Mrs General Mite – ‘one of the most interesting personalities that has ever visited the Dominion’

It was a warm fair day on the 16th December 1919, a light nor’easterly breeze was blowing through the city. Much the same weather was being experienced throughout the whole of the Dominion.

The country was at the height of election fever. The local newspaper publishers of the Press had built a 50ft long by 27ft high results board outside their office so the thousands that were expected to gather in Cathedral Square could see the latest results from every part of New Zealand.

View along lower High street, circa 1913. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0050.
View along lower High street, circa 1913. [1]

For the first time women could be elected into Parliament and three women were standing, but none in any Christchurch electorates. Not only was the country voting for who would govern for the next three years but also on the question of prohibition. The choices were ‘National Continuance,’ ‘State Purchase and Control’ or ‘National Prohibition’, and heavy lobbying on the two key sides for and against was peppered throughout the local newspapers.

The election results board on the Press Co. Building.
The election results board on the Press Co. Building 1919. [2]

Mrs Clara Thompson of Linwood and her friend Emily Edwards, accompanied by Emily’s father, were in town taking ice cream at Henry Hill’s confectionery shop on lower High Street. Henry’s career as a confectionist had been interrupted by the war. He had embarked as part of the Canterbury reinforcements in 1917, was injured – though not severely – and returned home after two years’ active service to open his shop at 161 High street. A visit to his shop by Emily Edwards was an endorsement that most businesses would be happy to have. However, today her visit would end in tragedy.

Millie Edwards and Francis Flynn c. 1895

Wherever Emily went, she attracted attention

It wasn’t because Emily – or Millie as she was commonly called – was a great beauty. In her youth she had been described many times, with a degree of incredulity, as a ‘good looking woman’. Now, at 32 and a widow for over two decades, her appearance still turned heads.

It wasn’t because she had the air of a seasoned traveller

Indeed she was. Born in Lancaster, England in 1877, Millie had travelled the world from an early age in the company of her family. They had visited Europe, America, the Far East, Australia and New Zealand – several times.

Millie had returned to New Zealand the year previous, in 1918 after a trip to the Far East, and was touring the country once again. She had made extensive previous visits, touring with her husband and family in the 1890s and again in 1906 after her husband’s death.

General Mite and Millie Edwards are presented to Queen Victoria.
“About the Royalties? Well, we saw heaps of them. It was on February 26, 1881, that I appeared by command before the Queen — at 9 o’clock in the morning if you please! You see, Her Majesty was going to Windsor, and would be away for some time, but she sent down word on the night of the 25th that she would like to see us next morning, and as she was going away at ten we had to be there at nine.” [3]
It wasn’t because she counted Royalty and nobles amongst her acquaintances

Millie had been presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in 1881; also to the Prince of Wales; the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; Count Lesseps, Countess and family in Paris; Prince Bismark in Berlin; and the King of Spain. She had one of the largest circles of friends including actress and royal mistress Lillie Langtry, the Earl of Hopetoun (Governor of Victoria), and the Earl and Countess of Kintore (Governor of South Australia) who had gifted her many pieces of jewellery including a brooch in the shape of South Australian ruby, set in Australian gold surmounted by a diamond coronet.

It was because she was the smallest woman in the world!

Millie was just 3 feet 4 inches in height and weighed only 2 stone 10 lb (around 17 kilos). A ‘natural curiosity’. A ‘freak’. A ‘midget’. These were the kinds of terms used to describe this diminutive lady at that time.the-royal-midgets-1880

‘A striking example of arrested physical development’ [4]

Millie had first appeared in public in 1881. She was ‘exhibited’ at Douglas, in the Isle of Man and in 1882 she appeared by Royal Command at Marlborough House and was received by King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales.

A less glamorous account by an unnamed ‘showman’ claimed he had discovered her in 1882 ‘showing for a penny in the Whitechapel Road‘, and brought her to the Aquariara (Royal Aquarium) in Westminister. This same showman was reported in 1896 as saying she ‘used to think nothing of consuming a couple of bottles of champagne at dinner‘ and was ‘accidentally smothered some few years ago‘.

Secrets of the Giant and Dwarf Business

“The freak business isn’t what it used to be years ago,” remarked an old showman to me. “The public is tired of giants and, as for dwarfs, midgets they are called nowadays, they are simply a drug on the market, especially since people took to manufacturing ’em wholesale.

