Happy 170th Birthday, General Tom Thumb

A photo from one of General Tom Thumb’s successful tours in Europe.

Charles Sherwood Stratton was born today in 1838. His birth weight was a hearty 9 pounds, 2 ounces. For the first 6 months of his life, Charles continued to develop normally. Then, quite suddenly, he stopped growing. On his first birthday, the boy’s chagrined parents realized he hadn’t grown an inch or an ounce in half a year. They took him to a doctor, who told them it was unlikely their child would ever reach a normal height (he mostly likely suffered from pituitary gland malfunctions). Charles was a little over two feet tall and weighed 15 pounds.

Left: a playbill featuring the General’s many talents. Right: Stratton as a young child.

The embarrassed Strattons muddled along with their tiny son for four years until P.T. Barnum heard tell of the boy and negotiated with them to exhibit Charles on a trial basis in Barnum’s own NY museum. The family was paid a princely sum of 3 bucks a week plus room, board and travel expenses for Charles and his mother.

Once back in New York, the entrepreneurial Barnum fell into an Ovid role to young Stratton’s Pygmalion. They spent long hours together, transforming the four-year-old waif into General Tom Thumb, a doll-sized prodigy from some nonspecific European locale. The “general” was trained in courtly etiquette, song, dance, theater, celebrity impersonations and the rote memorization of dozens of sassy witticisms. Stratton excelled at mimicry, imitating a Scottish highlander, Hercules, Cupid and Napoleon, among others.

P.T. Barnum with his young ward and cash cow; a comp ticket to General TT’s show.

The teenaged Tom Thumb.

Barnum believed he’d struck gold. Sure enough, the American public was soon clamoring to see the wee thespian on stage, dressed to the nines in beautifully tailored costumes. In 1843, aged five, Stratton went on his first American tour and was a smash success. Not long after that, Barnum took Stratton to Europe. Stratton would appear twice before Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace (on one of these occasions he was attacked by her pet poodle, which dwarfed him). He had achieved international stardom. His diminutive carriage was mobbed by crowds wherever he went.

General Tom Thumb’s personal carriage, drawn by miniature ponies, 1845.

Upon coming of age, Stratton married another little person, the delicate, raven-haired Lavinia Warren. Their lavish wedding ceremony in 1863 made front page news across the country. Stratton’s best man was another Lilliputian employed by Barnum: George Washington Morrison (“Commodore”) Nutt. The maid of honor was Lavinia’s even tinier sister, Minnie. The newlyweds greeted their 2,000 guests from atop a grand piano in the posh NY Metropolitan Hotel and were later received at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln.

Mr and Mrs General Tom Thumb’s wedding ceremony.

Charles Stratton, Lavinia Warren, Commodore Nutt, Minnie Warren.

Stratton and Warren on the cover of Harper’s Weekly.

Under Barnum’s management, Stratton had become a very wealthy man, with apartments in upper-crust Manhattan, his own steam-powered yacht, and a custom-built home on one of CT’s appropriately named Thimble Islands.

Lavinia, the General, and Minnie in their evening finery.

Although Barnum never actually said that there’s a sucker born every minute, he was quick to admit himself “a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” By presenting mutations and gaffs for purported educational and scientific purposes (wink wink, nudge nudge) Barnum reaped a king’s ransom. His exhibitions of “human curiosities” like Stratton, Anna Swan, Chang & Eng and countless others are still well-remembered.

P.T. Barnum and the wedding party, 1863.

While his exploitative manner is offensive on many levels nowadays, such exhibits were quite common at the time. Some modern “freaks” have gone so far as to say that well-meaning human rights campaigns waged against Barnum’s ilk in the last century actually harmed their livelihoods rather than helped them. In any case, it bears mentioning that Stratton and Barnum appeared to have shared a genuine kinship. When Barnum was in danger of going bankrupt, Stratton bailed him out. They later became business partners and were more successful than ever.

The elderly, somewhat shellshocked General.

Stratton’s later life was a darker sort of fairy tale. When Lavinia’s beloved younger sister died painfully while giving birth to a full-sized baby, the childless couple grew depressed and withdrew from social life. Possibly due to continuing glandular problems, Stratton gained a large amount of weight and no longer bore any resemblance to the young Cupid he had played years before. Barnum tried his best to comfort them and coax them out of hiding, but on a tour in Milwaukee in 1883, a terrible fire broke out at the hotel the couple was staying in, killing 71 people. They were saved by their manager, Sylvester Bleeker, while Bleeker’s own wife perished after jumping from a high window.

Lavinia Warren in one of her painstakingly tailored gowns.

Stratton never fully recovered from this traumatic event. A few months later, while Lavinia was off on tour, he died of a stroke in his home. Ten thousand people attended his funeral. P.T. Barnum commissioned a life-sized statue of his esteemed General and had it placed at the top of Stratton’s towering gravestone. When Lavinia died in 1919, she was interred beside him with an epitaph marked simply (if somewhat dismissively) “His Wife”.

