Visiting his home state of Connecticut on a cold November night in 1842, the great showman Phineas T. Barnum thought to track down an amazingly small child he had heard about. The boy, Charles Sherwood Stratton, born on January 4, 1838, was nearly five years old. For reasons unknown, he had stopped growing years earlier. He stood only 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds.
Barnum, who already employed several “giants” at his famed American Museum in New York City, recognized the value of young Stratton. The showman made a deal with the boy’s father, a local carpenter, to pay three dollars a week to exhibit young Charles in New York. He then hurried back to New York City to begin promoting his new discovery.
A Sensation in New York City
“They came to New York, Thanksgiving Day, December 8, 1842,” Barnum recalled in his memoirs. “And Mrs. Stratton was greatly surprised to see her son announced on my Museum bills as General Tom Thumb.”
With his typical abandon, Barnum had stretched the truth. He took the name Tom Thumb from a character in English folklore. Hastily printed posters and handbills claimed that General Tom Thumb was 11 years old, and that he had been brought to America from Europe “at great expense.”
Charlie Stratton and his mother moved into an apartment in the museum building, and Barnum began teaching the boy how to perform. Barnum recalled him as “an apt student with a great deal of native talent and a keen sense of the ludicrous.” Charlie Stratton seemed to love performing. And the boy and Barnum forged a close friendship that lasted many years.
General Tom Thumb’s shows were a sensation in New York City. The boy would appear onstage in various costumes, playing the part of Napoleon, a Scottish highlander, and other characters. Barnum himself would often appear onstage as a straight man, while “The General” would crack jokes. Before long, Barnum was paying the Strattons $50 a week, a huge salary for the 1840s.
A Command Performance for Queen Victoria
In January 1844, Barnum and General Tom Thumb sailed for England. With a letter of introduction from a friend, newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, Barnum met the American ambassador in London, Edward Everett. Barnum’s dream was for Queen Victoria to see General Tom Thumb.
A command performance was arranged, and General Tom Thumb and Barnum were invited to visit Buckingham Palace and perform for the Queen and her family. Barnum recalled their reception:
We were conducted through a long corridor to a broad flight of marble steps, which led to the Queen’s magnificent picture gallery, where Her Majesty and Prince Albert, the Duchess of Kent, and twenty or thirty of the nobility were awaiting our arrival.
They were standing at the farther end of the room when the doors were thrown open, and the General walked in, looking like a wax doll gifted with the power of locomotion. Surprise and pleasure were depicted on the countenances of the royal circle at beholding this remarkable specimen of humanity so much smaller than they had evidently expected to find him.
The General advanced with a firm step, and as he came within hailing distance made a very graceful bow, and exclaimed, “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!”
A burst of laughter followed this salutation. The Queen then took him by the hand, led him about the gallery, and asked him many questions, the answers to which kept the party in an uninterrupted strain of merriment.
According to Barnum, General Tom Thumb then performed his usual act, performing “songs, dances, and imitations.” As Barnum and “The General” were leaving, the Queen’s poodle suddenly attacked the diminutive performer. General Tom Thumb employed the formal walking stick he was carrying to fight off the dog, much to everyone’s amusement.
The visit to Queen Victoria was perhaps the greatest publicity windfall of Barnum's entire career. And it made General Tom Thumb's theater performances a huge hit in London.
Barnum, impressed by the grand carriages he saw in London, had a miniature carriage built to take General Tom Thumb around the city. Londoners were enthralled. And the smashing success in London was followed by performances in other European capitals.
Continued Success and a Celebrity Wedding
General Tom Thumb continued performing, and in 1856 embarked on a cross-country tour of America. A year later, along with Barnum, he again toured Europe. He began to grow again during his teens, but very slowly, and he eventually reached a height of three feet.
In the early 1860s General Tom Thumb met a small woman who was also in Barnum’s employ, Lavinia Warren, and the two became engaged. Barnum, of course, promoted their wedding, which was held on February 10, 1863, at Grace Church, an elegant Episcopal cathedral at the corner of Broadway and 10th Street in New York City.
The wedding was the subject of an extensive article in the New York Times of February 11, 1863. Headlined “The Loving Liliputians,” the article noted that a stretch of Broadway for several blocks was “literally crowded, if not packed, with an eager and expectant populace.” Lines of policemen struggled to control the crowd.
While it may seem absurd, the wedding was a very welcome diversion from news of the Civil War, which was going quite badly for the Union at that point. Harper’s Weekly featured an engraving of the married couple on its cover.
President Lincoln's Guest
On their honeymoon trip, General Tom Thumb and Lavinia were guests of President Lincoln at the White House. And their performing career continued to great acclaim. In the late 1860s, the couple embarked on a three-year world tour that even included appearances in Australia. A genuine worldwide phenomenon, General Tom Thumb was wealthy, and lived in a luxurious house in New York City.
In 1883, Charles Stratton, who had fascinated society as General Tom Thumb, died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 45. His wife, who remarried ten years later, lived until 1919. It is suspected that Stratton and his wife both had growth hormone deficiency (GHD), a condition related to the pituitary gland, but no medical diagnosis or treatment was possible during their lifetimes.