“You may well look incredulous, but I am speaking the plain truth. The making of midgets is a regular trade, and a horrible one at that. That’s one reason why I retired from the business.”

“As long as the poor little things were natural product so to speak, I didn’t mind exhibiting ’em but when it came to PURPOSELY STUNTING A CHILD’S GROWTH, I cried off. How is it done? Well, gin is the principal factor in the experiment. A naturally small child is taken in hand at six mouths old, or thereabouts, given graduated doses of gin every hour, and bathed in gin for half an hour three times a-day. This treatment stops its growth, and a midget is the result.” [5]

Showmen were notorious for stretching the truth

Millie’s birth in 1877 – just one year after the marriage of her parents Thomas and Agnes – changed the fortunes of the family. In 1881, when Millie was just 4 years old, the small family were living in a caravan in Dysart Road, Grantham, a railway town in Lincolnshire. Thomas, a former labourer, was then calling himself a ‘showman’. Millie was recorded as being seven years old. Whilst most performers liked to shave years off their age, showmen were notorious for increasing the age of their ‘midgets’ to exaggerate their lack of size compared to their age.

In Liverpool the following year Millie was said to have meet the American midget Francis Flynn or ‘General Mite’ as was his stage name. The story told to the New Zealand media during their 1891 visit was that US President Hayes bestowed the honorary title of ‘General’ on Francis at a reception Mite was holding at White House in Washington in 1876. [6]

Born in 1864, General Mite was around 13 years older than Millie, although his date of birth was just as flexible as hers. The couple were publicly betrothed soon after their meeting and ‘married’ in an elaborately stage-managed ceremony at St. James’ Hall, Manchester. Even though Millie was just seven, an extra ten years had been added to her age.

Not only had Millie’s date of birth changed again but her place of birth had changed as well. She was now one half of the “Royal American Midgets“, said to have been born in Michigan, on 1st September 1867.

The Marriage of General and Mrs MiteMarriage of the American Midgets

The well-known Royal American Midgets, General Mite and Miss Millie Edwards, were married on May 28th at Manchester. General Mite whose real name is Francis Joseph Flynn, is 16 years of age, and was born at Greene, Cherango County, New York. He is but 22in. in height, and weighs only 61b. The bride, Miss Millie Edwards, who is exhibited in her real name, is aged 17, stands 19 inches high, and weighs 71b. She was born at Cahunzo, in the State of Michigan. She has been travelling with General Mite, for about two years. The General has been travelling about nine years, and during that time he has visited all the courts of Europe and all the large towns in England.

The marriage would it is stated, have taken place some time ago, but for the fact that the parents are of different religions. The General’s parents are Catholics, while the parents of the young lady are Presbyterians, and after a long discussion, it was decided that they should be married according to the Presbyterian form.

Emily (Millie) Edwards and her husband and exhibition partner, Francis Flynn. Source: Private Collection.
Emily (Millie) Edwards and her husband and exhibition partner, Francis Flynn. Source: Private Collection.

The civil marriage took place at the Superintendent Registrar’s office Manchester. The little couple were dressed in walking costume, and on their arrival at the office, were carried upstairs enveloped in shawls. A fire was lighted to keep the room at a temperature in which they live, and when all was ready they were lifted upon a low office table, where a small garden was placed for them. A bouquet was presented to the bride by the eldest daughter of the registrar, and the ceremony was at once commenced. The little people were quite self-possessed, and showed no embarrassment. They answered questions and repeated the declarations in a thin piping voice, and when the ceremony was concluded were taken into an adjoining room to sign the register. After this they drove to the Grand Hotel, where the wedding breakfast was served. They had previously been staying at different hotels.

A large company assembled St James’s Hall to witness the religious ceremony, which was conducted by the Rev, James Mackie, of the Scottish National Church Rusholnie and chaplain to the Presbyterian forces in Manchester. The band of the 3rd Dragoon Guards performed the “Wedding March.” Colonel Nepts, a German dwarf, was the best man, and two little girls were bridesmaids, the bride and bridegroom standing on a table during the service. After leaving Manchester the couple will spend their honeymoon on the Continent before returning to America. [7]

General Mite had previously ‘married’ the diminutive Mexican Lucia Zarate in 1879 at the Masonic Temple in New York, when she was 15 and he 14, although they may well have been younger. According to reports the marriage was one of convenience as well as supposed affection. “The dwarfs, belonging to different families, were liable to be separated at any moment. It was thought best, therefore, to bind them by ties that cannot be broken by show managers or disagreeing parents.” [7a] Whatever ties Francis and Lucia had were broken forever when Lucia died in January 1890.

