June 19, 2024 | Alicia B.

Larger-Than-Life Facts About Charles Stratton, General Tom Thumb 

Charles Stratton—or General Tom Thumb to his fans around the world—was an American showman legendary for his small stature and command of the stage. Charles isn’t just history’s most famous little person, he’s also one of the earliest American celebrities. While he was physically small, he lived a life of a hundred men.

1. His Parents Weren’t Like Him

Charles Stratton didn’t inherit his height from his mama or papa! Turns out, both of his parents were of average stature. They were, however, first cousins. His father, Sherwood Edward Stratton, was a carpenter while his mother, Cynthia Thompson, was a cleaner. The humble couple was no stranger to life's curveballs, but after they welcomed their son, they experienced their biggest surprise yet.

charles stratton

2. He Gave Them A Scare

When Charles was born on January 4, 1838, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He was even considered a large baby. But by his first birthday, the Strattons realized something was seriously wrong: Charles hadn’t grown in six months. '

At this point, he was only 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds. They raced him to the doctor, fearing the worst.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

3. His Parents Received Bad News

The doctor confirmed their fears: It was unlikely that Charles would ever reach adult height. But luckily, there was a silver lining. His body was proportionate and healthy and—size aside—he was a normal child. Still, his parents couldn’t help but worry. After all, how would their little boy be able to thrive in a world that was too big for him?

Luckily, word of Charles reached a legend’s ears—and his life would never be the same again.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons, https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0007333.html

4. He Caught A Legend’s Eye

When Phineas T Barnum heard about a tiny child in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the greatest showman knew he had to meet this kid. After tracking Charles down, Phineas knew he knew he’d hit the jackpot.

He begged the Strattons for their permission to exhibit their four-year-old in New York City, alongside adults with unusual features. When his parents agreed, the businessman was ecstatic and determined to turn this little boy into a huge star. No matter what.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

5. He Learned Skills of the Trade

Most four-year-olds are just learning how to read and write—but our Charles was no ordinary kid. Instead of going to a normal school, he learned everything he’d need to be a star. This included singing, dancing, miming, and even impersonating famous people.

Now with the tools of the trade under his belt, Charles needed a shiny, marketable identity, and Phineas had a perfect idea.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

6. He Got An Interesting Nickname

Charles Stratton is a perfectly fine name, but it was missing that star quality—at least according to Phineas. But the showman came up with the stage name General Tom Thumb. Basically, he "borrowed" from English folklore.

Tom Thumb was a character (who might’ve even been a real little person) who was the size of his father’s thumb and got into all kinds of shenanigans. Phineas still wasn’t satisfied: a new name wasn’t enough. However, this time, the showman might’ve taken it too far.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

7. He Got a New Identity

A silly nickname was child’s play compared to what Phineas did next. The showman invented an identity for Charles. He was no longer Charles Stratton, a four-year-old from Connecticut. To audiences, he was an 11-year-old from England. Even worse, Cynthia (Charles’ mom) had no idea until it was too late.

She was furious...until the act became a hit, and money started rolling in. But General Tom Thumb wasn’t just successful because of his backstory or size; Charles had something most of us can only dream of.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

8. He Was Genuinely Talented

Most of us would be lucky to be an amazing actor, singer, dancer, or comedian. But Charles was good at everything all at once. He wasn’t just a living exhibit to gawk at all. He genuinely entertained audiences. His undeniable talents and refusal to be just a "freak" to stare at changed everything.

Thanks to him, live entertainment would never be the same.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

9. He Changed The Game

It didn’t take long for little Charles to make a big impact. His earliest performances in New York and first national tour (all at only five years old) were turning points in "freak show" entertainment. Thanks to General Tom Thumb, it became one of the most popular types of entertainment. But this success came with a weird problem.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons,https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/23/74/d11fdfbc86f480c46ae23dda3238.jpg

10. He Had Copycats

Phineas and Charles’ competitors saw their success (and mountains of money), and they wanted a slice of this ever-growing pie. Their rivals came out with an imitation of General Tom Thumb. It got so bad that newspapers put out warnings about these wannabes.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but Phineas and Charles probably didn’t feel this way since these copycats cut into their bottom line. But they had bigger goals than their imitators: global domination.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

11. He Went International

A year later, Phineas and Charles went on a three-year European tour with dreams of international fame and fortune. But it didn’t take long for disappointment to set in.

Things weren’t looking great until Phineas had a genius realization: Class meant everything in England. They should’ve been focusing on charming the upper classes. Phineas changed tactics and aggressively networked with the upper class until he landed an audience with Queen Victoria. Jackpot.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

12. He Charmed A Queen

While meeting Queen Victoria was a make-or-break moment, Charles went for his usual cheerful and comedic routine. Turns out, this was super risky because the royals were still in mourning for Prince Albert’s father. But against all odds, it worked—and General Tom Thumb charmed Queen Victoria.

He even pretended to defend himself against one of the Queen’s yappy dogs. Thanks to her seal of approval, everything changed.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsFlickr, pellethepoet

13. He Was Super Famous

Thanks to Queen Victoria and the European tour, Charles (still a child, by the way) became the most famous entertainer of his time in the United States and in Europe. 19th-century people didn’t have video games or social media, but they certainly had General Tom Thumb. And boy, did they love him.

