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Mrs. Tom Thumb's Autobiography

Creator: Lavinia Warren (author)
Date: September 16, 1906
Publication: New York Tribune Sunday Magazine
Source: Available at selected libraries


Lavinia Warren (1841-1919) wrote a series of five autobiographical articles for the New York Tribune Sunday Magazine that appeared between September and December, 1906. They illustrate her clear and distinct voice and her deft writing style. She also borrows from newspaper accounts and from Barnum's various autobiographies. In the first of the articles, presented here, she relates her family background, her introduction to the entertainment world, and her wedding to Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) in 1863.

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I have felt that my public life and experiences have been so varied and in a sense unusual, my travel so extensive, embracing Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and America, my association with many of the most prominent personages in this and foreign countries so intimate, and my career so full of incident, that my autobiography might be both interesting and amusing.


It has been asserted of General Tom Thumb, that he has kissed more women than any living man. I can with equal assurance assert that I have shaken hands with more human beings, royal and plebian, rich and poor, great and small, old and young, native and foreign, than any other woman in existence. I do not say this boastfully, but only to show how large has been my experience for the years I have been before the public.


I have endeavored to adhere strictly to facts, and if the personal pronoun appears rather prominently, it is to be remembered that in telling one's own story that seems necessary.


To begin my story after the conventional manner, with my ancestry, I trace my pedigree directly back through Richard Warren of the Mayflower company, to William, Earl of Warren, who married Gundreda, daughter of William the Conqueror. He died in England in 1088, which is as far back as I have traced my ancestry; but I fancy this is sufficient to prove my English and American nationality.


My maiden name was Lavinia Warren, and I was born October 31, 1841, on the old Warren farm in the town of Middleboro, Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Had I possessed the power, I would not have chosen any other place wherein to make my first appearance on the globe to anxious and admiring attendants. The atmosphere pervading the localities made famous in our country's history no doubt imparted to me many characteristics, among them my intense patriotism. My entrance into the family circle had been preceded by two male and two female children, and was followed by two male and one female, all of whom were above the ordinary stature, except the youngest, named Minnie, born June 2, 1849.

Parents of Large Stature

She was the same stature as myself, and after my marriage accompanied me on my trip around the world and shared most of my experiences until the time of her death, July 23, 1878. My father was nearly six feet tall, and my mother was termed a large woman. They have both passed on before me. Their lives were proverbial for a high standard of integrity, morality and charity. I cannot better express my estimate of their character than to say that they faithfully fulfilled the "two great commandments, upon which hang all the law and the prophets."


Both of my parents for fifty years were consistent members of the Church upon the Green, over which presided the Rev. Dr. I. W. Putnam. All of the family were expected to attend the divine service every Sunday morning, and no persons were prouder of their children than my parents when we were all seated with demure mien in the large family pew.


The younger children were compelled to attend the Sabbath school at the conclusion of the church service. I mention this fact as a matter of information for those of my readers who may have entertained the opinion that I had not received a proper religious training in my youth.


To return to my infancy, when the ceremony of weighing the baby was completed, it was announced that I tipped the scales at six pounds. Until I was a year old, I was of the usual size, from that time, I increased in stature very slowly, not growing in five years so much as an ordinary child would in one. I continued growing at that rate until I was ten years of age, and then ceased entirely. At that time I was twenty-four inches in height and weighed twenty pounds. I attended school with other children in our neighborhood, and found no difficulty whatever in keeping up with them in my studies at home, my dear mother taught me to sew, knit, cook, and do all manner of housework, so that I really became an excellent housekeeper. To overcome the inconvenience of my diminutive stature, my father constructed for my use a pair of light portable steps, which I could readily handle, and standing upon which I could easily reach the topmost shelves in the closets.

Pranks of the Little Woman

I WENT to school like other girls, and being fond of fun and mischief, my size gave me a peculiar advantage in this respect. One of my usual pranks was to run about under the desk and administer surreptitious pinches to the unconscious children, causing them to scream out.


