Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Barnum's Bridgeport, Heroes and Villains

Charles Stratton: Tom Thumb

By Eric D. Lehman

A healthy child of over nine pounds, Charles Stratton was born in 1838 in north Bridgeport to a carpenter and a waitress. However, a faulty pituitary gland kept his growth slow. At age four, he was only twenty-five inches high, and would not grow much more. In the 19th century, the future of someone like Charles might have been bleak. But that year his parents took their son to meet someone who would change his life forever: Phineas T. Barnum.

Barnum saw potential in this small but handsome boy. He taught Charles comedy routines, and soon the student eclipsed the master, with a flair for improvisation. Calling him “General Tom Thumb,” Barnum took Charles on tours of the United States. Curious people flocked to see this “man in miniature,” often expecting to pity him, and being thoroughly surprised by his humor and charm. Eventually, they toured Europe, where Charles’ impersonation of Napoleon became a cultural milestone, imitated for decades by less talented performers. “Tom Thumb’s” command performance for Queen Victoria gave Barnum years of publicity, and made them both very rich.

Charles came back to America, invested in real estate in the growing area of East Bridgeport, and built a house fitted to his unusual size at the north end of town. He even performed at the White House for President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Meanwhile, his employer, P.T. Barnum, hired a thirty-two-inch high woman named Lavinia Warren Bump, who had already achieved fame on her own as a performer. Charles fell in love immediately. He brought her on the ferry from New York to show her his wealth and power in Bridgeport. She was impressed, and agreed to be married. The wedding was the event of the year, photographed by Matthew Brady and featured in every magazine and newspaper in the nation.

The newly married couple went on a three-year “working honeymoon” around the world in which they acted their comic and dramatic routines in 587 cities in places like Australia to India. By the time they returned to Bridgeport, Charles Stratton had performed in front of more people than any other human in history before the invention of the television. He had become rich beyond his wildest dreams, happily sailing his yacht in Long Island Sound, breeding thoroughbreds, and meeting the most famous people of his time. This poor Bridgeport kid had taken what many had seen as a disadvantage and turned it into a remarkable achievement.

Many of the artifacts from Charles Stratton’s amazing career can be seen in Bridgeport today at the Barnum Museum.

Want to learn more about Charles Stratton? The Bridgeport History Center has the following materials available:

 Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City. By Eric D. Lehman. (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.)

General Tom Thumb and his Lady. By Merlie Romaine. (Taunton, MA: William S. Sullwold

Publishing, 1976.)

Eric Lehman
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport, and is the author of several books, including Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City; Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P.T. Barnum and the Dawn of American Celebrity; Afoot in Connecticut: Journeys in Natural History; and A History of Connecticut Wine; and ; A history of Connecticut food : a proud tradition of puddings, clambakes and steamed cheeseburgers. You may contact him at elehman@bridgeport.edu.