Jan 24, 2014
New Book on Bridgeport's Gen. Tom Thumb Sheds Light on Celebrity in the 19th Century
Contrary to the opinion of those with exceedingly limited memories—or historical appreciation—America's first international celebrity was not Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley (and certainly not Justin Bieber). That distinction goes to Charles Stratton, aka Gen. Tom Thumb, a native of "Stratfield" (later incorporated as Bridgeport) and 25-inch-tall "little person" who began his celebrity tutelage under impresario P.T. Barnum at 5 years old. They became one of the most famous partnerships in entertainment history; Stratton would go on to give 20,000 public shows and perform in front of more than 50 million people, circlng the globe and visiting two dozen countries in the process. His popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere lasted for four decades, resulting in private meetings with both Queen Victoria and President Abraham Lincoln—and culminating in a lavish celebrity wedding that rivaled anything that's been cooked up by the Kardashians.
Last fall, the first full biography of this iconic entertainer was finally published: Eric D. Lehman's Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P.T. Barnum and the Dawn of American Celebrity (Wesleyan University Press; $28.95 Hardcover, $22.99 Ebook). Lehman—director of the creative writing program at the University of Bridgeport and author of The Insider's Guide to Connecticut and Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City—drew upon newly accessible primary sources to tell Stratton's story. Becoming Tom Thumb has since been chosen as a selection in Wesleyan University Press's Driftless Connecticut series, supported by the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving (read more about it here).
With Bridgeport's historic Barnum Museum going through the process of being "re-envisioned" in 2014, this seemed like a good time to talk to Lehman about the significance of Tom Thumb.
What kind of response have you gotten to the book?
So far, really good. I'm actually filming with the BBC this week. Last summer, this independent company that makes documentaries for the BBC pitched a project on a number of 19th-century people in England like the Elephant Man and Tom Thumb. And the BBC told them, "No, we just want to do Tom Thumb." So this company spent a couple of months fretting, "We don't have enough information about him; we're not sure what approach to take . . ." And then my book came out. So I've been talking with these guys for the last month now, and they're coming this week to film at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, and the Tom Thumb house in Middleborough, Mass. I get to help them and be interviewed by them. That'll be exciting, though I don't know when it will be out—perhaps next summer or fall.
Where does your fascination with Charles Stratton spring from?
When I first started teaching at the University of Bridgeport—I guess it was 15 years ago—I started reading biographies of Barnum. And of course, he's in those, and I thought, "Why has nobody ever written a biography of Tom Thumb himself?" I went and looked at the old ones in existence, and they were basically children's books. So I looked into it, and of course, there were no letters; there are only three letters extant by him. And he hadn't left any diaries or anything. So I thought, "Okay, well, it's hard to do a biography without the voice of the person. Then when I was doing my Bridgeport book in 2008, I just typed "General Tom Thumb" into one of these new databases, like America's Historical Newspapers, and thousands of hits came up. I looked through those and realized very quickly that there were interviews, features . . . and there was confirmation of the information about him that had been filtered through P.T. Barnum, whereas before you were never sure whether Barnum was making stuff up. There's confirmation for his incredible celebrity and tours around the United States. And there's firsthand accounts of him at various points. Anyway, a biography finally seemed totally possible. So when Wesleyan University Press called me up and said, "Do you have a project we can publish? We've read your other books and really like them," I said "yes."
What about him appealed to you, and sustained that desire to write a book?
He appealed to me as a marginalized figure, someone who had unfairly been left out of history. That always bothers me. But his personality appealed a lot to me as well: He just seems to be a genuinely good guy who's excited about traveling the world, being a celebrity—though, of course, he had occasional problems with that—but he just really seems to be fascinated with the world. I'm a traveler, I write travel pieces, so that appealed to me.
What were you most surprised to learn about him?
I was surprised to find how little prejudice there was against him. I was expecting to find more of that. I'd find the occasional newspaper article that called him names, and said that everyone's fascination with him is an indication of the low state of American culture. But really, not many. I did some digging, and really, a lot more of that kind of stuff happens after his death, to little people at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
Any insight as to why?
There could be a couple of reasons. One of them is that Darwin's theory of evolution was becoming very popular, and there was a lot of stuff toward the end of the 19th century revolving around fears of de-evolution, the "Jekyll and Hyde" kind of idea. There was a lot of focus on racial characteristics. So that could have been part of it.