Charles & Lavinia.

  • Charles Sherwood Stratton on Wikipedia
  • the grave of Tom Thumb
  • Tomb Thumb wing at the Middleborough Historical Museum
  • the P.T. Barnum Museum archive
  • 10 Responses to “Happy 170th Birthday, General Tom Thumb”

    1. Bunny Says:

      Wow, I had no idea that TT and PT were so close. Great story… that headstone is a shame though… “his wife?”

    2. Shay Says:

      That was touching.

    3. chaoflux Says:

      My history teacher in high school was apparently his great nephew or something like that. Growing up in CT and even being in proximity to the Barnum Museum, I still never got filled in on the rest of the story to Tom Thumb.

      Its a shame that it ended in a bad place, but I can’t think of any little person’s story who doesn’t end on a similar note, but then again, I only have known one personally.

    4. D Says:

      Well written, a pleasure to read.

    5. Skerror Says:

      It’s pretty ingenious how these kinds of shows used to pass dwarfs off as generals and princes of imaginary lands and such. They’d have these rich back stories behind all the exhibits and it would add in all this disconnect from the reality…that of people ogling and exploiting physical deformities in their fellow humans. Molding them into bourgeoisie or authority figures makes it harder to for people to summon up outrage as well. The audience must’ve been dazzled on all fronts. I never knew Tom Thumb was as complicit as he was…what a rad pair of grifters they were!

      What’s up chaoflux? PDXO in da Coilhouse!

    6. Paul Komoda Says:

      What an extraordinary story!
      Regardless of whatever dubious ethics where involved, Stratton seems to have experienced an exceedingly fulfilling life as a consequence of his involvement with Barnum. Quite a heartbreaking conclusion.
      Those portraits are wonderful, of course. I love the image of the bearded General in his latter years.

      Somewhat on the same subject, I’ve never actually seen a carnival sideshow in my life. As a child( here we go again )I always found them incredibly fascinating and disturbing in the midst of the balloons, popcorn, clowns, and rides. Behind the glittering family-oriented cacaphony was this frightening world that I only knew through the garishly painted images hung above each display room,visually extolling the weird anatomies and preturnatural conditions one was expected to encounter within.
      The first one I had ever come across had several large paintings of a baby whose mouth, nose, and single(?) eye were depicted appearing in altering arrangements on it’s face. Of course, my memory has a way of embelishing things. I would be most interested to know what I actually saw….which, I am certain, had very little to do with the truth in the first place.

    7. gooby Says:

      Happy Birthday, General, sir.

      The end of that story really got me…

      jeez… (tissue break)

    8. Nadya Says:

      This story was so touching, and sad. I always wonder about the entire “little people in entertainment thing.” As long as I could remember, and even when I was a little kid, I *hated* movies with little people in them in roles where they were dwarves or some other magical creates. It completely turned me off to watching a movie. Not because I was repulsed by the look of little people, but because I could never suspend my disbelief. Thanks to knowing my sister’s schoolmate who was little, and to my mom being a doctor, I knew what dwarfism was from a young age and I could never, ever get the idea out of my head that the “magical” people in movies were actually people with a very serious problem. When I bring this up, people always argue and they say “what would you rather, that they not have a job and make tons of money as an actor?” Of course, life forces you into certain professions because of the abilities that nature gives you, but it’s just sad that throughout history they’ve been forced so much more than other people into making money off being a spectacle.

      That said, I think for Stratton, it worked out pretty well: he and Barnum had a good relationship, and he had Lavinia (”his wife?” agreed with Bunny: lamest tombstone inscription ever).

      Also (and you KNOW that I can be Miss PC), but I hate the term “little people.” It sounds condescending when people say it. At least in my mind.

    9. Paul Komoda Says:

      Nadya, the subject of individuals with abnormal conditions being presented as “Magical” beings has dislodged yet another strange memory from the late 80’s.

      I had once seen a film called The Aurora Encounter( Google arigato) which featured a young actor named Mickey Hays who was afflicted with Progeria, portraying a diminutive alien visitor. It was a sort of an E.T. scenario played out in the Old West.
      For the role, he only wore pointy “bat-boy” ear prosthetics, and funky, be-jewelled Ren-Fair duds.
      Hays recieved a good degree of media attention while he was alive, on talk shows and the like, always presenting a very positive outlook.

      Also of note, is that the actor who played Spanky from The Little Rascals plays the Governor of the town in the film, and looks, for all the world, like an enlarged version of his child self!

    10. Phineas Taylor y la boda del siglo « El baúl de Josete Says:

      […] información y fotos en Coil house, en la Wiki, aquí y aquí, en Mision Creep , en DHM library y en Getty […]