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“The Best Known Little Folks”

P. T. Barnum and Tom Thumb wedding party, 1863; Tom Thumb wedding, Bowling Green, 1905

P. T. Barnum and Tom Thumb wedding party, 1863; Tom Thumb wedding, Bowling Green, 1905

Born in 1838 in Connecticut, Charles Sherwood Stratton stopped growing at about 6 months of age.  He had what today is termed proportionate dwarfism; that is, he was normal and healthy except for his exceptionally diminutive stature.  Although he experienced minor growth spurts later in life, he was a mere 3 feet 4 inches tall at his death in 1883.

Under the tutelage of master showman P.T. Barnum, Stratton turned his natural talents into a show business career that brought him wealth and worldwide celebrity.  Beginning at age 5, he travelled the U.S., Europe and Australia as “General Tom Thumb,” delighting the public with songs, dances and impersonations.  For his 1844 tour of Europe, Barnum introduced a hugely popular accessory: a small carriage, drawn by miniature ponies.

Collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library show that, like audiences everywhere, Kentuckians were fascinated when the “fabulous midget” (a term now considered pejorative) came to their town.  In an 1850 letter to his wife, William K. Wall of Harrison County asked her to tell his son Dick that he had seen Tom Thumb and his scaled-down conveyance: “He is 18 years old, 2 feet 4 inches high & weights 15 pounds,” wrote Wall (Barnum had added several years to his star’s age).  “His carriage body is about as big as a corn basket and carriage horses the size of sheep and his driver not larger than Dick.”  In 1853, 10-year-old Lizzie Edmunds wrote her grandmother from Princeton, Kentucky about her introduction to the little General: “he is only eighteen inches high and is very pretty, he kissed me and [another] little girl; I saw his little carriage and two little black horses about the size of a dog.”

In 1863, Tom Thumb further captivated the nation when he married Lavinia Warren, a 2-foot-8-inch-tall Barnum troupe member and former schoolteacher, in a lavish ceremony capped by a reception at the Lincoln White House.  Their marriage inspired the phenomenon of “Tom Thumb weddings”–mock nuptials, often to raise money for charity, in which children played all the roles.  One such event took place in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1905, when young Margie Mitchell “wed” Jessie Sweitzer before a large crowd at the Southern Normal School’s Vanmeter Hall.  Whether or not these toddlers behaved as well as their role models, the “best known little folks of the city,” as the local paper termed them, were given a chance to experience the unique fame of General and Mrs. Tom Thumb.

Click on the links to access finding aids for the relevant collections.  For more of our collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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