Also, we had huge waves of immigration at that time in America. So anyone who was different, "The Other," was being looked at with suspicion.
It's interesting to think that perceptions shifted the way they did for the reasons you claim, because they seem to have remained persistently negative to this day. You look at the stories of little people now who are actors or entertainers, and they face the same prejudices as ever. One actor, Peter Dinklage from HBO's "Game of Thrones"—who's portrayed Gen. Tom Thumb—has been generally very successful, yet he's said that when he started out, the majority of parts he got offered had to do with playing elves in commercials or elsewhere.
Yes—and it's easy to ignore that struggle, too, because the numbers of little people in society are simply not as great as those of other marginalized groups.
What do you think the essence of his celebrity was? Why was he so successful?
What I found was that he was incredibly talented. He was a funny guy, with an apparently fascinating singing voice. But primarily, he was a comic. And I think, in part, lowered expectations were at work: You go in either expecting a "freak" or expecting to sympathize with him, feel sorry for him—then he comes out, and he's hilarious. So you think, "Omigod, this guy may be little—and that's why I came, 'cause that's a curiosity"—but then you leave amazed by how funny he is. That's what I found in every available diary account people wrote on him. He—and, at first, Barnum—used those lowered expectations to shock people into having a genuinely good time.
What would you say was the high point of his career?
He had several high points, but his wedding to Lavinia Warren was certainly one of them. Actually—as far as I can tell by looking at the accounting books—the period just before his wedding was his lowest point in popularity. He was not necessarily selling out houses any more at the end of the 1850s or beginning of the '60s. Then he got married in the wedding of the year in 1863 in New York, and from that point on he was riding high until his death. He sold out houses for 40 years. That was pretty amazing!
Do you ever ponder whether he would have been as successful had he been an average-sized person?
I think he might have been an entertainer, but I don't think he would have been as popular, no. Mostly because he was found by Barnum, and Barnum was already a pretty good promoter. I think he learned a lot from Barnum about advertising himself, which is how he maintained his popularity. He used all kinds of strategies, like taking a horse carriage and riding through every town before the show. Once you saw this litttle carriage driving through town you were bound to think, "What is this? I gotta see it!" So he never would have learned tricks like that had he not been a little person who earned Barnum's interest.
So, as much as Barnum exploited him, he also gave him the keys to the world.
Absolutely. And it was fascinating for me to look at these old letters the Barnum Museum has that no one else has used before. I really found that Barnum was in conflict with himself; he knew he was exploiting this kid. And he worried about Charles's health. So he was always second-guessing himself, saying, "Well, maybe we should stop touring England and France and just go home, because I don't want the boy to be damaged." And he developed a real affection for Stratton; he wrote all these letters home to his wife and daughters saying what a hilarious "rascal" he was. I think Charles saw him as a father figure as well. Charles had affection for Barnum the rest of his life, and always spoke kindly of him. We don't have any evidence that he felt resentment toward Barnum; he was always thankful.
Barnum was an intriguing character. On the one hand he was "Mr. Humbug," on the other, he seemed to have the best intentions—certainly as the mayor of Bridgeport.
He wanted to make people happy. He was against slavery; he was a temperance guy who wanted to get rid of the evils of drink. He was a social reformer as well as someone who just wanted to entertain.
Given all the useful sources you found, what was the biggest challenge of writing the book?
Lining everything up chronologically was the big one. There were holes—I had to make sure I knew what happened during certain years. I had to fill gaps and really research and find all the connections, what he was doing at certain times.
Beyond the documentary, what plans do you have to promote the book locally?
On Feb. 22, I'm at La Grua in Stonington, the new community center. I'm at the Branford Historical Society on April 2, and the Hamden Historical Society on April 16. Then, I'll be at Hartford's Old State House on July 15. That's it so far for Tom Thumb.
Well, given that I knew nothing about Tom Thumb—even that he was historically underrepresented—it was great discovering him through your eyes. It's a cool Connecticut story.
It sure is. I feel privileged to be the one to tell it; I just feel that I lucked out. You couldn't have written this book 20 years ago, because you didn't have access to the newspapers of the time that you now have through these Internet databases. I think that's going to change a lot of 19th-century scholarship, now that we have so many local newspapers that nobody's looked at. How could you have looked at them when they were only in some little historical society in every U.S. town? Everyone scans them in to this central source, and all of a sudden we have the motherlode.New Book on Bridgeport's Gen. Tom Thumb Sheds Light on Celebrity in the 19th Century