Joseph Boruwlaski was born near Halicz in Poland in November 1739. His parents seem to have been impoverished gentry, but it is impossible that Joseph had any real claim to the title of 'Count' as there were no similar Polish aristocratic titles. This may relate to the practice of giving show dwarfs military titles, such as General Tom Thumb. Two of his five siblings were also short, but he did have a brother who grew to be six feet and four inches in height, and died in battle as a soldier. Given the proportions of his body, and the fact that in adulthood he was sometimes mistaken for a small child, it is likely that Joseph was a pituitary dwarf, not a dwarf of the achondroplasic variety. The Starostin de Caorlix took a shine to the short boy and adopted him. After her marriage her acquaintance the Countess Humiecka took charge of Boruwlaski and took him to her estate at Rychty in Podolia. The Countess was able to persuade the Starostin to give up her little companion by reminding the Starostin of the old superstition that a woman who sees a dwarf during pregnancy may give birth to a dwarf.
When Boruwlaski was fifteen and 64 cm (25 inches) tall, the countess took him to Vienna, where he was presented to Empress Maria Theresa, a lady Joseph describes as the 'Queen of Hungary' in his autobiography. Well-mannered Boruwlaski apparently impressed one of the empress's children so much that she gave him a diamond ring. The story that this child was the young Marie Antoinette (then called Maria Antonia) does not fit the dates — Boruwlaski may have become confused because all the daughters of the empress had the first name 'Maria'.
Later the countess took him to Lunéville to see the ex-king of Poland, Stanisław Leszczyński. There he aroused the jealousy of Nicolas Ferry, the court dwarf of the Leszczyński household, who was nicknamed Bébé. On one occasion Ferry attacked Boruwlaski and tried to throw him into the fire; Leszczyński separated them and had Ferry whipped.
Next, in 1760, the countess took Boruwlaski to Paris, where he frequented the court in various masked balls and pageants. He also developed a habit of drinking nothing but water, apparently keeping himself fit in this way. He was reported to have reached 71 cm (28 inches) in height at 22 years of age.
The next stop was The Hague where he reportedly impressed the court ladies. On their road to Warsaw through Germany, Boruwlaski became enamored of an actress in a company of French comedians. His feelings were not reciprocated.
Stanisław II of Poland
When Stanisław II acceded to the throne of Poland, he took Boruwlaski under his protection. When Boruwlaski fell in love with the new companion of the countess, Isalina Barbutan, the countess threw him out. The King interceded on his behalf, giving him a small allowance and a coach to travel in, and, with the royal backing, he married Isalina. At first, Isalina, the child of a French couple who had settled in Poland, was reluctant to marry Joseph, but he bombarded her with love-letters and won her heart.
At the age of 25, Boruwlaski stood 89 cm (35 inches tall), and five years later, measured 99 cm (39 inches), which was to be his final height, although his friend the comedian Charles Mathews believed that he continued to grow into old age.
A further tour
He decided to take a new tour and left Warsaw November 1780 with his wife and royal letters of introduction. In Kraków Isalina gave birth to a daughter and they reached Vienna in February 1781. In Vienna he was introduced to British ambassador Robert Murray Keith who invited him to England. Meanwhile, Boruwlaski gave concerts in Vienna, playing his own compositions. Joseph was a good violinist and guitarist, and was able to dance while playing the guitar, even when he was quite old.
From Vienna they toured in Germany, Turkey and to the north. When they eventually decided to depart for England, their ship almost sank in a storm before it reached Margate. In London, Boruwlaski obtained the patronage of the Duke of Devonshire and of his famous wife Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Joseph was even presented to the future king George IV and eventually to the rest of the royal family. George IV presented him with two different watches, one of which was given when George was still Prince of Wales. Joseph used the title Comte (Count) Boruwlaski and organized subscription concerts. He also met the Irish giant Patrick Cotter and the famously overweight Daniel Lambert.
In 1783–1786 he toured in Scotland and Ireland. Hearing rumours that Joseph was earning good money from his music, the King of Poland withdrew his allowance. Boruwlaski returned briefly to Poland for a while but soon returned and by July 1791 was touring again and in 1795 was again in Ireland. English appearances at this time included York in 1785 and 1789, and Leeds and Beverley in the early 1790s.
Although he was sometimes able to make a reasonable living from his music, the problems and expenses of touring sometimes wore Boruwlaski down. His wife seems to have been a poor traveller, and often pleaded illness and stayed at home. Money problems forced Joseph to display himself for money (which he found deeply humiliating) and to bring out three different editions of his autobiography, the last published at Durham in 1820.
Retirement in Durham
Eventually, in his advancing years, Boruwlaski accepted an offer to live in Durham, from Thomas Ebdon, organist of Durham cathedral. Boruwłaski lived in Banks Cottage, Durham with the unmarried daughters of Thomas Ebdon, and purchased an annuity for his retirement years. The annuity had been bought from a local grocer who, Joseph claimed in his autobiography, had thought that a dwarf like Joseph would not live much longer.
Since Joseph's friend Ebdon was a freemason, it may have been through him that on 7 October 1806, Boruwłaski was made an honorary member of the Durham Granby lodge.
Death and memorials
Józef Boruwłaski died in Durham, on September 5, 1837, at the age of 97. Joseph was buried in Durham Cathedral beside his friend Stephen Kemble.
There is a life-size statue of him in the Town Hall at Durham, together with a small display of his personal effects, including a suit, hat, cane, chair and violin. The Town Hall also has a large oil-painting of Joseph as an old man. A tetrastyle Greek temple, restored in 2007, stands on the banks of the River Wear at Durham: this is called the 'Count's House' and its position suggests that it may have been an ornamental folly in the Count's garden. There is a collection of documents relating to the man Durham people called 'the Little Count' at the Palace Green library of Durham University.
- 'Boruwłaski, Count Josef', p. 203 in Music-making in North-east England During the Eighteenth-century by Roz Southey, Ashgate : Basingstoke, 2006
- Boruwlaski, Joseph: Memoirs Of Count Boruwlaski: Containing A Sketch Of His Travels, With An Account Of His Reception At The Different Courts Of Europe, Andrews, Durham, 1820
- Page 78 of 'Harmony and brotherly love: musicians and Freemasonry in 18th-century Durham City' by Simon Fleming in The Musical Times, 2008 (Autumn), 69-80