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Becoming Tom Thumb

Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity

Eric D. Lehman

Publication Year: 2013

When P. T. Barnum met twenty-five-inch-tall Charles Stratton at a Bridgeport, Connecticut hotel in 1843, one of the most important partnerships in entertainment history was born. With Barnum's promotional skills and the miniature Stratton's comedic talents, they charmed a Who's Who of the 19th century, from Queen Victoria to Charles Dickens to Abraham Lincoln. Adored worldwide as "General Tom Thumb," Stratton played to sold-out shows for almost forty years. From his days as a precocious child star to his tragic early death, Becoming Tom Thumb tells the full story of this iconic figure for the first time. It details his triumphs on the New York stage, his epic celebrity wedding, and his around-the-world tour, drawing on newly available primary sources and interviews. From the mansions of Paris to the deserts of Australia, Stratton's unique brand of Yankee comedy not only earned him the accolades of millions of fans, it helped move little people out of the side show and into the lime light.

Published by: Wesleyan University Press

Series: The Driftless Connecticut Series & Garnet Books

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xx

...He also may have been America’s first international celebrity. Before Charles, our “celebrities” were primarily politicians or warriors, writers or mystics, and were usually regional rather than national. The only international figures were statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and in certain circles writers like James Fenimore Cooper or Washington Irving. Occasionally, the title of...

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pp. xxi-xxii

...I would first like to thank Kathy Maher, director and curator of The Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her generosity with the extensive collections of Tom Thumb and P. T. Barnum materials was invaluable. Adrienne Saint Pierre’s help at the museum made my research a pleasure to look forward to. Of course Mary Witkowski and Elizabeth Van Tuyl at the Bridgeport History Center were extremely helpful as always, guiding me through this astonishing...

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Prologue: Playing the Palace

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pp. 1-9

...himself was not unusually tall. Both were common Connecticut Yankees, but if either felt nervous at being in Buckingham Palace they did not show it. This was one thing for a confident showman who knew well the humbugs hidden behind the glitter. But for a child who had stopped growing after a few months of life, and now stood only two feet high and weighed only fifteen pounds, it was a miracle. The showman and the child...

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The Boy from Bridgeport

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pp. 10-19

...other obvious geographical advantages. Its inhabitants gathered around the small Congregational church, farmed the broad flat meadows and gentle hills, and built wharves to run a limited coastal trade. Then, when Fairfield was burned by the British in 1779, the untouched town of Stratfield took up some of its trade. Thus began the transformation from a small Puritan community into the commercial powerhouse of Connecticut....

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At the American Museum

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pp. 20-36

...Dr. Johnson defined them in his 1755 dictionary? The first small American museum was founded in Charleston, South Carolina in 1773, followed by a variety of societies and academies interested in promoting the development of knowledge, all with varying levels of capability and finances. Public funds or private donations for institutions arrived haphazardly and rarely. For the next century, museums continued in this state of flux...

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Prince Charles the First

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pp. 37-48

...the earliest extant play to incorporate “the Yankee” as an important character. But it was not until the 1820s that the type began appearing with regularity. Ironically the first comedian to succeed with this persona was an Englishman, Charles Mathews, an outstanding mimic who created characters that mocked the Irish, French, German, Dutch, and his fellow Englishmen. He used anecdotes...

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Buttons, Bullfights, and Balloons

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pp. 49-59

...Pinte the interpreter. A troupe of ponies and horses completed the entourage. The family traveled from town to town through France during the “vintage season,” with its “vineyards loaded with luscious grapes and groves of olive trees in full bearing.” At the inns Charles slept most often in rooms with two beds, one for his parents, and one for him. He “wished” his meals served in his...

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Hop O’ My Thumb

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pp. 60-72

...Elizabeth Barrett said bitterly that “the dwarf slew the giant,” but Charles Dickens disagreed, saying “he [Haydon] most unquestionably was a very bad painter” and “his pictures could not be expected to sell or to succeed.” Whatever the case, it is not clear that Barnum or Charles were even aware of this little side drama they created by their success. Despite Haydon’s lament over...

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Heart of a Child

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pp. 73-86

...where the most extensive preparations have been made to see him.” At the museum an orang-utang, an “anatomical” Venus, a fortune teller, and a diorama of Napoleon’s funeral were current attractions, but were nothing compared to Charles in his Napoleon gear. It was not the fortune teller for whom people beat down the doors of the Museum to see. Charles performed for four weeks and broke museum attendance records again, because...

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On the New York Stage

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pp. 87-102

...The same book pointed out the exploitative nature of the constant touring. “Our little readers may think it very strange that any body should travel over the world and be exhibited for money. So it is; and we cannot help thinking this is the most unfortunate part of the little man’s history.” The book is sure to go on to say that his parents took good care of him, and prevented him from being “spoiled by flattery, or corrupted by bad example.” That must have been a difficult...

