Famous Little People: General Tom Thumb aka Charles S. Stratton Part 1

About General Tom Thumb or Charles S. Stratton the little person entertainer and his place in United States history.

CHARLES S. STRATTON (1838-1883).

General Tom Thumb.

Charles was the 3rd child of Sherwood and Cynthia Stratton, a couple of normal size and modest means who lived in Bridgeport, Conn. At birth, he weighed over 9 lbs., and for the 1st 6 months of his life, his growth was normal. But at the age of 5 years, his height and weight remained what they had been at 6 months: 25"; 15 lbs., 2 oz.

His fateful meeting with showman Phineas T. Barnum came about when he was nearly 6. Barnum though him "the smallest child I ever saw that could walk alone . . . a perfectly formed, bright-eyed little fellow, with light hair and ruddy cheeks, and he enjoyed the best of health. He was exceedingly bashful but after some coaxing he was induced to talk with me."

Bashfulness was never a problem for Barnum, who hired the boy on a short-term basis (what if he started growing?) for the munificent sum of $3 a week, travel expenses, and room and board. He whisked the boy and his mother off to New York, where he billed his new attraction as "General Tom Thumb, a dwarf of 11 years of age, just arrived from England." Mrs. Stratton and her son were installed in the converted billiard parlor where Barnum's wife and 3 daughters lived, while Barnum concocted an image and an act to hype The General. After a week of rehearsing, Tom Thumb made his debut in the lecture hall of Barnum's Museum. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he began. "I am only a Thumb, but a good hand in a general way at amusing you, for though a mite, I am mighty. . . . In short, don't make much of me, for making more would be making me less. Though I grow in your favor, no taller I'd be."

After some banter with Barnum, he cavorted about the stage in a variety of costumes: as Cupid, in flesh-colored tights, carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows; as a Revolutionary War soldier, waving a 10" sword and singing "Yankee Doodle Dandy"; as the biblical David, in a mock fight against 2 giants provided by Barnum; as a seminude gladiator, a bell-bottomed sailor, Napoleon Bonaparte in full regalia.

Tom Thumb proved to be a "natural" as a performer, and became an overnight sensation in New York and other U.S. cities. In 1844, Barnum raised his salary to $50 a week and took him, with much fanfare, to London, where he performed "songs, dances and imitations" at the Princess' Theater to overflow crowds. He was acclaimed and petted by aristocrats and commoners alike, and gave a command performance at Buckingham Palace for the young Queen Victoria and her court; again, he was at tremendous hit. A return engagement took place for the benefit of the 3-year-old Prince of Wales. "The Prince is taller than I am," observed Tom Thumb, "but I feel as big as anybody." With that, he became the rage of London.

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