Millie Edwards and Francis Flynn, circa 1888
Millie Edwards and Francis Flynn, circa 1888

On their marriage Millie and Francis became ‘General and Mrs Mite’. They travelled the world, holding ‘lévees‘ where they enchanted and entertained their audiences with conversation, tales of their travels, acting and comic songs. They were accompanied on their travels to the Colonies in 1889 by both sets of parents. Both were the oldest children in their family, their parents having raised other children of ‘good physique’. Their mothers were said to be about 11 stone each, and Mr Flynn – General Mite’s father and the couple’s manager – was 5ft 11in tall, “and is a fine, robust, soldierly-looking man.” [8]

[Whilst in Christchurch] These little people, who claim to be the smallest married couple in the world, granted a private reception to members of the medical profession and the press, yesterday afternoon. Of the tiny pair General Mite is somewhat the smaller, though in intelligence and sprightliness he thoroughly holds his own with Mrs Mite, who is, however, the more graceful of the twain. The General is an accomplished conversationalist, and he exhibits a very accurate memory in recounting his travels, and expresses his opinions of the colonies and on current subjects like a thorough man of the world. He tells of their experiences in America, Canada, Europe and the Colonies, and gives the palm to New Zealand for its enjoyable climate. [9]

Piccadilly Hall, London. The Royal American Midgets, 1884.  Copyright © The British Library Board.
The Royal American Midgets, 1884. Piccadilly Hall, London. Copyright © The British Library Board. The man pictured in the cameo is ‘General Mite’s’ father, who was the couple’s manager.

In regard to their diet, they eat at a meal about a third what a baby about three years of age would consume. They sit down at the family table, and partake of whatever is provided for the other members of the family. They like tea, coffee, and chocolate, the General being particularly fond of a glass of claret, which he drinks out of a liqueur glass; he also at times takes a little weak brandy and water, and indulges in a mild cigarette.

Their education is equally perfect, as indicated by the cheerful and at times very witty conversations held between them and the audience. We learn from the lecturer that, the General and his lady are the eldest of their respective families, the other members of which are persons of ordinary stature.[10]

The General stopped growing when he was three years old, and his wife when she was about five. There is nothing at all unpleasant in the appearance of these two persons. They are formed in perfect proportion, but they are very very small, ‘a perfect little lady and gentleman in miniature’ says Mr Flynn, their manager. [11]

The seventh wedding anniversary of General and Mrs Mite was celebrated by the pair in Christchurch, on 28th May, 1891, “The General invited several of his Christchurch friends to pay a visit. Quite a number of gentlemen availed themselves of the invitation, and spent a pleasant half-hour in conversation with these very intelligent little people. Cake and wine were served, and the health of General and Mrs Mite was given with wishes for their long continued happiness.” [12]

Press. 1 June 1891, Page 1 Advertisements Column 5.
A death under peculiar circumstances

Millie’s parents Thomas and Agnes lived ‘up the Hihi Creek’, about 14 miles up the Kauaeranga Valley on the Coromandal. It would seem that the family, through circumstance or desire, had decided to make the Dominion their home.

Agnes was out in the bush looking for gum one day in October 1895 when she was struck down with a sudden pain in her head. She lay there for three hours until her husband and another man came along from work and carried her home. She was confined to bed and seemed to improve, only to relapse during the night. She died in the early hours of the morning.

The inquest was held at the nearest Hotel, which was eight miles away, so a party of eight men proceeded to the house, made a stretcher and carried Agnes’ remains through bad weather and rough country, from Hihi to the Kauaeranga Hotel.  The inquest found she had a ruptured blood vessel in the head. [13]

Three years after the death of Millie’s mother, General Mite caught a chill and fell ill whilst touring Queensland. He was staying at the Australian Club Hotel in Broken Hill, and on the night of October 6th, 1898, when he should have been celebrating his birthday, he died from kidney and liver troubles. “…after a unique career as the smallest man on earth and quite the most intelligent of male freaks, [General Mite] laid down his tiny body to its eternal rest at Broken Hill.” [14]

A waxworks statue of Mrs General Mite stands beside her hansom cab. The man to the right is possibly her father or father-in-law, who at various times were her managers. Sunday Times 1912 Sunday 12 May 1912, page 3.
Mrs General Mite stands beside her hansom cab. The man to the right is possibly her father or father-in-law, who at various times were her managers. [15]

“This was such a shock to the little lady that she retired from business with her father to a farm near the Thames, New Zealand, and after spending a number of years on the property she decided to travel once more, and for the last ten years the little lady has been on the move again. During her travels she has showed all over the civilised world, and a good part of the uncivilised as well.”  [16]

Mrs General Mite, as she became known after her husband’s death, took with her on her travels a tiny hansom cab ‘about the size of a dressing case’. It was drawn by a little Shetland pony and driven by a small boy. These were seen in the streets during her visits in the Colonies.

