(First posted this exactly seven years ago--one of my first "Story Behind the Photo" essays that I hope will soon be collected into a book to be called "Sepia Shadows--The Stories Behind Historic Photos." Links to many more of these essays are in the list at right. Click on the photos to enlarge them)
Circus Freaks are having a moment.
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!”
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.
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,
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
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.
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.)
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.”
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
The boy was an immense success in London and Barnum had a miniature carriage made to take him around.
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.
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.
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.
For the third time in nine years I am in Oaxaca, Mexico for
the Carnival Workshop taught by my friend Mari Seder and her colleague Humberto
Batista.We are here to explore painting
and photography and to enjoy the unique Carnival celebrations in this part of
Last Tuesday, Feb. 28, we traveled to the village of San
Martine de Tilcajete where the carnival celebrations include a parade led by a
mock bride and groom (both men) who lead a noisy and ribald crowd through the
village followed by “Devils” and costumed celebrants and a brass band.
Usually the man who is dressed as the bride—a great honor—is
in his 30’s and plays the role comically.I’m told it began as an annual parody by the peasants of the richer classes and their behavior.The parade stops at
the Mayor’s house and involves lots of drinking and sharing of local gossip in
rhymed couplets. But this year the role of the bride was taken by a young boy
of 13, Zutiel Jimenez Ortega, who had caught the bouquet thrown by last year’s
For the first time I was at the home in the primitive cluster of stucco huts that make up his
family compound, along with about 20
other photographers, early enough to see the boy prepared by his family members for the
transformation into this all-important Carnival role.
Clearly he was nervous, scared, and reluctant to put on the
garb of the bride.I can’t
remember ever before crying while photographing a story, but seeing him/her
sitting on a bed surrounded by dolls and toys, all alone in this new persona,
brought me to tears.
His mother (in the turquoise top) came into the room to advise him and she proudly showed the photographers outside a photograph of the boy, four years before, (on the left) when he was only 8 and was one of the grease-covered "devils" who tagged along in the parade.
But as the morning progressed, after encouragement from
family and friends, the Carnival bride rose to the occasion and took her part at the head of
the parade with great élan.
The "mock wedding" is a tradition in many countries at Carnival, when roles are reversed and cross-dressing is encouraged. (Witness the two six-foot-tall cross-dressers below, with friends.) The bride role played by the boy here is not about homosexuality, but it is more poignant than usual, it seemed to me, because the person playing the starring role was at a threshold, considering with mixed feelings, the life that lay ahead of him as an adult.
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.