How Did A Court Jester From The Ottoman Empire End Up Buried In Cincinnati?

Known as the ”Turkish Tom Thumb,” Hayeti Hassid traveled the world and ultimately came to rest in Price Hill.
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It almost goes without saying that any given cemetery contains a lot of history. That is most certainly true of Cincinnati’s Judah Touro Cemetery in Price Hill. But Judah Touro, unlike any other cemetery in Cincinnati, can boast the grave of an actual court jester.

There must be a story, and indeed there is. The long journey of Hayeti Hassid begins in Thessaloniki, today the second-largest city in Greece but in 1852 part of the Ottoman Empire. It was in that year that Hayeti was born to David and Esther Hassid. Always small, the boy stopped growing altogether when he was around five years old. For the rest of his life, he stood only around 30 inches tall.

Postcard of Pasha Hayati Hassid, circa 1918. Although he could sing, dance, perform magic tricks and converse in seven languages, the so-called Turkish Tom Thumb earned a lot of his income selling picture postcards of himself for a penny apiece.

Digitized by the Wellcome Collection

It appears that Hayeti early on developed a talent for making people laugh through a repertoire of dancing, singing and sleight-of-hand tricks. He had a remarkable skill for languages, eventually gaining fluency in Arabic, French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish and Turkish.

At the age of 20, Hayeti’s reputation caught the attention of the Ottoman Sultan, Abdul Hamid II, who brought him to the royal palace in Istanbul, where he entertained the court for some years. The Sultan’s troubled reign was disrupted by wars, revolutions, intrigue and plots. He consequently developed a well-earned paranoia and maintained a high turnover among those with access to the court. Hayeti was consigned to the harem, where he entertained the Sultan’s many children, becoming, as it were, a sort of Ottoman Uncle Al.

Tiring of the kiddie fare, Hayeti made his way to Paris and joined the troupe of the Folies Bergère, where he was discovered by British entertainment impresario, Lloyd Forsyth and promptly named mayor of Forsyth’s “Tiny Town” revue. Whether as mayor of Tiny Town, or ringmaster of the “Lilliputian Circus,” Hayeti traveled the world. He was billed as the Turkish Tom Thumb, or Pasha Hayati Hassid, “pasha” being an Ottoman rough equivalent to a knighthood.

(The promoters and newspapers had a tough time transliterating his name from the Ottoman, so he appears as Hayeti, Hayati and even Chayatim. Although his tombstone reads Hayeti, most publicity materials show his name as Hayati.)

On a 1908 tour of Liverpool, Hayeti earned accolades from the local Birkenhead News:

“A truly wonderful little man is the Turkish Tom Thumb. His height is only 30 inches, his age being 56 years, and he knows no fewer than seven languages. He went through a smart conjuring performance, and also sang a French song, for which he was loudly applauded.”

The Folkestone Express [20 May 1908] devoted most of their coverage of the revue’s visit to this Kentish seaport on the English Channel to Hayeti’s act:

“Pasha Hayati Hassid, the Turkish Tom Thumb, is creating quite a sensation at the Pavilion this week. He styles himself the continental comedian and cuts a quaint figure as he struts up and down the stage. He talks in a very childish voice and is only able to sing with the power of a child of four or five years.”

Hayeti and his revue performed in Australia and New Zealand as well as in most European countries. The ensemble toured Canada and the United States, but ran into an unusual obstacle at the U.S. border. According to the Cincinnati Post [10 August 1910]:

“Fifty midgets came to Cincinnati Friday morning to entertain Cincinnati and her guests during the Ohio Valley Exposition. The half hundred Lilliputians are connected with the Tiny Town Circus and they have just come from Europe. They are so small that the U.S. immigration officials declared they were deformed and wanted to exclude them from the country. After thinking the matter over for a day, however, they were permitted to land in New York and came to Cincinnati on special cars.”

Eventually, the years of performing with a large group paled, and Hayeti went solo. There wasn’t much to his act. He was usually booked as a sideshow oddity and did little more than sit and be stared at. The January 15, 1908 edition of Punch, a British humor magazine, carried the report of a correspondent who found Hayeti ensconced in the “Mammoth Fun City,” a sort of ongoing freak show staged in the London borough of Islington:

“They are mostly school-children, and are staring at the ‘Turkish Tom Thumb,’ as he sits in a tiny wicker chair, selling photographs of himself on postcards. Whenever his attention is called away the children look at one another and suppress a giggle. Then, as he turns round, they resume their preternatural solemnity with extraordinary suddenness. There is no charge for seeing him. I gaze at him, too but (I hope) without rudeness. The T. T. T. takes no notice of any of us. He merely hands the postcards and pockets the pennies for them with silent and impassive dignity.”

Hayeti’s travels eventually brought him to Cincinnati’s Chester Park. He made $42 a week pretty much just sitting in his chair selling postcards. He never asked for a raise, explaining: “What does a fellow with a little stomach need a lot of money for?”

While in Cincinnati, Hayeti was reunited with a friend from childhood, Leon Ben Mayor. According to the Cincinnati Post [29 April 1919], Ben Mayor said:

“I had known him at Saloniki [today’s Thessaloniki] when I was a boy, and so I was glad to keep him for nothing. It was just like taking a little child into the house. But he insisted on paying $5 a week for board and lodging.”

Hayeti slept in a crib outgrown by one of Ben Mayor’s children. As his health worsened, Ben Mayor sometimes had to lift Hayeti into the crib. The Turkish Tom Thumb died, aged 67, on April 27, 1919. Ben Mayor and another compatriot, Vita Habib, arranged the funeral, purchasing a child-sized coffin for his burial.

It may surprise some that a citizen of the very Islamic Ottoman Empire is buried in a Jewish cemetery, but Thessaloniki was for many years a majority Jewish city. The Sephardic community there was protected by the Ottomans after thousands of Sephardic Jews were banished from Spain after the Catholic conquest in 1492. In the Spanish-based dialect of the Sephardic community, Thessaloniki was known as “The Mother of Israel.”

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