Born in 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, legendary entertainer Charles Sherwood Stratton, a.k.a. “Tom Thumb,” began touring with internationally famous showman and fellow Connectican P. T. Barnum at the tender age of five. Stratton had first attracted Barnum’s attention because of his unusually small size; he had dwarfism and never grew taller than 42 inches in adulthood. Barnum was delighted to discover that the diminutive boy was also remarkably clever and proved to be a brilliant entertainer. With Barnum as his promoter, Stratton, using the stage name “General Tom Thumb,” acquired an international reputation as an extraordinarily captivating performer with talents for acting, singing, and improvising comedic routines on stage. At first a celebrity in the United States, Stratton’s international stardom followed a European tour in the 1850s during which he met several heads of state, including Queen Victoria.
Given Thumb’s Barnum-engineered A-list celebrity status, it is not surprising that when he decided to tie the knot with fellow little person Lavinia Warren in 1863, Barnum couldn’t resist promoting their wedding as the event of a lifetime. The nonstop coverage of what was called “The Fairy Wedding” between “General Tom Thumb” and his bride, “The Queen of Beauty,” was so extensive, it pushed news of the ongoing American Civil War off the front pages of the New York Times for three full days. Newspapers across the country breathlessly reported every last detail of the matrimonial preparations, publishing articles about Lavinia’s satin wedding gown, the wedding party (all composed of little people), and the couple’s scheduled European honeymoon.
On February 10, 1863, Charles Stratton wed Lavinia Warren before thousands at the cathedral-like Grace Episcopal Church in downtown New York City, in what was undoubtedly the biggest celebrity wedding of the decade. After the service, the newlyweds hosted a lavish reception at the nearby Metropolitan Hotel, where they stood atop a grand piano to greet their many well-wishers – most of whom paid $75 a head (over $2,000 in today’s money) to attend. Afterward, the couple were welcomed to a special reception at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln before leaving on their honeymoon.
By all accounts, the Strattons’ marriage proved a happy one. Their status as international celebrities enabled “Tom” and Lavinia to live a very comfortable life by 19th century – or any century’s, for that matter – standards. They owned multiple homes, a yacht, and even one of Connecticut’s Thimble Islands. Their close and affectionate partnership was cut short only by the renowned performer’s untimely death in 1883, 20 years after their celebrated mid-Civil War wedding.
A very big day for one of P. T. Barnum’s smallest — and most beloved — performers, today in Connecticut history.
“General Tom Thumb and the ‘Fairy Wedding’,” The Barnum Museum
Anne Farrow, “Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren Wed,” connecticuthistory.org