The Adams Sisters

Two little women from Chilmark tour the country with General Tom Thumb.

You still see pictures of them around here: Lucy and Sarah – the Adams sisters of Chilmark – draped in Victorian gowns and holding each other affectionately, or enrobed, gazing down at the Bible or hymnal they cradle in their hands.

You don’t notice the gimmick – a rude word, of which they would have sharply disapproved – until you see a photo of them flanking a child of perhaps twelve, who towers over them and fills the frame with what looks like a pair of fullback shoulders. Lucy Adams, at twenty-two, stood just forty-nine inches tall and weighed sixty-four pounds. Sarah, at twenty, stood forty-four inches and weighed fifty-one.

They were born in a farmhouse on South Road near Nab’s Corner, the daughters of a descendent of the founding English settlers and related, pretty directly, to the presidential Adamses. Of the six children born to Moses and Susan Adams, only Lucy (born in 1861) and Sarah (1863) were what we now call little people.  

The sisters were natural singers and performers, according to a biography written by Doris C. Stoddard and published some years ago by the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society in its quarterly journal, The Dukes County Intelligencer. They sang gospel hymns at the Chilmark church on Middle Road and for sailors at the Seaman’s Bethel and Marine Hospital in Vineyard Haven. They were still teenage girls, just branching out into the professional world of the arts – Lucy had the lead in an operetta production of Little Red Riding  Hood in Plymouth – when Mrs. Tom Thumb, living nearby in Middleboro, first heard of them.

It took awhile – the Vineyard Adamses were old-line Methodists and did not cotton to show people – but finally agents for the Tom Thumb Company managed to persuade the widow Adams to let her daughters join the famous troupe of performing midgets as it toured the country, provided the girls were never required to perform a secular show on a Sunday. The Adams sisters did a program “consisting of Music, Monologues, Flag Posings, Readings, Refined Comedy Sketches, Short Dramatic Plays, Grecian Art and Aerial Suspension Tableaux.” For the Sunday program: “Religious Readings, Sacred Songs, Pantomime and Dramatic Studies from the Bible.”

One program heralds “The Gospel in Story and Song by the Adams Sisters, Evangelistic Singers and Christian Workers: These Little Ladies Present Divine Truths in Dramatic Ways Which Make Them Very Realistic.” Inside we see a sister floating above the stage, dressed in white, one hand holding a trumpet to her lips, the other supporting a dove fluttering on her fingertips. Another photo shows a sister dressed in an eastern European frock, holding a hat high over her head. The caption: “Rendered with all the abandon and spirit of the Gypsy race.”

The stills from a short dramatic play, The Magic Spinning Wheel, look and read like something out of a D.W. Griffith film. (“If you don’t say ‘yes’ to the Duke, I’ll feed you on bread and water until you do,” Sarah, in her finery, scolds Lucy, who wears rags and toils at a spinning wheel, her eyes downcast.) The sisters were a hit wherever they went: “Your singing and elocutionary renderings were artistically perfect, the dialogues showing a histrionic ability of a high order, and the tableaux were graceful and most beautiful,” declared the Reverend E.R. Dille, DD, of the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Oakland, California.

They played vaudeville and legitimate stages of New York City, where, according to the Intelligencer, “they were so popular that song writers begged them to introduce their latest numbers.” They traveled with the Barnum and Bailey Circus and the Lilliputian Opera Company. They played every state in the union but one. Around 1900 they decided to tour only in fall and winter, “billing themselves as Gospel singers, Christian workers, evangelistic singers and Pastor’s assistants,” said the Intelligencer. In spring and summer they came home to the Vineyard and kept on entertaining. But now they were famous, and among a transient population of visitors forever in search of the offshore novelty, they could easily make a living without ever leaving their Chilmark home.

“There, they entertained customers with demonstrations of carding, spinning and weaving wool,” said the Intelligencer. “Lucy would sing while Sarah played the small organ. . . . Tea was served outside . . . for a nominal sum. They also made and sold chocolates and caramel candy.”

In 1933, they sold the Chilmark home and retired to a cottage on the Camp Ground of Oak Bluffs. Sarah died December 12, 1938, at the age of seventy-five. Lucy wrote a town column for the Gazette and in 1953, at the age of ninety-two, fired off a letter to the editor condemning summer people who wore too little. “Does it promote pure, clean thoughts to sit beside a person with very little clothing on?” she demanded. Neither sister married, but in 1929 Lucy told The New York Sun that her only regret was that in all her travels, she never kept a diary.

“We came through our experience without harm, although there may have been a few bruises,” she said in a 1951 interview. “Theatrical people did not command much respect when we were traveling, and often hotels would refuse to accommodate us if they knew our profession. Little people, too, were not supposed to know anything, and there was a reason for that, for many of them never had any advantages.”