Best known by the stage name General Tom Thumb, American entertainer and dwarf Charles Stratton (1838–1883) became an international sensation as crowds around the globe gawked to get a glimpse of the man whose height stalled at 25 inches. During his 40-year career, Stratton performed an estimated 20,000 times for 50 million people in two dozen countries.
Charles Stratton rose to fame under the guidance of American showman P.T. Barnum, but because of his affiliation with Barnum his legacy has been tarnished. Although Stratton achieved mass global popularity during his lifetime, he was largely written out of theater history because he was considered nothing more than a Barnum sideshow. In fact, as an independent act, Stratton toured the United States a dozen times, appeared on Broadway, and took to the stage in London and Paris, selling out venues along the way.
While Stratton's small size gave him a foothold in the entertainment world, his talent and stage artistry kept him there. According to Eric D. Lehman, author of Becoming Tom Thumb, disability scholar Michael Chemers offered this take on Stratton's legacy: “If Tom Thumb was a freak, then the American freak show included the highest rank of melodramatic productions. If he was not a freak, then he was one of America's most popular stage actors, welcome at the dinner table of the most august families in the nation, and in the house of the president himself.”
Charles Sherwood Stratton was born on January 4, 1838, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His father, Sherwood Stratton, worked as a carpenter, while his mother, Cynthia Thompson Stratton, was employed at the Bridgeport Inn. Stratton was a large infant, weighing in at nine pounds, two ounces, at birth. At six months, he had grown to 15 pounds, two ounces, and was 25 inches long. At this point, he stopped growing; while he continued to physically mature and develop in every other way, his height stayed at 25 inches. As doctors counseled his parents, Stratton—or Charley as his mother called him—was a proportional dwarf, meaning that he was of small stature and with arms and legs scaled relative to his size. It was thought that a pituitary gland problem caused Stratton's growth issues because his siblings attained normal height as they matured.
As the years passed, Cynthia Stratton grew protective of her son, placing him in a blanket-covered basket to shield him from the stares and jeers of local townsfolk. During this period in history, there was little understanding of people with developmental or physical variations. Those who appeared or acted “different” were often ostracized or labeled as “freaks.”
In November of 1842, Barnum arrived in Bridgeport. The famed promoter had recently purchased Scudder's American Museum in New York City and renamed it “Barnum's American Museum.” In the midst of a rebranding, he sought new curiosities for his amusement hall. Learning about Charley Stratton, Barnum arrived at the Stratton home and offered the family three dollars a week to take the four-year-old boy down to New York City. Initially, Cynthia Stratton balked at the offer, but the pay was higher than her husband's. Ultimately, she agreed to a four-week trial.
In December of 1842, Stratton and his mother traveled to New York City, where Barnum provided them living quarters on the fifth floor of the museum, across the hall from a room occupied by two giants. As Barnum began tutoring his newest act, he knew he had to do more than simply put his newest “oddity” on display. Barnum groomed all of his acts to perform: for instance, his armless man cut out paper Valentines with scissors using his feet, and the bearded lady performed a tender musical interlude. To increase entertainment value, he decided to pass off the preschool-aged Stratton as a mature, well-mannered young man. As such, Barnum worked hard to disguise the dwarf's extreme youth. He gave Stratton wine to drink at age five, cigars at age seven, and tobacco at age nine.
On December 9, 1842, Stratton made his grand appearance in the “Lecture Room” at Barnum's American Museum, singing “Yankee Doodle” in his high-pitched voice. For the next several months, Barnum tutored Stratton, teaching him table manners and coaching him on courtesies like saying “please” and “thank you.” The boy learned witty sayings, memorized poems, and mastered several dance steps. He was outfitted in finely tailored suits with gloves and walking canes to match, and learned to click his heels and twirl the cane like a proper English gentleman.
Initially, Stratton sat in a small diorama each morning and afternoon, where he was gawked at by museum-goers strolling through the galleries. They asked Stratton questions, and he offered plucky answers, as Barnum trained him to do. Stratton sometimes appeared in costume, wearing a body stocking and standing still as a statue while dressed as different Grecian heroes. He also mimicked Napoleon and Cupid. When Stratton became popular, Barnum began taking him to the main stage, casting the boy in a skit that also featured several “giants.”
Over time, Stratton honed his performances, and he eventually became the center of attention. He told personal stories filled with puns. He also answered questions from the audience, often with a “plant” who asked a predetermined question to which the boy had a rehearsed, humorous answer. Another prank involved the show's emcee asking for a child to come forward and stand next to Stratton as a way to illustrate his height. When the emcee requested a little boy, Stratton interrupted and asked for a “little miss.” When a young girl volunteered and came forward, Stratton pecked her on the cheek. After a year, Stratton was earning $25 a week, and within a few years he was an equal partner in the enterprise. Although he amassed a small fortune, he eventually squandered it on a steam-powered yacht, expensive clothing, and Shetland ponies.
Ever hungry for ticket sales, Barnum watched attendance figures closely, and when Stratton's popularity waned in New York City, he sent him on tour. In 1843 Stratton spent several weeks at the Boston Museum and also toured the East Coast. According to Sullivan, the dwarf proved popular, Maryland's Baltimore Sun newspaper declaring: “Were he deformed or sickly, we might pity him; but he is so manly, so handsome, so hearty and happy, that we look at him as being from some other sphere.”
