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Barnum and Bagley

Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Nick Vaccaro Collection.
Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Nick Vaccaro Collection.

Of the diminutive performers at Barnum’s American Museum in the Spring of 1864, only one had the potential to grow to an average height. Major Willie Bagley, nicknamed “The Wisconsin Infant Drummer,” was not a little person: He was a 4-year-old child.

He owed his presence at the Museum to P.T. Barnum, a consummate showman who provided the power of wonder and diversion during the difficult times of a divided nation. Barnum’s ability to entertain and distract his audience from the battles for freedom was his finest talent. Enter Bagley, an adorable youth clad in his Zouave uniform that delighted war-weary audiences with a dose of patriotism tempered by innocence.

Bagley had substantial talent in addition to his charm. One period newspaper described him as performing the “entire light infantry drill with the precision of a regular soldier.” However, his employment with the famed circus owner proved brief, lasting just more than a month. Barnum made sure Bagley had his photo taken with him, repeating a familiar pose that echoed his years with Tom Thumb. By the following year, Bagley had a new agent. An advertisement on April 11, 1865, announced Major Willie Bagley as now managed by La Rue’s Olio of Oddities. The peak of his career would be forever married to the war that propelled it, and in its absence, his appeal lessened.

Barnum once said of Bagley, “He beats the world, as he does his drums.”

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