It is to be remembered that in country school houses of that day there was one continuous desk around the side of the room against the wall, and, my size enabling me to walk readily under it, I could make the circuit of the room without coming out from under cover. The teacher, Mr. Dunbar, knew at once the cause of the uneasiness and outcry, and would promptly start in pursuit, but I had the advantage, for I could readily see him and easily dodge, while he had as much difficulty in locating me as if he was It in a game of hunt the slipper.

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Watching my opportunity, I would dart back to my seat, and when he rose, red and panting from an ineffectual search under the desk, he would find me demurely poring over my lesson as if I had never had a thought outside my book.


Here my size again served me. The teacher being a great strong man, his instinctive chivalry wouldn't let him strike a feminine mite like myself, and in desperation he would exclaim, "What shall I do with you? Shall I shut you up in my overshoe?" He had enormous feet. "What does your mother do to punish you -- does she set you on top of the sugar bowl, and make you wipe the dishes?"


For the time being I was conquered, for any allusion to my abnormal size always caused me great embarrassment, and the helpless man had really no other weapon to turn on me. Later, when a teacher myself, I appreciated his position, but my repentance came too late to be of any benefit to him.


When I was sixteen years of age, the district school had become so large it was decided to divide it and form a primary department, consisting of pupils between the ages of four and nine years. The school committee waited upon my parents, and through them offered me the position of teacher. I accepted, and at the reopening of the school was duly installed in my new undertaking. I was very zealous in my duty, and at the end of the term received the commendation and thanks of the committee for the excellent discipline I maintained, as well as the progress made by the pupils under my tuition. The youngest even was far above me in stature, yet all seemed anxious to be obedient and to please me. When I had occasion to reprimand, it would be received with meekness and repentance. I thought I had now found a proper and genial vocation, but during the subsequent vacation an event occurred which entirely changed the tenor of my life.


The idea of a career as a public character had never occurred to me or my family. It was suggested that summer by a cousin who came to visit us from the West. He was the manager of a museum, a "floating palace of curiosities" on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The prospect of travel, the going "out West," as we then called it, made me eager to return with him. I added my entreaties to his, when he broached the subject to my parents and begged to be allowed to go. After a rather stormy family session during which my eldest brother declared that if I went he would leave the house forever, my parents gave a reluctant consent, binding Mr. Wood by solemn promise to keep me under his personal supervision and cousinly care.

A Floating Theater

My cousin owned a floating theater, minstrel hall, and museum combined, upon one large boat, which was towed by a smaller steamer wherever it was desirable. These steamboats, being flat bottomed, all their machinery is on the lower deck, and thus the saloon above reaches the whole length of the boat, from bow to stern.


On our first trip up the Mississippi, we stopped at Galena and remained there for three days, and there I first had the pleasure of meeting General Grant. He was then a private citizen in business in the town. He came to the museum, having read a description of me published in the press of the places we had visited. He became much interested and conversed with me for some time and, having purchased my photograph, asked me to put my autograph upon it, which I did.


The next day he returned with his family and introduced them to me. They would not enter the performing hall, but remained conversing with me, departing with expressions of pleasure at our meeting and many good wishes for my welfare. I afterward met the General while in active service during the Civil War, and also when he was President.


In the fall of 1860, during the presidential campaign, I met Stephen A. Douglas at Montgomery, Alabama, where he made a formal call upon me. Shortly afterward we met again at Selma. He sent his card to me, and I received him in my reception room at the hotel. He expressed great pleasure at again seeing me, and, as I stood before him, he took my hand and, drawing me toward him, stooped to kiss me. I instinctively drew back, feeling my face suffused with blushes.