In 1844 Barnum took Stratton to Liverpool, England, and promoted him as the “smallest person that ever walked the earth.” When this did little to attract interest, the promoter rented a fancy townhouse with servants and sent invitations to London's wealthy families and aristocrats, inviting them to meet General Tom Thumb. As London society began talking about the short-statured man, crowds began flocking to his performances at London's Egyptian Hall. On March 23, 1844, Stratton received an invitation to meet Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. At the end of the evening, the queen's spaniel attacked Stratton, and he had to raise his cane to the dog in order to leave the royal palace unscathed.
The queen took a liking to Stratton, but she was also disturbed at his exploitation. According to Richard W. Schoch, author of Queen Victoria and the Theatre of Her Age, she wrote in her diary: “After dinner we saw the greatest curiosity, I, or indeed anybody ever saw … a little dwarf, only 25 inches high and 15 lbs in weight. No description can give an idea of this little creature.” Queen Victoria went on to note that “he was made to imitate Napoleon and do all sorts of tricks.” She sensed that, despite all the laughter, his circumstances were less than perfect. She continued in her diary: “One cannot help feeling very sorry for the poor little thing and wishing he could be properly cared for …. [T]he people who show him off tease him a good deal, I should think.”
Over the next several months, Stratton visited the royal palace several times to perform and recite sketches. He also met King Leopold of Belgium (Queen Victoria's uncle), as well as Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. During one visit, Stratton entertained Queen Victoria and the royal court by singing “Yankee Doodle,” which was probably slightly offensive given that the British defeat by the “Yankees” during the American Revolution had occurred only 60 years prior.
In early 1845, Stratton went to France and met King Louis Philippe. While in Paris that May, he launched his stage career, performing in the play Le Petit Poucet (“The Little Thumb”). The play's script adapted a fairy tale about Tiny Poucet, who outwits an evil giant to save his family, and Stratton's performance earned him honorary membership in the French Dramatic Society. The spring of 1846 found Stratton back in London, appearing in an English adaptation of Le Petit Poucet titled Hop o' My Thumb. Antics included scenes where Stratton ran between the legs of a troupe of ballet dancers, was dragged around in a shoe, and was served up in a pie. The play ran for six weeks in London before touring the rest of England. In February of 1847, when Stratton returned to New York City, he was only nine years old, although he was billed as being 15. In 1848 he appeared in a new production of Hop o' My Thumb produced at the city's Broadway Theater.
In 1863 Stratton met Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump at Barnum's museum. Bump stood 32 inches tall and weighed 29 pounds. They married on February 10, 1863, in a massive wedding that captured the imagination of New York City. Wedding photos were splashed across the pages of the New York Times and Harper's magazine. Thousands of guests attended the reception, purchasing tickets sold by the relentlessly entrepreneurial Barnum. The couple's honeymoon included a stop at the Lincoln White House, where the Strattons met the 6-foot-4-inch-tall U.S. president. Poised to make money on the event, Barnum hired a photographer to take pictures that were sold as souvenirs. The wedding party included Commodore Nutt, another one of Barnum's dwarves, and Minnie Warren, the dwarf sister of Stratton's bride. Afterward, Barnum sent the short-statured foursome on a tour of the United States to capitalize on the exposure.
In 1869 the Strattons joined Commodore Nutt and Ms. Warren on a three-year-long global tour that began with a railroad journey across the continental United States. After stops in the Pacific Northwest, they boarded a steamer in San Francisco and headed for Yokohama, Japan. They hit China, Singapore, Australia, and India before sailing through the Suez Canal in the spring of 1871, on their way to Europe. They returned to New York City in June of 1872, having traveled 55,487 miles, of which 31,216 were by sea. Along the way, the dwarves gave 1,471 performances in 587 different locations.
By his mid-30s, Stratton had grown to 40 inches tall and was stout, weighing 70 pounds. He was tired of a life spent on tour, refusing to wear childish costumes and preferring to give informal lectures about his travels abroad. In the 1870s, Barnum had entered the circus business, and in 1881 he enticed Stratton and his wife to tour with his Big Top. Stratton hated it. After enduring railroad collisions and a deadly hotel fire, he decided to quit touring.
Unlike her husband, Lavinia Stratton continued to travel, and she was far from their Bridgeport home when Stratton suffered a stroke and died on July 15, 1883. He was 45. As a widow, Lavinia continued to tour and eventually remarried, this time to an Italian dwarf named Count Primo Magri. She died on November 25, 1919, and was buried next to Stratton at Bridgeport's Mountain Grove Cemetery.
Lehman, Eric D., Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P.T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity, Wesleyan University Press, 2013.
Schoch, Richard W., Queen Victoria and the Theatre of Her Age, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Sullivan, George, Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature, Clarion Books, 2011.
American History, April 2009, Peter Carlson, “P.T. Barnum Meets Queen Victoria,” pp. 24–25; October 2013, Peter Carlson, “Abraham Lincoln Greets General and Mrs. Tom Thumb,” pp. 24–25.
BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-ouch-30034409 (November 24, 2014), Kathleen Hawkins, “The Real Tom Thumb and the Birth of Celebrity.”□