The ventriloquist who made dead fish ‘speak’

Let me introduce you to James Burns, better known to all as ‘Squeaking Tommy’.

So, what do we know about this character?

We can see from the picture of Tommy that he carried around with him a doll with a broad face, wrapped in a piece of linen cloth which he exhibited at pubs on race days, at fairs, such as the famous Nottingham Goose Fair. He would use the doll as his assistant and projected his voice through it.

It is reported that in June 1789, at Week Day Cross in Nottingham, he used the doll to project his voice and it was so convincing that a child watching believed that the doll was actually talking to her. The child apparently became hysterical and caused her to have fits. The authorities were not impressed by this and Tommy was sent off for a spell in the House of Correction.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851, British, Newark - upon - Trent, ca. 1796. Yale Center for British Art
Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775–1851, British, Newark – upon – Trent, ca. 1796. Yale Center for British Art

Undeterred however, Tommy continued to use his ventriloquists skill around the county.

In early 1790, Tommy called at Mr Barton’s grocers shop just outside Nottingham city centre. He purchased an ounce of tobacco, nothing odd about that, except, as he was leaving, he spotted a young employee with his hand in a large cannister on the opposite side of the shop. The young man was getting tea out of it and putting it into a smaller cannister. Tommy immediately threw a sound into the bottom of the container, imitating the sounds of a dying animal.

So, as you expect, the young man and Mr Barton stood aghast at the noise and were just about to start rummaging around in the container to find the source. Eventually, Tommy confessed that he was the real cause of the sound but not before enjoying this spectacle.

Wheatley, Francis; The Hay Cart; Government Art Collection

Another of his pranks is said to have taken place in August 1792. Tommy was travelling with a John Badderly, who was at the time servant to farmer from Car Colston, just outside Nottingham. John was driving a waggon which was full to the brim with hay. Tommy was so skilled at imitating the cry of a child that he was able to project his voice into the middle of the hay waggon causing John to stop several times between Bingham and Newark.

John was so convinced he could hear this sound in the hay that eventually he stopped and began to examine the hay more closely to find out where the sound was coming from and enlisted Tommy’s help to unload the waggon as he could bear this child’s crying no longer.  But as you can imagine, there was no child, leaving poor John to reassemble the contents of his waggon, much to Tommy’s amusement and John’s annoyance at being deceived.

Another prank took place in the house of a Mr Hogg, who kept the Milton’s Head Inn, Cow Lane, Nottingham, and who knew nothing of Tommy. A servant girl in the kitchen was about to dress some dead fish, not long having been caught in the river Trent, but obviously dead. Tommy, at the moment she laid the life knife on the fish’s neck, uttered ‘don’t cut my head off’. The girl as you can imagine was extremely startled and quickly removed the knife from the fish and just stood there in shock.

She eventually managed to compose herself, and as the fish didn’t move, she plucked up courage to continue with her work and remove the fish’s head. Tommy uttered rather sharply, but mournfully, ‘what, you will cut of my head?’ The girl was now terrified and threw down the knife and refused to dress the fish.

Kidd, William; The Fish Stall; Museum of London

Tommy eventually settled in Shelford, Nottingham, where, despite being extremely reluctant to settle, found himself a wife and married Elizabeth Munks, on Boxing Day 1794 at the parish church. According to his marriage entry, he was said to have been from King’s County, now County Offaly in Ireland. As to how accurate that is we will probably never know.

But marriage didn’t settle him too much and his travels continued, albeit quite locally, along with his pranks and the final one I have details of, took place in September 1795.

Tommy visited a fish stall in Sheffield and asked the price of a tench. The fish woman gave him the price of the tench, at which point he picked it up in his hand, crammed a finger into its gills and opened its mouth, at the same time asking whether it was fresh, to which the fish woman replied it certainly was, it was in the water yesterday.

Tommy immediately threw his voice into the fish’s mouth and it said,

it’s a damned lie, I have not been in the water this week, and you know that very well’

The woman, now aware that she hadn’t exactly been telling the truth, was aghast by this outburst, but she struggled to dispute it. She was said to have been much more careful in the future about the freshness of her fish – just in case!

I’m sure there must have been many more, similar tales, but they don’t seem to have survived into history.

Sadly, Tommy’s marriage was to be short lived as he died just two years later on 7 January 1796 and was buried in the parish church where the couple had recently married.

Sources

Stamford Mercury – Friday 22 January 1796

Kirkby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum

Featured Image

Goodacre, William, 1803-1883; Nottingham Market Place