It seemed impossible to make people understand at first that I was not a child; that, being a woman, I had the womanly instinct of shrinking from a form of familiarity which in the case of a child of my size would have been as natural as it was permissible. With the quick perception that was a part of his nature, Mr. Douglas understood, and laughing heartily, he said, with a merry twinkle in the eye, "I am often called the 'Little Giant,' but if I am a giant, I am not necessarily an ogre and will not eat you, although you almost tempt me to do so." After a pleasant chat, he took his leave with many good wishes for my prosperity and happiness, and that I might never again be frightened by a giant.


It was in the autumn of 1862 that my association with Mr. Barnum began. He had heard of me through the Western and Southern press and also having received vebal accounts from those who had seen and conversed with me, and thinking there was a possible opportunity of duplicating the great pecuniary success which had attended his introduction to the public of the famous General Tom Thumb, sent an agent to Middleboro to see and interview me. Later he sent him to my home to open negotiations with my parents for my appearance at his museum, corner of Broadway and Ann-st., New York, to be followed by a tour of Europe.

Objected to Being a Humbug

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My parents and family favored the new road presented for me to follow, the only deterring obstacle being an erroneous impression of the character of Mr. Barnum, whom they looked upon as an arrant humbug. They thought he would do something to make the public believe that there was some deception in me -- that I would be looked upon as another of Barnum's humbugs.


Mr. Barnum finally sent an invitation to us to visit him at Bridgeport, and in his own home gave my family satisfactory assurances of his good faith.


I little thought when we accepted that invitation how many important events would quickly follow and be crowded into my life's history, one of the most important and least anticipated being my marriage, almost at the opening of my career. I had heard of General Tom Thumb, and had seen him once, but knew nothing of his character, reputation, and fame.


After a brief visit to Boston I returned to New York, where I held levees for three or four weeks. I arrived at the Fifth Avenue Hotel on December 30, 1862, and the next day received New Year calls. Among my callers were many who afterward became famous, among them Generals McClellan, Burnside, Rosecrans, and McPherson. Other callers were the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and others of the "Four Hundred," though that term had not then come into general use, and very surely the number of my callers was not limited by that fanciful term.


My reception by the press and the public of New York was all but overwhelming. The leading daily papers devoted a great deal of space to my appearance, and described me in most flattering terms. I will quote only one the many notices of the day.


The New York Tribune of December 23, 1862, said:


Yesterday we saw a very pretty and intelligent little lady at the St. Nicholas Hotel in this city. This woman in miniature is twenty-one years of age, weighs twenty-nine pounds, and measures thirty-two inches in height. She enjoys excellent health, has symmetrical form, and a perfect physical development. She has a full, round, dimpled face, and her fine black eyes fairly sparkly when she becomes interested in conversation. She moves about the drawing room with the grace and dignity of a queen, and yet she is entirely devoid of affectation, is modest and lady-like in her deportment. Her voice is soft and sweet, and she sings excellently well. This charming little woman was born in Middleboro, Plymouth County, Massachusetts. Her parents are of ordinary size and stature. Miss Warren dresses richly and with exquisite taste. She is receiving, in her private parlor, visits from some of the most prominent families in this city.


It is probable that many people have regarded my marriage with General Tom Thumb as a purely professional and mercenary arrangement. Concerning this, let me quote Mr. Barnum:


"At the time I engaged Miss Warren, General Tom Thumb had no engagement with me, and in fact he was taking a vacation at his home in Bridgeport. Whenever he came to New York, he naturally called upon his old friend at the museum. While Lavinia was giving her levees, the General came to the city, and was at the museum daily; of course they had many opportunities of being in each other's company. One day he said to me:

General's Desire for Domesticity

'You have always been a friend of mine, and I want you to say a good word for me to Miss Warren. I have plenty of money, and want to settle down in life.' I told the General that this was too sudden an affair; that he must take time to think of it; but he insisted that years of thought would make no difference, for his mind was fully made up.


