Wednesday, January 5, 2011

General Tom Thumb (Jan. 4, 1838 - July 15, 1883)

This week, I share my birthday (January 4) with Louis Braille (1809) who developed a system of reading for the blind, actress Jane Wyman (1914), Sir Isaac Newton (1643), and General Tom Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838). 

P. T. Barnum & General Tom Thumb
Charles Sherwood Stratton's parents lived in Bridgeport, CT. His father was a carpenter, his mother worked at a local inn. He had three siblings. Of the four children, Charlie was the only midget. He was born full-sized, but as a toddler, he just stopped gaining height. At age 4, when Phineas Taylor Barnum met him, he weighed 15 lbs. and stood only 25 inches tall. In his late teens, Stratton gained some height, eventually attaining a stature of 40 inches.

P. T. Barnum immediately recognized the potential of the boy. Although reluctant, his parents agreed to let Barnum work with the diminutive boy. By the time Mrs. Stratton and young Charlie arrived at Barnum’s museum, Barnum had already written a publicity biography, billing the boy as “General Tom Thumb,” an 11-year-old Lilliputian from London.

Barnum started Charlie at $3 per week, and picked up the tab for the Strattons’ living expenses. He soon increased this to $7 per week, and within a few months, to $25 per week, a staggering sum. In the 1840s, this wage was about eight times that of an average laborer.

Today, such child labor is considered exploitation, but Barnum was an honest and forthright businessman. He was not one to take advantage. He trained Charlie himself and saw to his education, and found the child a natural for the stage. Barnum wrote that Charlie Stratton was “an apt student with a great deal of native talent and a keen sense of the ludicrous.”

In his acts, General Tom Thumb appeared in various costumes, sang songs, and danced. He mimicked and parodied famous characters, including Napoleon and Cupid. Barnum would play the straight man while Tom Thumb cracked jokes.

In January 1844, Barnum and The General set sail for a three-year European tour. Thanks to a letter of introduction from Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune to Edward Everett, America’s ambassador in Great Britain (and who would give the other Gettysburg Address twenty years later), Barnum and General Tom Thumb received an invitation to perform for Queen Victoria.  The Queen and her entourage were immediately delighted by the boy. He advanced with dignity and bowed gracefully. The Queen took his hand, led him about the gallery, and plied him with innumerable questions; his answers kept the gathering in stitches.

The General then performed his act. When he withdrew, the Queen’s poodle attacked the 6-year-old boy, who fought off the animal with his walking stick, with a ferocity that drew more amusement from the nobles.

His reception by the Queen made General Tom Thumb a publicity phenomenon. He was a continued celebrity in all of the other European capitals which he toured.

He was such a success that when some of Barnum’s investments failed in 1856, forcing him into bankruptcy, the tiny teenager toured Europe again with Barnum to raise money for Barnum to get back on his feet.  The professional relationship between Barnum and Stratton, begun when Stratton was barely more than a toddler, grew into a deep friendship which lasted for 40 years until Stratton’s death. They became business partners in some ventures.

Charles & Lavinia on their wedding day
Late in 1862, Barnum met General Tom Thumb’s female match: Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump of Middleborough, Massachusetts. At 32 inches tall, she weighed only 29 pounds. With an able intellect and nimble physique, she had taught school since age 16, and had also toured on a Mississippi showboat as a miniature dancing chanteuse. Barnum hired her and shortened her name to something more marketable: Lavinia Warren. When Miss Warren and Charlie Stratton met, Charlie no longer played Cupid - he was smitten.  His aggressive courtship ousted Commodore Nutt (George Washington Morrison Nutt), another dwarf in Barnum’s employ, from Lavinia’s favor. There wasn’t much of a fight - Lavinia was equally smitten with Charlie.  (Age might have been a factor - Charlie was only three years older; Nutt was 27 years older.) Barnum publicized the rivalry, the courtship, the nuptials, and the honeymoon, paid for the wedding (February 10, 1863), and generated tremendous revenue.

The honeymoon included a reception at the White House. President and Mrs. Lincoln and their youngest son Tad were enchanted by the newlyweds. Their oldest son Robert, however, viewed the reception with embarrassment. He felt that his parents diminished the dignity of the presidency by making a spectacle of themselves with sideshow freaks. He refused his mother’s wish for him to attend the reception. Curiosity must have won out, however, for he was spied in remote corners of the ballroom.

In the late 1860s, The Thumbs embarked on another 3-year world tour, which included appearances in Australia. Their popularity around the world continued to soar. General Tom Thumb made his final international appearance in England in 1878.

General Tom Thumb as an adult
The Thumbs lived for some time in New York City. They owned a yacht, considerable real estate, and fine horses. Charlie became a 32-degree Freemason. They also owned a house in Bridgeport, CT.

They continued to travel.  In January of 1883, the Milwaukee hotel in which they were staying caught fire.  Their manager rescued them, but 71 other guests perished. The event, declared one of the worst hotel disasters in American history, was highly traumatic, and some speculate that it contributed to the stroke that Charlie Stratton suffered six months later. His sudden death in Middleborough, MA, shocked the nation. Lavinia was not with him at the time; she was on tour.  He was only 45 years old.

Charles Sherwood Stratton is buried in Bridgeport, not far from the grave of his friend P. T. Barnum. Ten thousand people attended the funeral. The monument on his grave is topped with a life-size statue of him as General Tom Thumb. Lavinia lived until 1919, marrying once again and continuing performances on stage and in silent films. As she wished, she is buried with her beloved Charlie.

Besides Wikipedia, more information for this article was obtained from the following sources:
Struggles and Triumphs; or, Sixty Years' Recollections of P. T. Barnum (1889).


  1. Thanks, Sam, for a great article. I grew up near Bridgeport so Barnum (and Tom & Lavinia) were well known to me. I saw a wonderful Chautauqua performance of Barnum in Keene,NH a few years ago. The presenter was great & gave me a more balanced impression of the man. And of course I love the Lincoln connection to the Tom & Lavinia (doesn't she resemble Mary Lincoln?)

  2. I know you will love the new biography of America's first international celebrity performer, Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb. Published by Wesleyan University Press, Becoming Tom Thumb tells the full story of this iconic figure for the first time. It details his triumphs on the New York stage, his epic celebrity wedding, and his around-the-world tour, drawing on newly available primary sources and interviews.