I couldn’t resist purchasing this carte de visite. After all, Charles and Eliza Netsel were from my hometown, Fort Wayne, Indiana. They are buried in Lindenwood Cemetery, also the resting place of my Great Grandparents, Chester and Grace Shenfeld.
The cdv photographer, Norval Busey, opened his Baltimore, Maryland studio on Charles Street, in 1870, when Charles and Eliza were 22 and 13 respectively. Unlike other photographers of the time, he did not believe in using over-the-top props, instead aiming for the viewers’ sole focus to fall on the sitters. This image is a perfect example of his photographic style.
Charles and Eliza were little people and two of six children born to Daniel and Henrietta (nee Goebel) Nestel, who immigrated to the US from Prussia. Their parents and siblings were all of average or taller height. Better known by their stage names, Commodore Foote and Fairy Queen, Charles and Eliza toured the world performing in various shows.
Charles dominated the majority of newspaper articles, and more often than not, Eliza was mentioned as an extension of her brother rather than as her own person. This, of course, annoyed me, and I became determined to “turn over every rock” in an attempt to find out as much about Eliza as possible.
The following article is from 1870, so it fits well with the time period of the above photograph, and I was pleasantly surprised that it gave more mention of Eliza’s attributes than of her brother’s.
The saying “the glass of fashion and the mould of form” translates to “a role model, strong, admirable, a gentleman, with a scholar’s wit.” From my research of Charley, as he liked to be called, I would have to agree with this characterization. And, if you remove “gentleman,” it’s also a fitting description of Eliza.
During my research, I stumbled upon another carte de visite, and although it had no identification of the sitter, I recognized Eliza immediately! I was thrilled to see a photograph of her without her brother, and I knew I wanted it for my collection. She’s younger here than in the first image. Eliza began touring about 1863, and although she was billed as being 14, she was actually only six years old. I suspect this image was taken during this early period of her career.
A wealth of information about the theatrical siblings performing career is only a quick google search away. Instead of repeating the most often told tales, I’d like to focus more on the “people,” than the “little.”
Charley was a collector of many things. He collected stamps (amassing over 8,000), coins, autographs, civil war relics, and wishbones. Yes, you read that right, Charley had a collection of wishbones, and it was a big hit at the 1910 Allen County, Indiana Poultry Show.
Eliza loved fishing and would spend hours out in the boat when the siblings were staying at their summer cottage, Nestel Nook, on Crooked Lake, in Steuben County, Indiana. Charley wasn’t as keen about water travel, often getting seasick. Besides, Eliza was a much better fisherman and boater than her brother.
Although they lived in the city, The Nestels’ backyard had a garden and chickens. The garden included “popcorn,” pie-plant (rhubarb), sunflowers, and onions, to name a few. They were known to gift the seeds, some that originated from Russia, to friends and neighbors.
Eliza was a joker, often teasing Charley. One instance was during a newspaper interview taking place at their home in 1914. “Eliza capered into a closet and brought out a towel. ‘Here Charley,’ she piped as she handed it to him, ‘tie that around your head and show them how you looked the morning after the last time you went to the Elk’s Banquet.'”
I think the following article speaks well to the fact that Charley and Eliza, although they lived extraordinarily fascinating lives, were more importantly just two people, loved by their friends and family, not for their fame, but for themselves.
Charles W. Nestel – Find A Grave
Eliza S. Nestel – Find A Grave
The Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, Indiana: A Review of Two Centuries of Occupation of the Region about the Head of the Maumee River, Volume 1, by B.J. Griswold, 1917
American Sideshow, by Marc Hartzman, 2006
Steuben Republican (Angola, Indiana) – Sep. 24, 1919 – Page 4
Steuben Republican (Angola, Indiana) – Nov. 26, 1919
The Landmark (White River Junction, Vermont) · Oct 4, 1889 · Page 2
Fort Wayne Daily News (Fort Wayne, Indiana) · Jul 17, 1909 · Page 6
The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana) – Nov. 22, 1914 – Page 33
The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) · Dec 13, 1894 · Page 10
Hamlet: Close Reading