Of all the fascinating entertainers P.T. Barnum made popular, “General Tom Thumb” became the most famous. He made Barnum—and himself—rich and world-renowned.
In 1863, Tom Thumb married his celebrity sweetheart, known to audiences as “The Little Queen of Beauty.”
The Ordinary Birth of an Extraordinary Entertainer
Charles Sherwood Stratton was born 4 January 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His father Sherwood Stratton was a carpenter; his mother Cynthia worked at an inn.
Ironically, Charles was a hardy, nine-and-a-half-pound infant. At six months, however, his growth stopped abruptly. His three siblings, meanwhile, grew normally.
A Lasting Business Partnership: Barnum & Stratton
Stratton was 4 when P.T. Barnum visited Bridgeport and made his acquaintance. Barnum offered his parents a fine fee and vowed to make their son famous. The lad was approximately 61 centimeters (2 feet) tall and weighed 15 pounds.
Barnum, a young salesman who’d discovered there was money to be made exhibiting unusual individuals, had just opened his American Museum in New York. His original showpiece was a former slave, Joice Heth, alleged to have been George Washington’s childhood nurse. He subsequently made household names of such novelty entertainers as the Siamese twins Chang and Eng and the fabricated “Feejee Mermaid.” Barnum also promoted the lucrative American tour of Swedish singer Jenny Lind.
But Tom Thumb became his enduring draw. Barnum, a genius at promotion, began to teach the child to sing, dance and mimic famous figures (notably Napoleon Bonaparte). He changed Stratton’s name to “Tom Thumb,” after an English fairy tale dwarf, added “General” as an afterthought, and stated that the boy hailed from London. He advertised that the little “General” was 11 years old. (Although there was no child labor prohibition, Barnum apparently was leery of a potential social protest.) Barnum ordered him a lavish, tailor-made wardrobe.
Then he put him onstage. In the first week, some 30,000 customers bought tickets to the museum to see the “smallest man alive,” the “Perfect Man in Miniature.” By the time he was 10, “The General” was world-famous and wealthy. He already had entertained Queen Victoria of England, King Louis Philippe of France and Queen Isabella of Spain. Queen Victoria gave him a noble present: a splendid three-foot coach drawn by miniature horses.
At 20, Stratton retired. Fabulously rich, he had no need to work again. He continued to make guest appearances for Barnum, however. Later in life, when Barnum faced bankruptcy after two of his museums were destroyed by fire, Stratton came to his rescue.
A Marriage Made in Lilliput
Lavinia Warren, known popularly as “The Little Queen of Beauty,” was another of Barnum’s cast of miniature stars. Barnum had in mind for her to wed dapper George Washington Morrison “Commodore” Nutt, but Warren and Barnum fell for one another. They were married 10 February 1863 (after he acquiesced to shave his mustache, which her mother loathed). The extravagant New York wedding was attended by 2,000 guests, many of them celebrities and dignitaries.
They set out on a honeymoon tour that began with a visit to the White House. The new couple proceeded to travel the United States, then the world.
The couple appeared publicly until 1882, briefly rejoining Barnum. By the end of his career, General Tom Thumb had entertained an estimated 20 million people.
Stratton died 15 July 1883 of a stroke in his hometown. His widow was shocked to discover they were broke, apparently the consequence of years of profligate living. Encouraged by Barnum, she went back onstage.
In 1885, Lavinia married another little person, “Count” Primo Magri. She became “The Countess Magri.” They worked together at the mini-village of “Lilliputia” at Coney Island. She died in 1919 at age 78.