P.T. Barnum never passed up an opportunity to promote himself. So, when the top star in his showbiz empire, the midget performer Charles Stratton, announced plans to marry his fellow midget stage star Lavinia Warren in January 1863, Barnum celebrated the news by immediately starting a public-relations blitz.
The reading public’s celebrity mania and the media’s zeal to sell newspapers proved a huge boon for business to the attention-hungry Barnum. In return, the happy buzz which Barnum created for Stratton’s impending marriage provided war-weary Northerners a momentary diversion from the unrelenting march of bad news, even knocking war reports off the front pages for a while.
Barnum plucked Stratton, a poor carpenter’s son from Bridgeport, Conn., from obscurity at the age of 4 in 1842 because of his remarkable size. The boy’s growth had halted between the ages of 6 months and 9 years; he measured only 32 inches tall at the time of his death in 1883. Performing under the stage name General Tom Thumb, Stratton immediately hit it big with New York audiences at Barnum’s American Museum with his song and dance routines and costumed impersonations of Napoleon, Cupid and a Scottish Highlander. A European tour followed these early successes in 1844, during which he gave public appearances, as well as private command performances before European royalty, including a young Queen Victoria.
Over the next two decades, Stratton’s showbiz career made him one of the most famous and fabulously wealthy celebrities of his generation. Far from feeling exploited by Barnum, Stratton and his boss became fast friends, and later, he even partnered in business with the showman.
In January 1863, Barnum signed on a new performer, Lavinia Warren, a midget also 32 inches tall whom he billed as “The Little Queen of Beauty” and “The Smallest Woman Alive.” Stratton was immediately smitten, and within a matter of weeks, he popped the question.
Once the news hit the New York papers, attendance at Warren’s appearances at the museum became, in Barnum’s words, “crowded to suffocation.” Profits from ticket and memorabilia sales soared to over $3,000 a day for weeks, further enhanced as Barnum began selling $75 tickets for the wedding reception (he decided not to sell tickets to the ceremony itself).
Despite the breathlessly enthusiastic tone of media coverage, some onlookers openly cast suspicion on Barnum’s motives. “When Mr. Barnum brings the church and its solemn rites into his show business, he outrages public decency,” intoned The Brooklyn Eagle. “We are surprised that the clergy, or representatives of so respectable a body as the Episcopal Church should, for a moment, allow themselves to be used by this Yankee showman to advertise his business.”
The Rev. Morgan Dix agreed. Rector of the hoped-for wedding site, Trinity Parish in New York, he vetoed the plan, so wedding planners moved the event to Grace Church farther up Broadway instead.
On the eagerly awaited day — Feb. 10, 1863 — 2,000 invited guests, a who’s who of governors, business tycoons and generals, gathered in Grace Church, vastly outnumbered by the crowds waiting in the streets outside in hopes of catching a glimpse of the pair. Battalions of police officers lined the processional route along Broadway, which the city had closed to traffic for the duration of the event.
The wedding party’s arrival outside the church at half past noon touched off a stampede among combatants fighting for a close-up view. The police restrained them only with extreme exertion. Inside, “an instantaneous uprising ensued,” The New York Times reported the following day. “All looked, few saw. Many stood upon the seats, others stood upon stools placed on the seats. By many, good breeding was forgotten. By very many the sanctity of the occasion and the sacredness of the ceremonies were entirely ignored. As the little party toddled up the aisle, a sense of the ludicrous seemed to hit many a bump of fun, and irrepressible and unpleasantly audible giggles ran through the church.”
After the ceremony, the hordes chased the couple’s carriage on foot to the Metropolitan Hotel, the reception site, where there awaited a treasury of lavish jewelry, furs and fine watches from the likes of the Vanderbilts, the Astors, the Lincolns and even Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor and brother of future Lincoln assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Then it was time to hit the road, with stops in Philadelphia and finally Washington, where Abraham Lincoln hosted a reception at the White House for the Strattons, the president’s family and his cabinet.
Coming out to greet the couple, Lincoln shook hands with the two gingerly, almost as if he was afraid of breaking them. Lincoln told Stratton that he had been placed “completely in the shade,” for, since his arrival in the capital, Stratton had been “the greater center of attraction.”
As the president’s 9-year-old son Tad stood beside his mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, he gazed awestruck at the sight, saying quietly at last, “Mother, isn’t it funny that father is so tall, and Mr. and Mrs. Stratton are so little?” Lincoln, overhearing the remark, replied, “My boy, it is because Dame Nature sometimes delights in doing funny things. You need not seek for any other reason, for here you have the short and the long of it,” pointing to Stratton and himself.
The next day the Strattons and Benjamin Warren, brother of the bride and a soldier on leave from the 40th Massachusetts Regiment, toured an Army encampment on Arlington Heights across the Potomac. Long afterward , Lavinia Warren reminisced, “As we rode through the vast camp, we were greeted with cheers, throwing up of caps, and shouts from all sides, such as, ‘General, I saw you last down in Maine!’ — ‘I saw you in Boston!’ — ‘Three cheers for General Tom Thumb and his little wife!’ It seemed a joy to them to see a face which recalled to their minds memories of happy days at home.”
The marriage lasted until Stratton’s sudden death by stroke in 1883. Lavinia Warren soon remarried, and died in 1919.
Sources: The New York Times, Feb. 11, 1863; “Mrs. Tom Thumb’s Autobiography,” New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, Sept. 16, 1906; “Some Recollections: the Story of My Marriage and Honeymoon,” New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, Oct. 7, 1906; “Tom Thumb and His Wife,” Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 21, 1863; P.T. Barnum, The Life of P.T. Barnum”; The Brooklyn Eagle, Jan. 26, 1863; “Sketch Of The Life, Personal Appearance, Character And Manners Of Charles S. Stratton, The Man In Miniature, Known As General Tom Thumb, And His Wife, Lavinia Warren Stratton; Including The History Of Their Courtship And Marriage, With Some Account Of Remarkable Dwarfs, Giants, & Other Human Phenomena, Of Ancient And Modern Times, And Songs Given At Their Public Levees.”
By KEVIN MORROW
The original story in the NY Times was illustrated by an engraving owned by the Library of Congress depicting the Fairy Wedding. I’ll recap my collection of their photos here to provide better illustrations.