By Anne Farrow
He was rich, handsome and famous, she was considered a great beauty and their wedding was front page news around the nation. On February 10, 1863, at Grace Episcopal Church in New York City, Charles Stratton of Bridgeport married Lavinia Warren of Middleboro, Massachusetts.
The cover of Harper’s Weekly showed Mr. Stratton in a formal morning coat with tails and the new Mrs. Stratton in a full-skirted gown with a deep flounce of lace, lace sleeves, and a floor-length lace veil. The New York Herald noted that the huge crowd in the church was dotted here and there with policemen, making sure that order reigned. (The journalist covering the wedding extolled the silks, the laces, the gems, and the feathers of the guests.)
After the wedding benediction was pronounced, the 2,000 guests departed to the reception at the Metropolitan Hotel; entrance to the reception required a $75 ticket. Wedding gifts including furs, silver plate, and jewelry were displayed at the reception. To greet their guests, the bride and bridegroom stood on top of a grand piano. The bridegroom, better known as General Tom Thumb, was just under 36 inches tall, and his bride was about 30 inches tall. Their wedding was billed as “a fairy wedding,” perhaps because there was something magical, to the public, about these child-sized adults having an all-out celebrity wedding.
In an era when physical oddities and disabilities were considered “curiosities,” entrepreneur Phineas T. Barnum, America’s greatest showman, met Charles Stratton when the boy was five years old and two feet tall. He knew the kid was made for the sideshow. With the permission of Stratton’s parents, who traveled with their son, Barnum made Stratton a sensation in Europe and the United States.
Barnum billed Tom Thumb as “the smallest man alive,” and his performances singing, dancing, and impersonating famous people made him and Barnum rich. He lived in a mansion in Bridgeport that was designed for him and his parents–who were people of normal height–and met the crowned heads of Europe.
The Strattons went to Washington, DC, for their honeymoon and were received personally by President Abraham Lincoln. They toured Europe together, and Tom Thumb retired from the stage in 1878. They narrowly escaped a serious hotel fire in Milwaukee during the winter of 1883, and he died six months later, of a stroke, at 45. Their wedding gifts had included a lavish cradle, but Charles and Lavinia did not have children. She remarried another performer, also said to be a dwarf, and died in 1919. The Strattons are buried together in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport. On her stone it says, “His Wife.”
Anne Farrow is the co-author of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery and is at work on a new book about slavery to be published by Wesleyan University Press.