Little People Big in York
Tom Thumb ad illustration makes him look really small.
I recently noted that people in York County have always seemed to turn out in droves for whatever entertainment came to town.
In May 1849 the biggest little sensation to hit the circuit appeared at the York County courthouse. He was none other than Tom Thumb, nicknamed “The Little General,” and being promoted by the fantastic showman P.T. Barnum.
The lengthy ad in the York Gazette described the little man as one “Who has been received with the highest marks of ROYAL favor by Queen Victoria, and all the principal Crowned Heads of Europe, and who has performed before 6,000,000 or persons during the last six years…”
See below for my recent York Sunday News column on the life of Tom Thumb and his appearances in York.
Tom Thumb Wowed Them in York
York County has always provided enthusiastic audiences for leading entertainers. Today they appear at the Strand-Capitol, the Eichelberger, Pullo Center or the York Fair. Long before that they appeared in a large public room at a local tavern or, if they were a really top act, at the courthouse.
General Tom Thumb was one of those big attractions. Tom Thumb, named after the old fairy tale about a lad the size of his mother’s thumb, was Charles S. Stratton (1838-1883), a Connecticut boy who stopped growing when he was about eighteen months old. The great showman, P. T. Barnum, got wind of this perfectly-proportioned little person and started exhibiting him, at age four, at Barnum’s American Museum. After a few years, Barnum whisked him off to Europe, where he was entertained and made much of by Queen Victoria and family as well as the King and Queen of France.
The royal aura added to his popularity upon their return to America. As he grew older, but not much bigger, crowds flocked to see “this eminent personage…this diminutive specimen of humanity…,” as the York Gazette put it when announcing his three-day appearance in York in May 1849. The paper predicted that many papas would have to come up some coins, because the local children “have all made up their minds that Tom Thumb they must and will see.”
A sizable illustrated ad in the same issue let Yorkers know that they would get their money’s worth when they came to the courthouse to view “This distinguished man in miniature; Weighing only 15 Pounds,–17 Years of Age,–and but 28 Inches High.” He was actually 11 years old at the time; the 17 in the ad could be a printer’s error or perhaps an exaggeration. Barnum was said to stretch the truth a bit.
The Little General would sing and dance for Yorkers. He would dress as Napoleon Bonaparte, Frederick the Great, in Scottish costume, and in his “elegant court dress.” By that time, according to the ad, he had appeared before all the crowned heads and nobility of Europe.
The presents and jewels given to him by those royals would also be exhibited. Britain’s monarch topped them all: “His Beautiful miniature equipage! Presented by Queen Victoria, consisting of the Smallest Horses in the World, and Chariot, attended by Elfin Coachman and Footman in Livery, will promenade the streets daily, and be seen in front of the hall at the close of each days Levee.”
The hours of exhibition at the courthouse were from three to five in the afternoon and from eight to half past nine in the evening, with doors opening half and hour earlier. Ladies, families and children were advised to attend during the day, when the “Levees” were less crowded. York artist Lewis Miller must have shelled out the 25 cents. He did a detailed illustration of town leaders gathered around Tom Thumb in the courthouse on the second day of exhibit. Children under ten, which the newspaper expected to come in droves, were admitted for half the adult fee.
The advertisement cautioned: “Some half a dozen different Dwarfs are strolling about the country, and imposing upon the public by falsely representing themselves as the “General Tom Thumb….” This was indeed the real thing, “attended by his Father and Mother, a Pianist Preceptor–Groom, Coachman, Footman, &c., making in all a retinue of Eleven Persons.”
In 1863 Stratton married Lavinia Warren, another talented little person showcased by Barnum. The huge, well-publicized wedding was staged at Grace Church in New York, and the happy couple took up the whole cover of the February 21, 1863 Harper’s Weekly. The Lincolns threw a party for the bride and groom at the White House when they visited on their honeymoon trip.
Stratton reportedly had started growing again, very slowly, in the late 1840s. He still never grew much taller than three feet high, and Lavinia was slightly shorter.
The couple toured for years, with Barnum and on their own. They reportedly became quite wealthy in their own right and even helped Barnum out when his fortunes reversed. Charles Stratton died in 1883 and is buried in his native Bridgeport, Conn. with Lavinia. The funeral was attended by thousands, and Barnum had the gravestone topped with a life-sized statue of the little man. Phineas Taylor Barnum, who is said to have been a distant relative of Stratton, was also a Bridgeport resident, and he is buried in the same cemetery.
The Strattons had a home at Middleborough, Mass., and many of their belongings are on exhibit at the small Middleborough Historical Society. You can also see a display on Tom Thumb at the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Fla.
It is not certain how many times Tom Thumb and his retinue appeared in York, but they did come back. On the last day of December in 1867, nearly twenty years after the appearance described above, the Gazette reported:
“The Tom Thumb Troupe gave two levees at Washington Hall on Friday last, and notwithstanding the rain, both were crowded to repletion. We never saw a greater crowd in the hall than the one in attendance at the evening levee.”
I’ll bet a lot of today’s performers would love to have that kind of long-lasting popularity.
Lewis Miller drawing of Tom Thumb in the York County courthouse in 1849.
Click here to read about an earlier short person’s appearance in York.
Click on the links below for more on York entertainments.
York Fair in the past.
Famous musician likes Weaver pianos.
Fun and fundraising.
Fossils of what?