It’s been a very long time since I collected any additional CDVs. Perhaps a year or more. So I was overdue. Here is another one of my circus freaks (I’m using the period appropriate term for them, no disrespect meant to any little people who might find the term offensive): Admiral Dot, a contemporary and colleague of Tom Thumb. This is my third CDV of Admiral Dot, but the first one to have the photographer identified on the verso. The other two were from negatives sold to E & HT Anthony who then reproduced them with their own stamp, no other credit supplied.
I’m really starting to think of these circus performer CDVs as a subspecies of occupational image – they’re showing the performers in their stage attire, doing what they do to get paid. It’s not exactly the same thing as a cobbler with a leather apron, some awls and a shoe, or a cooper with a hammer, metal hoops and barrel staves, but nonetheless, they are enacting for the camera that which they do professionally.
Yet another in my collection of circus freaks from the late 19th Century. In this scan of the card I’ve deliberately tweaked the scan of the back of the card to make the imprinting more readable. You’ve got to love the fact that their ages were left blank, to be penciled in, but their height and weight were printed. It makes me very suspicious of all three figures – Victorian-era circuses were known for intentionally over/under-stating data to make their particular freaks seem all the more extreme as a draw to customers. “Barnum’s fat man weighed 325 lbs! Ours weighs 450!” when in reality Barnum’s fat man was 275 and theirs just breaks 280. Ditto for giants – many of the circus giants were described as being somewhere between seven and eight feet, when in fact they were a bit north of 6’6″. It would have been hard for the average Victorian to gauge, as they often were paired on stage with little people, and the average height in 1870 was around five feet six inches, as opposed to five feet 10 today, so someone standing six feet nine would have looked even taller. Tom Thumb’s height bounced around in official descriptions of the time as well, frequently knocking three to six inches off his actual height (at his passing at age 45, he was 3 feet 4 inches tall).
Frank Wendt was the successor to Charles Eisenmann, taking over Eisenmann’s studio in 1893 upon his death, and running it in New York City until 1898, when he moved to New Jersey. Wendt is best known for photographing circus freaks, but he also worked with the general theatrical trade and more mainstream portrait customers as well. For more information about Wendt, check out Frank Wendt Photographs: The Wondrous World of Frank Wendt
Here are the Thumbs, Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren in the outfits they wore when presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Given that the image was produced by E&HT Anthony, in all likelihood it was taken by Mathew Brady in New York upon their return to the US after meeting the Queen. The verso contains the usual “Compliments of …” facsimile signatures of the four subjects. This probably was commissioned by P.T. Barnum to sell at his American Museum.
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.”
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.
A newly arrived pair of circus midgets – Admiral Dot and General Cardenas. The Admiral Dot image is not in the best of condition, but it’s a different photo than the one I already have, and for some reason there are certain little people images that are much more expensive than others – Admiral Dot and Che Mah the Chinese Dwarf being two among them. I have yet to find a Che Mah in a condition I’d like to have it in for less than $150, and I’ve been outbid twice now on nice ones. Dudly Foster is another one that seems to command high prices for some reason.
Admiral Dot, was born Leopold Kahn in 1857(?). He was uncle of Samuel Kahn, “Major Atom”. In 1870, Phineas Taylor Barnum traveled with friends by train across the western United States. In San Francisco, a German named Gabriel Kahn offered the showman his dwarf son, Leopold. Barnum was quite taken with the little fellow, whom he said was “a dwarf more diminutive in stature than General Tom Thumb was when I found him.” Barnum promptly signed up Leopold under the new name of Admiral Dot, otherwise known as the the El Dorado Elf because he was such “a valuable nugget”.
As early as 1872, Barnum had already coined the phrase “The Greatest Show on Earth”, and now referrred to his circus as “P. T. Barnum’s Great Traveling World’s Fair”. At the time, Admiral Dot was touted as being sixteen years old, twenty-five inches tall, and a mere nineteen pounds. At least initially, Dot appeared on stage with his mother.
Admiral Dot’s career lasted for approximately the next twenty years, despite the fact that as he aged and grew taller he was soon eclipsed in size by smaller performers such as Major Atom, with whom he occasionally performed. Not one to rest on his laurels, Dot developed a stage persona that at one time saw him billed as “The Smallest Character Actor in the World”. During the 1880’s, Dot traveled with the Locke & Davis Royal Lilliputian Opera Company, which was populated by other famous little people such as the Magri Brothers and and Colonel Speck.
By the turn of the century, Leopold Kahn had settled in White Plains, New York, with his twenty-six-inch-tall wife Lottie Swartwood (a fellow performer in the opera company) and their two normal-sized children. Seeking respectability, Dot joined the Elks, sang with the town choir, and opened the Admiral Dot Hotel. The citizens of White Plains named the admiral honorary chief of the fire department, but unkindly referred to his business establishment as the Hotel Pee Wee (which, ironically, burned to the ground in 1911). Admiral Dot died of influenza in his home in White Plains on 28 October 1918, aged 54 years.
I couldn’t find any biographical references for General Cardenas – for all I know even the last name is fake and he was a Swede from Minneapolis and not hispanic at all. I’ll keep digging and see if I can find more about him. I did find a different photo of him on the Syracuse University online image library that looks like it was taken at the same time because his outfit is identical and the chair next to him appears the same, but its set in a faux-outdoors scene with a bunch of tufted grass around the chair.
I’ll include some of my other little people with faux-military titles for reference, starting with Major Atom.
My latest CDV of a circus sideshow midget. What was it with the circus and fake military ranks or titles? Major Houghton, Admiral Dot, Major Atom (although there’s a wee (pardon the pun) bit of irony in that one), Commodore Nutt, General Tom Thumb, Baron Littlefinger and Count Rosebud and just to name a few. Even when folks weren’t given fake titles, they often got dressed up in military-esque uniforms, like my photo of Landon Middlecoff, or some of the other giants I’ve seen.
Betcha thought I had quit collecting! Nah, it’s just in hiatus – makes for a good winter pastime when you’re cooped up in the house. But I found a couple more images that were interesting enough to add.
First up – another Tom Thumb and his Wife. I love this one not only because it shows them in their advancing years, but it demonstrates that they remained culturally relevant throughout their lives. I also love the handwritten notes on the back – in this case it gets things wrong about them (they were NOT 18th century performers, and I’m not aware that they were musicians – Tom Thumb’s main performance was as a comic impersonator, doing skits where he portrayed Napoleon and Cupid).
Here’s another circus performer pair – the hand-written label says “Gullie and Lottie Tarkinton”. I was unable to find any reference to who they were. They’re not listed on Olympians of the Sawdust Circle. I’m guessing they are sisters, perhaps even twins. The one is dressed and posed in a very masculine way, quite in contrast to the other, which is its own kind of interesting. And I’m a sucker for a photo that you can see the head clamp stands in.