Charles Stratton was born January 4, 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut to Sherwood Stratton and Cynthia Thompson. A large baby at about 9 pounds, midway through his first year he stopped growing and never grew more than 40-42 inches tall.
He began performing with Barnum at five years of age at the entertainer’s American Museum in New York: Barnum billed him as 11 to make his size seem more remarkable, and gave him the stage name General Tom Thumb to elevate his profile. To dismiss Stratton – a distant cousin of Barnum’s – as a mere sideshow player is a huge disservice; Stratton would have been an uncommonly talented performer at any size, and he enjoyed a four-decade career, over which biographer Eric Lehman estimates that he played 20,000 shows, performed for 50 million people and visited 2 dozen countries.
Barnum and the General toured Europe to great acclaim and, yes, a visit to Buckingham Palace (just Tom and not the whole sideshow, as The Greatest Showman suggests) – charming Queen Victoria by staging a mock sword-fight with one of her spaniels and leading a French journal to swear: “Tom Thumb is all fashion. He is the lady-bird of the season; the ladies are passionately fond of him, for the prettiest of them will eagerly press their lips of roses on the bluff cheeks of our little dwarf, who prides himself on having kissed a million of ladies.”
When Charles Stratton married fellow little person Lavinia Warren Bump – the “Queen of Beauty” – in New York City in February 1863 (happy anniversary, by the way!), the “Fairy Wedding” was such a society event that it knocked Civil War coverage off the New York Times front page for three days straight, and caused the national news media to obsess over every detail. “For the benefit of our lady readers” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described Lavinia’s dress – a satin gown, “trimmed with point lace of a very rich quality.”
The New York Times put it simply: “Those who did and those who did not attend the wedding of Gen. Thomas Thumb and Queen LAVINIA WARREN composed the population of this great Metropolis yesterday, and thenceforth religious and civil parties sink into comparative insignificance before this one arbitrating query of fate-Did you or did you not see Tom Thumb married?”
The couple visited President and Mrs. Lincoln in the White House after their grand wedding and reception, at which Tiffany and Co. gifted a silver miniature horse and chariot.
Barnum and Stratton remained lifelong friends, and the Museum holds many wonderful items associated with Tom Thumb, including his riding carriage, a pair of well-worn boots and his custom Napoleon costume, rendered in lavish fabrics and tiny gold officer’s buttons.