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The Measure of a Man

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pp. 103-118

...However, the company was in a much worse state than Barnum had been led to believe. Furthermore, he or his son-in- law made several horrifying accounting mistakes, which led to a half-million- dollar debt rather than $110,000. Then in February 1856, Jerome Manufacturing went bankrupt. Barnum was pulled down with it, utterly overextended in all his other investments and concerns...

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The Wedding of the Year

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pp. 119-130

...General Joseph Warren had been shot at Bunker Hill. Of eight siblings, one, her sister Huldah Pierce, called “Minnie,” was also a “dwarf,” though that word was used only by others to describe them. Her parents did not treat them differently than their brothers and sisters, and Lavinia learned to sew and cook, as well as the finer points of music, poetry, and art. At age twenty...

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The Long and Short of It

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pp. 131-139

...Charles complained to the newspaper that he was “obliged to encounter similar troubles” in “whatever town or city” he and Lavinia visited. Worse, “their parlor and dining-room are frequently invaded by an army of curiosity mongers, and nothing short of a double lock and a pair of patent bolls has proved sufficiently powerful to preserve...

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A Very Strange Honeymoon

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pp. 140-151

...newlyweds returned to New York, staying at the St. Nicholas Hotel, the finest lodgings in the city. They hosted dinners and receptions for the city’s elite, and gave performances at Irving Hall, an “aristocratic” venue that did not satisfy Charles. On May 25 they appeared on stage with George Nutt and Minnie...

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Tom Thumb’s America

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pp. 152-163

...asking many questions about it and studying the process with care. But he was fascinated by more than the machine itself. “Well,” he said, “I have traveled over Europe but no where can you see the progress of this age so ingeniously shown as in America. The superiority of the new over the old country is shown in your press rooms, in your railroad carriages, and in fact in every branch of industry . . . no place suits me as well as America.” It was the passionate endorsement of a man who knew what he was talking about. Beginning in November 1865, Charles began a...

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Around the World

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pp. 164-173

...held eleven hundred Chinese, including the “patient and faithful” stewards and crew. The only noteworthy events on the entire crossing were a stop at Midway, where the Pacific Mail steamers dropped off or picked up coal, and on the night of November 27, when a “terrific gale” smashed the ship, while terrified passengers gathered in the saloon. Lavinia said, “There was something inexpressibly solemn in...

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At the Helm

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pp. 174-184

...Piazzas and bay windows commanded an expansive view of the 150-acre farm, with the church spire of Middleborough visible four miles distant. Lavinia could also see across the road to her birthplace. A stable held “a fast horse, farm animals, and the traveling ponies that accompanied them on their travels.”2 These ponies, Blackman...

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A Marriage and Two Funerals

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pp. 185-194

...or if he simply wanted to leave to start a new career. Nutt did try to perform with other traveling shows at first, including with an opera company in 1877. In Terre Haute, Indiana he played a trick on “Colonel” Ruth Goshen, the giant, which Goshen later shared, saying that the theater was sold out, and “the Commodore started on a little racket,” meaning he started drinking. Apparently...

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The Great Fire

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pp. 195-205

...This unintentionally comic moment may have been embarrassing, but they could afford a little bad press. Charles had reached a point of permanent fame. His comedy routines were revered and imitated. Marches and waltzes had been named after him. And craftsmen fashioned waxworks of the “Tom Thumb group” in places as far away as Sacramento...

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At Mountain Grove

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pp. 206-210

...His brother-in- law, Edward Newell, still lived in the house, and chatted with him. Newell left the room and almost immediately heard a loud thump. Returning, he found Charles on the floor, dead of “apoplexy,” an apparent stroke. He was forty-five years old, a year older than his own father had been when he died in 1855. Lavinia was in Brooklyn discussing business with Sylvester...


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pp. 211-238

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A Note on Sources

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pp. 239-240

...In piecing together the biography of Charles Stratton, I have used primary sources such as letters, diaries, autobiographies, and newspaper interviews for most of the details in this biography, and have meticulously documented them, because of the long history of legend and misinformation on the subject...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 241-242


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pp. 243-246

Further Reading, About the Author, Series Page

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pp. 247-250

E-ISBN-13: 9780819573322
Print-ISBN-13: 9780819573315

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: The Driftless Connecticut Series & Garnet Books

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Subject Headings

  • Thumb, Tom, 1838-1883.
  • Dwarfs -- United States -- Biography.
  • Circus performers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Entertainers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Barnum, P. T. -- (Phineas Taylor), -- 1810-1891.
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