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The story of an Icelandic dwarf who made a living in 19th-century America posing as an Eskimo

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Copyright © 2010, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted March 2010.

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Ólöf Krarer may be one of America's most effective impostors of the twentieth century. Born in Iceland in 1858, she moved to the United States at age nineteen. Because she was a dwarf, the only job she could get was as the "wife" in a dwarf couple at a circus. It wasn't long before she fabricated a new life for herself, as an Inuit Eskimo from Greenland.

It's estimated that Krarer gave more than 2,500 lectures around the country, including talks at universities, on life in Greenland as an Eskimo. Nearly all the information she gave was made up, uninformed, and just plain wrong, but no one, from William Jennings Bryan to Robert Peary, ever disputed her facts.

Americans at the time were intensely interested in life in the far North, thanks in part to the first attempts to reach the North Pole. Björnsdóttir puts Krarer in that context and explains how dramatic improvements in railroad transportation and an extreme shortage of entertainment helped drive her popularity. She also describes the role of the circus at the time, attitudes toward dwarfs and other "deviants," and the possible psychological reasons for Krarer's deceptions.

This is a fascinating story about a great female con artist, but also an interesting look at the culture and society of America in the late nineteenth century.

Krarer on Eskimo babies:

". . . when a baby is born in my country it is just as white as any American baby, and it has light hair and blue eyes. But the mother does not wash it with soft water and soap, as they do in this country, but she goes to work and greases it all over, and the child is never washed from the day he is born till the day he dies, if he remains in that country."

Krarer on Eskimo marriage customs:

"It is a risky thing in my country to get a wife. A young man has to steal his girl out of her parents' snow-house and get her away into another. If he is caught trying to do this the girl's parents turn right on him and kill him. If he has not enough pluck to steal a girl for himself, he has to live alone, and when he goes to sleep he crawls head first into a fur sack. When he wants to get up he must crawl out backwards. I suppose he is what you would call an old bachelor."

Anthropologist Inga Dóra Björnsdóttir studied at the University of Lund, Sweden, and New York University, and received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1992. She has taught anthropology at UC Santa Barbara and has taught and served as an adjudicator at the University of Iceland. She is an active researcher, lecturer, and writer, her chief topics being the relationship between nationality and the construction of gender, masculinity and men's choirs, and feminist movements. She is coauthor of the book Kvinner, Krig og Kjærlighet (Women, War, and Love) and of the documentary Ást og stríd (Love and War), both of which document research on Icelandic women who married American soldiers during World War II.

Born and raised in Iceland, María Helga Guðmundsdóttir is a student of German literature and geology at Stanford University and a translator of English, Icelandic, and German. She was a finalist for Stanford's Boothe Prize for Excellence in Writing in 2005.