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General Tom Thumb
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Currier & Ives, Library of Congress
Nothing seemed unusual about the Strattons’ new baby. Charles Stratton was born in Bridgeport in 1838. He was a healthy, nine-pound baby. At five months old, he weighed 15 pounds and was 25 inches tall.
And then he stopped growing.
As the months went by, “Charley” became a toddler. He learned to walk just like other children. He learned to speak. But he still weighed 15 pounds. He was still only 25 inches tall.
When he was four years old, Phineas T. Barnum came to visit. Barnum had heard about the unusual boy. Barnum became famous many years later for starting the Barnum & Bailey Circus. But when he visited Charley in 1842, he was a young man. He was trying to start his career. He ran a museum of “curiosities” in New York City called the American Museum.
Barnum’s museum was not the kind of museum we know today. His museum had exhibits of strange and exotic things such as live and stuffed animals. Some of his exhibits were fake. One example was a mummified “mermaid.” It had a monkey’s head and a fish tail. Barnum said, “I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”
Barnum asked Charley’s parents if he could put the four-year-old on display at his museum. They said yes. On Thanksgiving Day Charley made his first appearance at Barnum’s American Museum. Barnum gave him the stage name “General Tom Thumb.” The name came from an English folktale about a tiny knight who rode a mouse into battle.
Charley Begins His Career
Barnum advertised his new exhibit in the newspaper. It said that people could see “The Smallest Person that Ever Walked Alone.” He exaggerated and said that the 4-year-old was 11.
Charley had to sit for hours in the morning and afternoon in a small stage set. Visitors could ask him questions. His answers were funny, and visitors loved him.
General Tom Thumb became a popular attraction. Barnum had him act in a stage show. Charley performed in skits with “giants.” Barnum or a fellow actor would ask him questions and feed him jokes. Charley would deliver the punch line.
Tom Thumb began appearing in the museum in costume. He would be dressed like Cupid, a sailor, or a Greek hero. He would stand as still as a statue. Visitors flocked to see him. Visitors liked that he wasn’t a fake. He was a real, living, breathing, tiny boy who danced, sang, and told funny jokes.
Charley Meets the Queen
In 1844, when Charley was six, Barnum took him to England. At first, no one bought tickets to see “General Tom Thumb.” Barnum arranged for him to meet Queen Victoria. She invited Charley to entertain her at Buckingham Palace. He dressed like the famous French general Napoleon. He sang “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
As they were about to leave, the queen’s little dog began barking at the boy. Charley swung his tiny cane like a sword to fend off the dog. Everyone laughed at the funny sight. The queen invited him back many times to the palace. He met King Leopold of Belgium and Tsar Nicholas of Russia.
Newspapers carried the news of the queen’s new friend. People began to buy tickets to see him perform. He was a success! Barnum next took Charley to perform in France. In Spain, he met Queen Isabella.
When they returned to America three years later, Tom Thumb was famous. His parents were now rich. They built a big house in Bridgeport. Charley toured around the eastern United States, Cuba, and Canada. He met President James K. Polk.
Charley was only nine years old, but he had learned some bad habits. He smoked cigars and drank wine like an adult. He didn’t have any friends his own age. For the rest of his childhood he worked as an actor and comedian. He was tutored and learned foreign languages, science, and math.
Charley Goes ‘Round the World
Currier & Ives, Library of Congress
When he was 25, Charles Stratton married Lavinia Bump. She was another little person and was also a performer. Thousands of people filled the streets for the celebrity wedding in New York City in 1863.
The country was in the midst of the Civil War. After the wedding, the couple visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. They visited Union troops. The soldiers greeted them with cheers and threw their caps in the air.
In 1869, the couple began a world tour. First, they toured the western United States. They traveled on the new Pacific Railroad. In San Francisco, they boarded a steamer and toured Japan. There, they met Emperor Meiji. Their next stops were China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In India they rode on elephants to visit the King of Benares.
They sailed to Australia. They saw the pyramids of Egypt. Almost three years later, they returned to New York. The General Tom Thumb Troupe had become the first American celebrities to circle the globe.
Charles Stratton, “Tom Thumb,” Library of Congress
By the 1870s, Charles had grown stout. He weighed 75 pounds and was an “enormous” 40 inches tall. While touring in Wisconsin in 1883, he and Lavinia were caught in one of the largest hotel fires in history. The experience shook him to the core. He never recovered, and six months later he died at home in Massachusetts.
Charles Stratton, as “General Tom Thumb,” had performed in front of millions of people around the world. He had become America’s first international celebrity.
This story is based on “Tom Thumb and the Age of Celebrity” by Eric Lehman, Connecticut Explored, Spring 2015. Eric Lehman is the author of Becoming Tom Thumb (Wesleyan University Press, 2013.)