‘One of the most interesting personalities that has ever visited the Dominion’

Once WWI was over, Millie could travel more extensively again. 1918 started with a tour of Australia. She also came to Christchurch as part of her tour of New Zealand.

On the 16th December 1919 her father had seen her at about 3.15 pm in the centre of Christchurch in the company of her friend Clara. The pair had been at the ice cream shop in lower High street when Millie complained of feeling dizzy. Clara thought it might have been the result of the ice cream she had eaten however, Millie told her she had felt this way before but not so badly. Millie was walking along the street on the way to board a tram when she suddenly collapsed. Her father came along and took her into a shop but Millie died at 3.30 pm before a doctor could be called.

The Late Mrs General Mite

At the adjourned enquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Emily Edwards — better known as “Mrs General Mite,” which was held at the Hospital yesterday, Dr. A. B. Pearson, pathologist at the Hospital, gave evidence. He said the body was that of an adult dwarf. There was no evidence of injury. The lungs showed chronic congestion. The heart was much hypertrophied. The great blood-vessels, particularly those going to the head, showed advanced degeneration, with thickening of their coats, and partial occlusion of the cavity. The brain was small, and showed marked oedema. The organs of the abdomen, particularly the liver and kidneys, showed chronic congestion. The Coroner, Mr V. G. Day, returned a verdict of death from heart failure due to chronic degeneration of the blood vessels. HEART FAILURE. [17]

Emily was buried at Bromley Cemetery two days later and the city mourned the passing of ‘one of the most interesting personalities that has ever visited the Dominion.’ [18]

  1. Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0050.
  2. The Weekly Press, 24 Dec. 1919, p. 29. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference PhotoCD 14 IMG0065 .
  3. ‘Half an Hour with General Mite’. Marlborough Express, Volume XXVII, Issue 218, 26 September 1891, Page 2. Image: Copyright British Library Board
  4. Evening Post, Volume LXXII, Issue 23, 27 July 1906, Page 5.
  5. SECRETS OF THE GIANT AND DWARF BUSINESS. Otago Witness , Issue 2233, 17 December 1896, Page 16.
  6. The American Midgets. Star , Issue 7172, 25 May 1891, Page 4 and Press, Volume XLVIII, Issue 7872, 25 May 1891, Page 6.
  7. Marriage of the American Midgets. West Coast Times , Issue 4676, 24 July 1884, Page 3.
    7a: Reading Eagle, Apr. 12, 1879.
  8. Wanganui Chronicle, Volume L, Issue 12785, 25 April 1906, Page 5.
  9. THE MIDGETS. Star, Issue 7171, 23 May 1891, Page 4.
  10. General and Mrs Mite. Thames Star, Volume XXIII, Issue 6861, 21 April 1891, Page 2
  11. GENERAL AND MRS MITE. Thames Advertiser, Volume XXIV, Issue 6895, 20 April 1891, Page 2.
  12. NEWS OF THE DAY. Press, Volume XLVIII, Issue 7876, 29 May 1891, Page 5.
  13. DEATH UNDER PECULIAR CIRCUMSTANCES. New Zealand Herald, Volume XXXII, Issue 9962, 28 October 1895, Page 5. Thames Star, Volume XXVI, Issue 8185, 28 October 1895, Page 2. New Zealand Herald, Volume XXXII, Issue 9963, 29 October 1895, Page 4.
  14. NZ Truth , Issue 58, 28 July 1906, Page 3.
  15. Sunday Times 1912 Sunday 12 May 1912, page 3.
  16. ‘GENERAL AND MRS. MITE’. Northern Advocate , 29 April 1918, Page 2.
  17. Inquests. Press, Volume LV, Issue 16710, 19 December 1919, Page 10.
  18. INQUESTS. Press, Volume LV, Issue 16709, 18 December 1919, Page 2.


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