The Secret Identity of Signor Grimaldi: One Strange Story from the Holiday Season of 1877

A footnote in a recent biography called The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness, and the Story of Britain's Greatest Comedian, stirs up an old Knoxville mystery.

That anyone named Grimaldi ever lived in 1870s Knoxville might be surprising in itself. Knoxville was home to a few Italians, if not enough to constitute a neighborhood; it would have been a very Little Italy.

The Grimaldis were different, anyway. They were Knoxville Italians with British accents.

How many Grimaldis lived here isn't clear in the records, but they lived in a house on East Clinch, back when there was such a thing. The family breadwinner was T.F. Grimaldi, about 60, a cobbler. His shop was on Gay Street, right next door to the Lamar House. That prime location and the boldness of the print in his city directory listing—that's an extra charge—suggest he was prosperous.

The most interesting Knoxville Grimaldi was his elderly father.

People love to quote the fact the average American lifespan was once about 44. But that figure reflects mainly childhood mortality. If you were 44 in the 19th century, you weren't looking at your watch; you expected your Biblically promised 70 or 80 years. The optimistic expected to live longer still. Every week or two, the newspaper carried reports of the extremely old.

So it was, that about 140 years ago, the oldest man in Knoxville was Thomas Grimaldi, who was in his 100s. He said his father was from Genoa, where Grimaldis were a royal family, later to be rulers of Monaco. Knoxville's elder Grimaldi had been born in Falmouth, England, on Christmas Eve, 1771, when America was still a collection of loyal, if disgruntled, British colonies.

After spending part of his childhood on his father's plantation on the Caribbean island of Grenada, then under British colonial rule, Grimaldi joined the Royal Navy. A warrant carpenter, he saw action in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812, against the Americans; he'd been wounded in a skirmish with an American privateer. Returning to Cornwall after a spell in the West Indies, he married and settled down to life as a greengrocer. Widowed at 85, he moved with his son to America, first to Lynchburg, Va., just before the Civil War. In 1870, when he was about 99, he and his family moved to Knoxville. The fast-growing town was recovering from the devastation of war, and open to opportunity.

The old man became a Knoxville celebrity. He showed off the scar on his hand and told stories of "life on the ocean wave." In the amazing modern era of electrical wonders, here was a guy old enough to have fought Napoleon—not to mention Madison-administration Americans.

Thus one of Knoxville's last survivors of the War of 1812 was not an American veteran, but a British one, with wounds to prove it.

That's not why Thomas Grimaldi became national news in 1877.

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Word of his death, at age 106, got around. A Louisville newspaper had some fun reporting it for its tobacco-state constituency. "The deleterious effects of tobacco are emphasized by the death at Knoxville of the old English sailor, Thomas Grimaldi, who, by constant use from early youth, cut short his life at the premature age of 106 years."

The story worked its way up to the editors of the New York World, a paper with a yen for the sensational. They were curious about Grimaldi not just because of his extreme age, but because of certain biographical similarities to Joseph Grimaldi, the actor remembered as the originator of the white-face clown, a performing genius much admired by Charles Dickens, who edited Grimaldi's memoirs. Joseph Grimaldi was another English-born Grimaldi born near the same time as Knoxville's Thomas Grimaldi. And an old story held that Joseph Grimaldi's long-lost brother was a sailor.

It had been a theater legend for years. Grimaldi hadn't seen his seafaring brother since they were children, but the brother, referred to as Tom Grimaldi in some sources, showed up unexpectedly backstage during a Drury Lane show for a quick and emotional reunion in 1804, then disappeared forever. Some presumed he'd been murdered in the streets of London. It was one of those poignant celebrity stories that everybody who followed theater knew about.

"The name of Grimaldi is hardly likely to have been borne by two English sailors in a century," wrote the World in early December, 1877, "and if the person referred to in the story from Knoxville was indeed an English sailor, then probabilities...are overwhelmingly in favor of his identity as the long-lost ‘Tom' of half a century ago."

However, other sources say the comedian's lost brother was named John. And the surviving Grimaldi—the Gay Street cobbler—had heard another version, and tried to set the record straight. When he was a child in Cornwall in the early 1830s, the cobbler said, politician Sir Charles Stewart, member of Parliament, was campaigning in their neighborhood, and remarked on Thomas Grimaldi's striking physical resemblance to the famous actor Joseph Grimaldi.

Sir Charles took the story of the retired seaman to Joseph Grimaldi himself, who had no surviving family of his own. The famous comedian wrote the future Knoxvillian a letter inquiring about his family. Genealogy was complicated by the fact that Joseph was illegitimate, but they determined that they were not brothers, but uncle and nephew. (The latest biographer suggests they were first cousins, both grandsons of "Ironlegs" Grimaldi, a controversial European actor of a century earlier.)

Despite concluding that Thomas Grimaldi was not his long-lost brother, Joseph Grimaldi rejoiced that he had a relative of any sort. T.F. Grimaldi recalled Joseph Grimaldi's letter: "Nothing in the history of my whole life has contributed so much to my happiness that I have a relative on earth." The great Joseph Grimaldi died soon afterward, in 1837.

That letter, though, has vanished, as has the fate of the Gay Street cobbler T.F. Grimaldi, who disappears from local records thereafter.