During the United Confederate Veterans Reunion in Little Rock in May 1911, there was entertainment across the city for both veterans and visitors. Many traveled specifically to Little Rock to take advantage of the large crowds choking the city streets. One of those entertainers was a man who called himself “The Little Russian Prince” and claimed to be the smallest man in the world.
The prince held court at 320 Main St., according to articles published May 8-15, 1911, in the Arkansas Democrat. Newspapers at the time ran stories without clarifying whether the article was an advertisement or news story.
According to the articles, Prince Nicholi stood at about 22 inches tall and weighed about 16 pounds, making him one of the smallest people in recorded history. The accounts came with a very detailed backstory that fit in nicely with the romantic literature of the late 19th century.
According to his story, Nicholi was born in Siberia in 1871. His father, a wealthy nobleman, had been exiled with his family to the snowy wasteland by the Russian government for a crime he did not commit. As he grew up, Nicholi gathered information on the crime that had banished his family. By the time Czar Nicholas II came to the throne in 1894, Nicholi thought he had enough information to exonerate his father, if only someone in the Russian government would listen.
Siberian officials reported to Czar Nicholas II, and the Russian ruler summoned Nicholi and his family out of curiosity. Nicholi showed Nicholas II the evidence he had gathered over the years. The czar was convinced Nicholi’s father was innocent and pardoned him on the spot. Nicholi then decided to take his parents to the United States to start over as free people.
Soon after arriving in the U.S., he settled his parents in New Orleans and hit the road to find a girlfriend. In the articles, Nicholi said he was lonely and needed money, even though he smoked expensive cigars and wore diamond rings. He said he wanted a wife and hoped his royal title would be a good inducement. He was willing to enter into a “loveless marriage” in exchange for money.
After reflecting about the romantic stories of famous couples in history, Nicholi declared, “They all pretend to be in love. I do not. You want my title; I want your money.” Additionally, he said he hoped to have enough money to be able to support his parents.
Nicholi’s journeys took him all over the country. Stories about the Little Russian Prince include one about him meeting President William Howard Taft, who supposedly wanted advice on international affairs.
Nicholi set up shop in a theaters, where he charged admission to anyone who wished to talk to him. This is how he ended up in Little Rock in May 1911.
Then, an unusual event occurred. While Prince Nicholi charmed the people of Little Rock on May 14, his manager, G.W. Jester Willard, walked outside to get some fresh air. Suddenly, Willard heard the prince scream for help. He dashed back inside and saw a strange man stuffing Nicholi into a sack before heading for the exit. Willard chased after the man, catching him as the assailant attempted to climb inside an automobile. Willard was able to snatch the sack away from the stranger.
“My, oh my, but that was a close shave,” Nicholi said. Willard said in an article that the prince could have been targeted because he was such a compelling showman. After the incident, the prince’s show continued peacefully, but the same thing happened in the next town and the town after that.
As it turned out, Nicholi had been getting kidnapped nearly once a week since at least 1907, when another attempted kidnapping was reported in San Antonio. The tactic was part of the show. Newspaper accounts were the same in every town, down to the quotations. But, news of the attempted-kidnappings never traveled with Nicholi, so it was always a shock to each new audience.
However, the show didn’t last much longer. Not long after leaving Little Rock, Nicholi collapsed while waiting for a train in London, Ontario in Canada. He died in October 1911.
No records exist to prove Nicholi’s story. Nationally, available records, including U.S. Census records, do not mention a Russian prince immigrating to the United States. Details of Nicholi’s background also varied in some publications. Further, he never provided proof. In the end, the real story of “The Little Russian Prince” remains a mystery.
For more information on the history of Arkansas, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or at email@example.com.