P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb [Marcus Aurelius Root]

Griff Stecyk

Contributor

P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb had a bromance for the ages.

P.T. Barnum was the Donald Trump of circus folk: the man who reportedly said, “There’s a sucker born every minute” and made a fortune off this principal. Charles Sherwood Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, was the biggest little celebrity in the world. Barnum and General Tom were distant cousins (half fifth cousin, twice removed) and when they first met, General Tom he was just 25 inches tall (aged 5) and barely grew above three feet (aged 45) in his lifetime. It was a match made in heaven. Tom would reach a Michael Jackson level of fame and fortune under Barnum, acquiring a specially adapted little person’s mansion, and a private steam yacht. When Barnum fell on hard times later in life, best buddy Tom bailed him out.

Barnum took Tom on numerous world tours from America as far as Europe, India and Australia. He did three royal command performances for Queen Victoria. On the first occasion, Tom was attacked by the Queen’s pet poodle, and beat him off with a walking stick to the delighted laughter of the court. But Tom never seemed to mind the indignities of life in a glorified freak show. He was a natural born ham, who loved the spotlight, especially doing his signature Napoleon impersonation.

Barnum saw a goldmine when Tom fell in love with fellow little-person performer, Lavinia Warren, who was billed as the “Little Queen of Beauty.” Tom wasn’t without competition for the hand of America’s most eligible little bachelorette. Lavinia was already being hotly pursued by celebrated little-person Commodore Nutt. Lavinia chose Tom, but the commodore took his rejection in stride, standing up as best man at their wedding escorting Lavonia’s tiny sister Minnie as bridesmaid.

The wedding party was diminutive, but there was nothing small about the wedding. Barnum footed the bill for the 1863 ceremony that pushed the Civil War off the front page of the New York Times. It was the wedding of the century, dwarfing (pun intended) that of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert. Lavinia’s white satin and lace gown with long train set the fashion trend for the season. The gift table displayed packages from the Astors, Vanderbilts and Lincolns. Barnum sold tickets to the reception, and 2,000 guests lined up to greet the couple as they received standing atop a grand piano. A piece of the wedding cake became the must-have souvenir of the season. The “Loving Lilliputians” road through the streets in a miniature carriage as crowds mobbed police barricades to get a look at them.

After the wedding, the couple was received at the White House, where Abraham Lincoln gave Lavinia the traditional bridal kiss. Lavinia loathed such displays, being an independent-minded early feminist with a razor-sharp wit who resented being treated like a porcelain doll by average sized men. Tom had no such reservations. He had a passion for beautiful women of all sizes, and part of his act was soliciting kisses from the ladies in the audience. He boasted of having kissed over a million girls by the time he was a teenager.

Eventually America’s littlest player slowed down, and died at the age of 45. The only occasion that could trump General Tom Thumb’s wedding was his funeral. 20,000 mourners showed up to pay their respects. Barnum commissioned a life-sized statue to serve as his friend’s grave marker. Sadly, the statue was destroyed by vandals in the 1950s. One can only hope that said hooligans are being haunted by the most adorable ghost ever.

Barnum lives on having been played by Michael Crawford (Barnum!, 1986), Burt Lancaster (Barnum, 1986), and Beau Bridges (P.T. Barnum, 1999) in made-for-tv movies and Roger Ashton-Griffiths in the film Gangs of New York (2002).

 

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