"'Well, General,' I replied, 'I will not oppose you in your suit, but you must do your own courting. Miss Warren is no fool, and you will have to proceed very cautiously, if you can succeed in winning her affections.' The General thanked me and promised to be very discreet. At his request, I invited Lavinia to accompany me to Bridgeport the following Saturday, and remain until Monday.


"The General met us at the depot in Bridgeport, and drove us to my house in his own carriage. After visiting awhile at 'Lindencroft,' my residence, he took Lavinia out for a ride, stopping at his mother's house. She there saw the apartment which his father had built expressly for him, and filled with the most beautiful furniture, all corresponding to his diminutive size. (I am still using the same furniture in my own home.) Then he took her to East Bridgeport, and no doubt pointed out in detail all the houses he and I owned. They returned to lunch. I asked her how she like her ride, and she replied, 'It was very pleasant; but it seems as if you and Tom Thumb owned about all of Bridgeport.' The General returned with his mother at five o'clock for dinner.


"The next evening, Sunday, the General called, and after spending a pleasant half hour asked me to step into another room, and there announced under promise of secrecy for the present his engagement to Miss Warren. The next morning he brought a very nicely written letter which he wished to send to Lavinia's mother. He deputed his friend Mr. George A. Wells to be the bearer and receive the reply. On Wednesday, Mr. Wells returned, saying that at first Mrs. Warren objected, for she feared it was a contrivance to get her daughter married for the promotion of some pecuniary advantage to me, but hearing from Mr. Wells that in case of the marriage he would cancel all claim upon her daughter's services, Mrs. Warren consented."

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In 1861, Mr. Barnum had engaged a bright, intelligent little man named George Washington Morrison Nutt. He named him Commodore Nutt, and exhibited him in the museum as the "$30,000 Nutt." During my levees at the museum, Mr. Barnum, learning that my sister, Minnie, seven years my junior, was also of diminutive stature, induced me to send for her. My parents brought her to the city, and Mr. Barnum, greatly pleased with the beauty of her sweet face and faultless form, immediately made a proposition for her engagement, to which my parents were willing to accede, as she would be under my care and supervision. The idea had presented itself to Mr. Barnum that by reengaging General Tom Thumb, he would be enabled, as he expressed it, "to present to the public a quartet of the most wonderful, intelligent, and perfectly formed ladies and gentlemen in miniature the world ever produced."

Lilliputians as Wedding Attendants

This idea was carried out after my marriage; and as a preliminary that the public might have a glimpse of us together, when arrangements were made for the wedding, Minnie was chosen as bridesmaid, and the Commodore as groomsman.


I will now return to the events prior to the marriage, again quoting Mr. Barnum. "Of course, when the approaching marriage was announced, it created an immense excitement. Lavinia's levees at the museum were crowded to suffocation, and her photographs were in great demand. For several weeks she sold more than three hundred dollars' worth of her cartes-de-visite daily, and the receipts at the museum were over three thousand dollars a day. I engaged the General to exhibit and assist her in the sale of her photographs, to which his own picture was added. I could therefore afford to give them a fine weeding, and did so."


Mr. Barnum frankly confesses that the questions asked and the opposition raised in some quarters to this marriage became a source of pecuniary benefit to him, by giving it such publicity that it increased the crowds at the museum, and that because this, which irreverent people might call free advertising, he tried to defer the marriage, and that he offer Mr. Stratton and myself fifteen thousand dollars to postpone our marriage for one month and continue the exhibitions at the museum.


As the General and myself were expecting to marry each other, and not Mr. Barnum, and as, moreover, we were neither of us marrying for money, we did not quite see that a money offer was any part of the business; so we declined.


Mr. Barnum further says that he had many applications for tickets of admission to the church to witness the ceremony, some offering as high as sixty dollars; but he refused it, and not a single ticket was sold. Everybody in the church came by invitation, and thus the ceremony was conducted as would be any marriage of people less before the public. Whatever Mr. Barnum's peculiarities, he would not violate the wishes of friends, or the sanctities of a church ceremony.

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