Posted on January 4, 2015
Nowadays we can learn about the challenges and rewards that little people deal with by watching TV shows such as Little People, Big World. But back in the 1800s, most people had never seen someone diagnosed with dwarfism, and circus and sideshow promoters hired dwarfs and toured about showed them off as “human curiosities” and even “freaks.”
Of course, the important thing about “human curiosities” is that they are HUMAN! Hopefully most of the dwarfs employed by circuses and side shows enjoyed being entertainers and did not feel like freaks being stared at and talked about by crowds of people—but I fear that the experience was negative for many.
I am not sure, but I think that the relationship between circus promoter P.T. Barnum and little person Charles Stratton was a true partnership with mutual respect. (I hope it was not troubled by condescension and exploitation!) However, one thing I am sure of is that it was a very successful partnership! With Barnum's promotional skills and Stratton's talents and comedic style, Stratton became world famous as General Tom Thumb.
Barnum was a distant relative of Charles Stratton. He heard about little Charles's lack of growth, but when Barnum met the boy he realized that he was precocious and charming. Barnum taught the young boy how to sing, dance, mime, and do impersonations. Then he took the boy out on tour when Charles was just five years old!
Then, when Charles was just six years old, Barnum took him on a tour of Europe!
Both tours were huge successes, and the “Tom Thumb” was mobbed everywhere he went. He appeared twice before Queen Victoria and met the future King Edward VII when the latter was just three years old.
When Tom Thumb became an adult, he continued to be famous. When he married another dwarf, Livinia Warren, the wedding was huge (10,000 guests!) and made front-page news. The couple was received by President Lincoln at the White House.
Growing in stature and riches
Stratton was born on this date in 1838. He was actually a large baby, weighing more than 9 pounds (more than 4 kg) at birth! He grew normally until he was six months old, and then he stopped for years. Finally, when he was 9 years old, he started to grow again—but very slowly. When he was 18, Stratton was 2 feet 8 inches tall (more than 82 cm).
With P.T. Barnum managing his entertainment career, Stratton became very wealthy. He owned a nice house, a steam yacht, and a wardrobe of fine clothing. At one point, Barnum got into financial difficulty, and Stratton was able to bail him out.
Stratton continued to grow slowly. When he died at age 45, he was more than 3 feet (102 cm) tall.
Barnum purchased a life-sized statue of the entertainer to mark his grave. In 1959, the statue was smashed by vandals, but the general public pitched in to restore the statue.
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