them, but instead put a piece of whalebone into the fire, and heat it until the fat begins to sizzle. Then they brand them with it, never, however, on the face. It is a cruel punishment, and, of course, very much dreaded. Miss Krarer still carries a mark made in this way…”
“When a man wants a wife, he steals her from her home. If he is caught her parents kill him… They do not talk much, having very little to talk about, and almost no ideas… Oh, but it is a dreary land, nothing but snow and ice on every side! … They have no heat but what the body gives. Such agony as they endure from the bitter cold we can form no idea of whatsoever. They have absolutely no water, never wash themselves, and never drink anything… in fact the only attention paid to the body is an occasional oiling.”
Ms. Krarer also told a captivating story of her escape from Greenland with a party of shipwrecked sailors, making her way 1,000 miles south to Iceland. Upon her arrival, “she was a very black, dirty, repulsive object and the kind people gave her some soap to wash herself with. But not understanding its use she put it into her mouth.” From there, she traveled to Manitoba and then began her tour of the United States.
Some account, eh? Hard to believe? Not to an American audience of the time, not even the university audiences. They took it hook, line, and sinker. For Olof Krarer was not an “Esquimaux.” She wasn’t even from Greenland. She was a dwarf from Iceland, and her entire North American tour was a fabulous hoax.
After poking around on the web, I learned that a U C Santa Barbara Anthropology Professor, Inga Dora Bjornsdottir, has written a book about Olof Krarer. It was released in Icelandic in November 2004, but it is not yet printed in English. Would somebody please publish this fascinating story in a language I can read?