Sunday, March 14, 2010

Circus Freaks and Tom Thumb – The Rock Star of the 19th Century

(The story behind the photos)

Circus Freaks are having a moment.

Recently my friends Andy and Veronica mentioned that they’re preparing art for an upcoming show "paying homage to circus freaks, carnies, and sideshow misfits" that will be held at Space 242 on East Berkeley Street in Boston from April 30 to May 21, 2010., called “Get Your Freak On!”

Then I read about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” called “Love Never Dies” which will open on Broadway in November. It takes the Phantom to Coney Island, where he runs a freak show.

All this talk of Circus Freaks, who basically fell off the radar back in the 1970’s, when we all realized it wasn’t polite to stare at people who are different, reminded me of a category of antique photos that I had nearly forgotten about—the rabid collecting of cartes de visite and tintypes and cabinet cards of circus freaks back in the 1800’s, especially during the Civil War era . These freaks were mainly working for P. T. Barnum. The most famous of all was “General Tom Thumb”, who never grew more than three feet tall.

I never have collected antique photos of freaks like Barnum’s “Fee-jee Mermaid”, which was a mummified monkey sewn to a fish tail and covered in papier maché-- for the same reason I don’t collect those post mortems of dead babies—they give me the creeps. But I do have several photos of Tom Thumb in my collection (above). Most of these were originally taken by Matthew Brady. (The signatures on the backs, by the way, are printed, not originals.)

During the Civil War era, Tom Thumb was more famous than, say, modern stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Angelina Jolie all put together. His wedding stopped traffic in New York City and on his honeymoon Tom Thumb was invited to visit President Lincoln at the White House and then Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. I think the midget was the most photographed man of his time—even more so than Lincoln.

If you add up all the business-card-sized CDVs that were purchased and put into Victorian photo albums, maybe Gen. Tom Thumb was the most photographed man who ever lived.

His real name was Charles Sherwood Stratton and he was born on Jan. 4, 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His parents were first cousins. When he was born, he was a large baby—9 pounds 8 ounces-- and he developed normally for the first six months, but then he stopped growing at 25 inches high and 15 pounds.

By the time he was nearly five, he was still the same height and weight.

P.T. Barnum was a distant relative of the little boy and he contacted the child’s parents and said he would teach him to sing, dance, mime and impersonate famous people and would pay him $3.00 a week to appear in New York at “Barnum’s American Museum” on Broadway where several “giants” were already part of the show.

The boy was a quick learner and his tours, as he impersonated characters like Cupid and Napoleon Bonaparte, made him a huge success. (Barnum named him Tom Thumb after a character in English folklore. He claimed he had found him in Europe and brought him to the U.S. “at great expense.” He also said the five-year- old boy was actually 11. “Tom Thumb “ found himself drinking wine and smoking cigars before he was six.)

When the boy was six, Barnum took him on a tour of Europe and Tom appeared twice before Queen Victoria. She was enchanted. According to Barnum, the Queen took him by the hand and led him about the gallery of paintings and asked him many questions, “the answers to which kept the party of nobles in an uninterrupted strain of merriment.”

As they were leaving, the Queen’s poodle suddenly attacked the little man and Tom Thumb used his formal walking stick to fight off the dog, to everyone’s amusement.

The boy was an immense success in London and Barnum had a miniature carriage made to take him around.

On Feb. 10, 1863, when he was 25, Tom Thumb married Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, called Lavinia Warren. Matthew Brady photographed the wedding party, which included an even smaller best man, known as Commodore Nutt, and the bride’s tiny younger sister, Minnie Warren.

The wedding was front-page news. The streets between Grace Episcopal Church and the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway were completely jammed with onlookers. The couple stood on a grand piano to greet their 2,000 guests. After the wedding, they were received by President Lincoln at the White House.

In the late 1860’s the couple embarked on a three-year world tour that included Australia. Later they were photographed holding “their baby” which was one of several they borrowed for photos. They never had children and that was wise: in 1878 Lavinia’s tiny sister Minnie died in childbirth.

Stratton became a wealthy man with a house in New York another in Connecticut and his own yacht. When Barnum got into financial distress, the petite former employee bailed him out and they became business partners.

On January 10, 1883, Stratton and his wife were staying at the Newhall House in Milwaukee when one of the worst hotel fires in history broke out, killing more than 71 people, but Tom and Lavinia were saved by their manager. Six months later, Stratton died suddenly of a stroke. He was 45 years old and 3.3 feet tall. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral.

Two years later, Lavinia married a younger man, an Italian midget named Count Primo Magri. He and his brother and Lavinia formed the Lilliputian Opera company which toured and even appeared in some early motion pictures. Lavinia died in 1919 when she was 78.

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