Tom Thumb’s real name was Charles Stratton. He was born a dwarf, or person of short stature (defined medically as someone whose adult height will not exceed more than four feet ten inches tall). In fact Charles Stratton was under two feet tall when American impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum hired him to be an ‘exhibit’ at his American Museum on Broadway.
Barnum exaggerated Charles’s age, saying that the four year old was eleven, and altered his identity to ‘General Tom Thumb’ from London. Despite Charles’s mother expressing concerns about this fabrication, Barnum insisted that it was a necessary marketing device and would ensure that his ‘exhibit’ was successful.
Barnum moulded the young Stratton into the character of General Tom Thumb with excellent manners and a haughty air. He taught him various stage routines and dressed him in specially tailored character costumes as Napoleon Bonaparte and Cupid. His routine contained comic patter and songs, the most famous being the hornpipe dance and song ‘Yankee Doodle Dandee’.
Tom Thumb first toured America in 1843 at the age of five and was a huge success. In February 1844 Tom Thumb made his debut on the London stage at the Princess’s Theatre. The Illustrated London News called him ‘a little monster’. However Barnum managed to secure Stratton an audience with Queen Victoria and his subsequent appearance at the Egyptian Hall later that year was a huge success with the public flooding to see ‘the wonderful little man’.
Queen Victoria saw Tom Thumb three times and he met with other European Royalty. These royal meetings increased Stratton’s profile and he became a very wealthy man with a house in the fashionable part of New York, a steam yacht and a fine wardrobe. When Barnum got into financial difficulty it was Stratton who bailed him out and eventually Stratton became his business partner.
In 1862 P.T.Barnum engaged Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump as an attraction at his American Museum. She was 21 years old and 32 inches (81 cm) tall. She first appeared in January 1863, advertised as 'the smallest woman alive' and 'the little Queen of Beauty'. Tom Thumb paid her a visit and just a few weeks later they were married, on 10 February, with her sister Minnie as a bridesmaid, and another of Barnum's attractions, 'Commodore' Nutt, as the 'best man'. The bride arrived at the church in a miniature wedding carriage, wearing a white satin dress and shoes, and a long lace train with a diamond necklace, a present from her husband. The reception at the Metropolitan Hotel displayed wedding gifts from the Astors, Vanderbilts, and President and Mrs Lincoln. The crowds outside were so big that the police had to cordon off the street. Barnum's involvement in the wedding was substantial and whilst he refrained from charging admission to the event, he drew up an impressive guest list of 2,000 guests to ensure maximum publicity.
In August 1866 a star attraction from America appeared at the Corn Exchange in Peterborough, England, billed as 'General Tom Thumb and his celebrated little wife together with their infant daughter, the wonder of the age, and the equally renowned Commodore Nutt, and the infinitesimal Minnie Warren.'
This was part of a tour during which they gave three performances daily, at 11am, 3pm and 8pm, with different songs, recitations and dances in each show. The second act of each performance began with Lavinia introducing her baby daughter on stage, and each show ended with Tom and his wife dancing a polka.
Stratton, who was a good mimic, was taught a range of impersonations so that he could perform instead of being a curiosity just for his size. He and a 'straight man' would perform a series of comic scenes with Stratton disappearing off to change costume between each one. Among his characters were Villikins - a character from a popular song, a student at Oxford, a Scottish Highlander, an American Tar (sailor) and most popular of all, the Emperor Napoleon. Much of the banter between the two men centred on Stratton's fondness for attractive women, and he would walk around the audience asking women for a kiss and selling his photograph and souvenir pamphlets. The act would finish (at least while he was young and slim) with Stratton wearing nothing but an elastic body stocking, posing as a series of 'Grecian statues'.
The second below print shows him and his wife, Lavinia Warren on their wedding day in New York flanked by their bridesmaid Minnie Warren, and their best man, Commodore Nutt. The central image is surrounded by images of them in their costumes for the performances they did on tour - (from bottom left to right), Colonel Nutt and Minnie as Dutch characters, Tom and Nutt in Highland costume, Tom doing a 'burlesque speech', Nutt in his riding costume, Lavinia with her baby, Nutt as a drummer, Nutt as a Scottish sword dancer, Thumb and Nutt in 'comic characters' and Thumb and Nutt as Napoleon and an officer.
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