Charles Sherwood Stratton began touring with the legendary showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, when he was only five. Quick on his feet with a flawless sense of comedic timing , Stratton could sing and dance with the best of performers.
He was one of the great entertainers of the age and you probably know him even today though not perhaps, by his given name. He was “General Tom Thumb”, a giant among those who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and yet, a man who barely stood 2-feet 10-inches tall, on his 21st birthday.
Apologies to the bard for that one.
Born in 1838 in Bridgeport Connecticut, Tom Thumb was not only a celebrity in the United States but an international star following a European tour in which he personally met several heads of state, including Britain’s Queen Victoria.
The French couldn’t get enough of “Charley’s” impersonation of Napoleon Bonaparte and all across Europe, ladies lined up for blocks for a kiss from the diminutive superstar.
Fun Fact: One of the best known of all time among “little people” Tom Thumb was a hefty 9 pounds 8 ounces at birth. He stopped growing at six months. Over a long career some 50 million the world over came to see Tom Thumb at a time the world population stood at only 1.2 billion.
Today some 30,000 Americans are dwarfs with an estimated 651,700, the world over. The term is generally preferred over “dwarves”, a word hearkening back to the fictional dwarves of J.R.R. Tolkien and the legend, of Snow White. Harriet Beecher Stowe used the term “midget” during the 19th century, a term now considered offensive calling forth as it does impressions of a tiny, biting insect.
The term dwarf stems from the Old English dweorg referring to the mountain dwelling dwarfs of Norse mythology, beings associated with wisdom, metal smithing, mining the earth and handicrafts.
In Sanskrit the term Vāmana refers to one small or short in stature and also the 5th alter ego or “avatar” of the Lord Vishnu, appearing in no fewer than nine chapters of the Bhagavat Purana, one of eighteen Great Texts of all the Hindus.
Entire books could (and should) be written of the mythological “little people” of Native American legend. In the northeast, Delaware and Wampanoag folklore tells of diminutive imps known as the Pukwudgie, translating as “little wild man of the woods that vanishes”. Lewis and Clark expedition notes tell of “spirit mounds” inhabited by fierce little “devils” only 18-inches tall. So ferocious are these little people Lakota folklore tells of 350 warriors once wiped out to the last man, for getting too close to one of their mounds. The Cherokee people originally inhabiting northeast Georgia and Alabama to western South Carolina tell of the “Yunwi Tsunsdi”, a race “hardly reaching up to a man’s knee, but well-shaped and handsome, with long hair falling almost to the ground” escorting their people, along the notorious ‘Trail of Tears”.
Seneb was a high ranking official in the ancient court of the Old Kingdom of Egypt (ca 2,520BC) and a “little person”, married to the High Priestess Senetites, a normal sized woman with whom he fathered three children. Seneb’s wealth included cattle by the tens of thousands and no fewer than twenty, palaces.
Some 70% of dwarfs attribute their short stature to the genetic disorder achondroplasia. Most of the remainder result from growth hormone disorders.
One of the most unlikely stories of World War 2 involved the “Seven Dwarves of Auschwitz“, the Ovitz siblings who fell into the malevolent hands of the “Angel of Darkness” Josef Mengele himself and yet, lived to tell the tale.
Physically, dwarfs face any number of challenges and yet, to look up the subject on Johns Hopkins’ website is to learn that dwarfism is not an intellectual disability, nor is it a “disease” which requires a “cure”. Most people with dwarfism have normal intelligence and go on to live long, productive and fulfilling lives.
In 1861 the United States broke in two resulting in Civil War, a conflict so dreadful as to destroy the lives of more Americans than every war from the French and Indian Wars to the War on Terror, combined. We all grew up learning of a death toll in the neighborhood of 632,000, in a nation of only 31 million according to the census, of 1860. Modern investigations of census data reveal much higher death tolls ranging from 650,000 to 850,000 killed. Many historians now settle on the middle figure, of 750,000.
Applied in proportion to the US population in 2012 such a butcher’s bill would reach an astonishing, 7.5 million.
The modern imagination can barely conceive of a such a calamity and yet, the New York Times pushed the thing off the front page for three days straight to cover the wedding, of Tom Thumb.
A pretty dwarf woman called Lavinia Warren joined the circus in 1862, romantically pursued by another Little Person and fellow Barnum performer, “Commodore Nutt”. From the moment the two met Lavinia only had eyes for Stratton and for him, the feeling was cordially mutual. The two were married on February 10, 1863 in the social event, of the season.
New York society clamored to get into the “fairy wedding”, an extravagant affair at Grace Episcopal Church followed by a reception at the Metropolitan Hotel. Never one to let a good business opportunity go to waste admission to the wedding was free, the reception open to the first 5,000 guests who ponied up $75 apiece where the happy couple greeted guests from atop a grand piano.
Today the term “freak show” is downright cringeworthy to our ears as well it should but in ages past, such performers lived a range of experience. Some endured lives of humiliation, cruelty and misery while others became celebrities earning more money than anyone in the audience. Some earned even more than their own promoters.
Tom Thumb was one of those whose wealth was such that he once bailed out Barnum himself, when the great showman got into financial trouble.
Jack Earle once joined Ringling Brothers circus as the world’s tallest man with a reputed stature, of 8’6″ tall. Apprehensive at first about joining a “freak show”, Clarence Chesterfield Howerton better known as “Major Mite”, had the last word. Standing all of 2-feet 2-inches in his bare feet Howerton told the gentle giant, there are “more freaks in the audience than there are on stage”.
Once a Blood gang member who served ten years, ten months and ten days in Folsom prison, Luigi “Shorty” Rossi turned his life around to found “Shortywood Productions”, to provide career opportunities for his fellow little people in the world, of entertainment. Rossi himself is the star of cable TV’s Animal Planet’s series “Pit Boss” and the founder of Shorty’s Pitbull Rescue, an organization performing rescue, rehabilitation and adoption for abused and neglected pitbulls.
Ex-con or not…anyone who puts that much heart into caring for animals, is alright with me.