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Tom Thumb is a REAL person!

Many people hear the name "Tom Thumb" and think of the mythical character in English folklore, who first appeared in a fairy tale, The History of Tom Thumb, in 1621. However, Tom Thumb was a REAL person! Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 19th century, he went on to become a major celebrity.

Tom Thumb

At just 25 inches tall, he joined circus pioneer Phineas T Barnum's travelling show, learning how to sing, dance, mime and do impressions of famous people. His real name was Charles Sherwood Stratton, but he took the stage name, General Tom Thumb. During a tour of Europe, he even met royalty.

Prior to Stratton joining Barnum's circus, the only job for performers who were described as "human curiosities" was in a "freak show", where they were a carnival attraction.

Stratton changed people's perceptions, as he was a genuinely talented artist. He even acted in full-length fairy tale productions under Barnum's guidance and was deemed to be a professional entertainer.

 

Early life

Stratton was born on 4th January 1838, to parents of medium height. He was a relatively large baby at 9lbs 8oz. He grew normally for six months, but then suddenly stopped at 25 inches tall and 15lbs in weight.

Initially, his parents weren't too concerned, but after his first birthday, when he still hadn't grown, they took him to see a doctor. He grew less than one inch between the ages of one and four years and doctors said he was unlikely to grow any taller. He was in good health and an average child in every other way.

When circus owner Barnum heard about Stratton, he contacted his parents to offer him a home with the circus. Stratton was only four and some sources say Barnum adopted him.

Although this seems harsh by today's standards, in the early 19th century, people who were different were often ostracised by society and were unable to find regular work. Barnum had a "Hall of Living Curiosities" as part of his circus, where people with various medical conditions could make a good living and survive.

 

Circus career

The people living at Barnum's circus included those who were covered all over in hair - known today as hypertrichosis - and others described as "giants" and "dwarfs". In the 1800s, there wasn't the same stigma attached to exhibiting people as curiosities.

Barnum was not unkind to the people in his show and for most of them, it was their only chance to make money and survive in a harsh world. Rather than being impoverished, or dependent on their family, joining a "freak show" seemed a better option, as they had income, accommodation, food and friendship.

Although Stratton was only four when he joined Barnum's show, he was a highly talented child and learned how to act, sing and dance straight away. He would play characters such as a comic Napoleon Bonaparte and Cupid in shows and he joined in humorous banter with another artist who was his "straight man".

Barnum passed the youngster off as an 11-year-old boy, giving him the stage name General Tom Thumb after the mythical English character. At the age of five, Stratton toured America with Barnum's circus and a year later, they toured Europe.

Appearing before Queen Victoria in England, he also met the future king of England, Edward VII, who was a three-year-old boy at the time. News of Stratton's amazing show spread quickly and he became the equivalent of a global celebrity in today's terms.

He was also said to be a kind and generous person, donating some of his earnings to the relief fund for famine victims in Ireland when a collection was made on his voyage home to the United States.

 

Horse-drawn carriages

Stratton's talents were judged by the critics on his abilities as a singer, dancer and actor. He starred in full-length melodramas, such as Hop O’ My Thumb and Seven League Boots. He always played the lead role, because although Barnum had capitalised on Stratton's tiny stature, he also recognised that he was a truly talented actor in his own right.

He even had his own miniature horse-drawn carriage, designed to match his stature and pulled by Shetland ponies. Barnum had a succession of ornate carriages specially made for the performer, starting with the original hand-carved one, manufactured in 1844, when Stratton was only six years old. It was recently put up for sale in the United States for $150,000.

Built by Mr S Beaton of 16 Denmark-street, Soho, it was described as an "elegant dress chariot suitable to the dimensions of the hero.” The chariot's body was 20 inches high and 11 inches wide.

General Tom Thumb's own coat of arms was emblazoned on the door panel. Also painted on the carriage were the American eagle, the British lion, the rising sun, the American flag and the motto, "Go ahead."

It was used not only in the circus ring, but also to transport General Tom Thumb through the streets of the towns where he was performing.

 

Newspaper report

According to a newspaper report written by Thomas Fordyce, on 11th November 1844, the performer had created a great spectacle by driving through the streets of Newcastle. He described the scene outside the Newcastle Music Hall as the general, at only 25 inches tall, being carried through the streets in a "handsome chariot of diminutive dimensions."

 

Personal life

Stratton's show business career continued throughout his adult life and he became massively famous all over the world. In 1863, he married fellow small person (2ft 6ins), 21-year-old Lavinia Warren, at Grace Episcopal Church in the US. The reception was held at the Metropolitan Hotel in New York.

Around 10,000 guests attended the celebrations and the happy couple greeted them from on top of a grand piano! The best man was George Washington Nutt, another of Barnum's circus performers. Minnie Warren, Lavinia's sister, was maid of honour. She also worked for Barnum and was a small person, like her sister.

President Lincoln welcomed the newlyweds at the White House and the happy couple went on a tour of Europe and British India following their nuptials.

Stratton became very wealthy under Barnum's management, owning a house in New York, his own yacht and a wardrobe full of fashionable, specially-made clothes. He died following a stroke at the age of 45 and his final resting place is Mountain Grove Cemetery, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

 

National Trust

One of his carriages is on display today at the National Trust Carriage Museum, Arlington Court, Arlington. The unique vehicle was used during one of Barnum's circus’s four English tours. It could seat up to 12 passengers on the roof and an additional four inside.

The carriage had been purchased in 1894 by a private individual, Alfred Ash, as a gift for his five-year-old son, Graham Baron Ash. The Ash family donated the carriage and it went on display in Arlington in 1983.

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