Charles couldn’t go anywhere without crowds mobbing him. And infamously, many in these crowds were adoring women who wanted a lot more than a glimpse of General Tom Thumb.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons, https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0007334.html

14. He Was A Ladies' Man

What a ladies' man...or ladies' boy! Women waited in lines just for a chance to kiss General Tom Thumb. This drove some of their husbands "wild with jealousy". In retrospect, this is more than a little weird. But it was par for the course for this child star who never had a childhood. And when we dig deeper, it gets even more alarming.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

15. He Didn’t Have A Childhood

Your parents basically selling you off to a weird guy is already bad enough, but losing your childhood makes it so much worse. Turns out, General Tom Thumb's fame and fortune came with a dark side. Phineas didn’t just lie about Charles’ age, he expected the boy to act much older than he actually was.

Charles not only spent all his time with adults, but he started drinking at five and smoking at seven. But that was the trade-off for wealth beyond Stratton's wildest dreams.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

16. He Became Rich

Charles wasn’t in working-class Connecticut anymore, that’s for sure. Thanks to Phineas’ management and his own talents, he became extremely wealthy. While Charles had expensive taste, he had the wallet to back it up. Charles owned luxury real estate, the finest clothes, and even a yacht.

But most importantly, his wealth played no small role in attracting the love of his life. Enter: Lavinia.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn, Wellcome Collection

17. He Inspired His Future Wife

Mercy Lavinia Bump was a fellow little person, but her life couldn’t have been more different than Charles’. She had a normal childhood and became a well-respected schoolteacher. In adulthood, Lavinia chose to turn her normal life upside down after learning about General Tom Thumb. 

Inspired by his success, she took a risk, left her stable life, and entered the crazy world of entertainment. Phineas ended up managing Lavinia. Now, it was only a matter of time before she crossed paths with Charles.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

18. He Fell In Love

According to Phineas, it was love at first sight—at least for Charles.

He allegedly said, "Mr. Barnum, that is the most charming little lady I ever saw, and I believe she was created on purpose to be my wife! Now you have always been a friend of mine and I want you to say a good word for me to her. I have got plenty of money, and I want to marry and settle down in life, and I really feel as if I must marry that young lady".

Charles was now a man on a mission, and he wasn’t going to let anything—or anyone—get in his way.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

19. He Showed Off

If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Hoping to impress her, Charles showed Lavinia around his mansion and lavish life. But he didn’t stop there. They went around town and toured his many investment properties. It worked.

She told Phineas, "It seems as if you and Tom Thumb owned about all of Bridgeport". Hook, line, and sinker. But Charles had a rival in the battle for her hand in marriage.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

20. He Had Competition

George Washington Morrison Nutt, or Commodore Nutt, had a lot in common with Charles. They were both little people, entertainers, and part of Phineas’ company. Oh, and they were both in love with the same woman. Lavinia, however, was older than George and never saw him as anything more than a "nice little boy". Ouch.

Unfortunately, Phineas accidentally made their love triangle even more complicated.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsFlickr, Allen Gathman

21. He Had A Messy Rivalry

Who knew something so small could cause such a big miscommunication? Phineas gifted Lavinia a diamond and emerald ring, but it didn’t fit. The showman suggested she gift the ring to George. It was supposed to be a token of her friendship. Instead, George viewed it as a token—and declaration—of her love. Oh boy. Things were about to get messy.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

22. He Was Manipulative

All is fair in love and war, and boy did Charles take that to heart. He wanted Phineas to support him instead of George—and knew exactly how to make this happen. Charles promised if the showman helped him marry Lavinia, he’d have a public wedding. Basically, he promised to make Phineas even richer.

With dollar signs in his eyes, the showman convinced Lavinia to consider Charles (and his boatloads of money). Unsurprisingly, George didn’t exactly take this betrayal lightly.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

23. He Got Into A Fight

The love triangle between Lavinia, Charles, and George reached its climax in one of the most dramatic ways. According to Phineas, George and Charles didn’t just disagree over who had the right to court Lavinia, their rivalry escalated into a physical fight at work over her.

The showman claims George started it by throwing Charles onto the floor. But that was only the beginning.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

24. He Betrayed A Friend

When George arrived at Phineas’ house one night, his heart sank. Charles and Lavinia were spending time alone in a parlor. But that wasn't even the worst part. 

Turns out, Charles had proposed, and Lavinia had said yes. George felt as though Phineas and Charles betrayed him in the worst way. He struggled to forgive them for their "dastardly" offenses. Regardless of how George felt, the show—and wedding—had to go on.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

25. He Was Blackmailed

As if a love triangle wasn’t messy enough, the drama didn’t stop there. In fact, a blackmailer disrupted their wedding planning. Basically, a woman threatened to publish unflattering things about Charles and Lavinia.

However, nobody batted an eyelash. Phineas even dared her, "You may print a hundred thousand copies". To the showman, there was no such thing as bad publicity. And boy did Charles and Lavinia’s wedding get a lot of it.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

26. He Had A Lavish Wedding

In 1863, Charles married Lavinia in New York City. The wedding was many things—but intimate it was not. The newlyweds even stood on top of a grand piano to greet their 10,000 guests. The maid of honor was Minnie Warren, Lavinia’s sister and fellow little person, which was to be expected. But not everything made sense.

Charles’ best man was George. Yup. That George.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

27. He Profited From His Wedding

Well, Charles had promised to make Phineas a fortune from his wedding. They even sold tickets to the reception for $75. This was a huge chunk of change in 1863, and yet, it still sold out. Charles and Lavinia reached even greater heights of fame and fortune after marrying, if that’s even possible.

Their American fans couldn’t help but be enthralled by the newlyweds, especially to distract themselves from the horrors of their own nation.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

28. His Wedding Provided Escapism

1863 wasn’t just the year Charles and Lavinia married. It was also right in the middle of the Civil War. Amazingly, their wedding knocked the conflict off The New York Times’ front page for three whole days. But it may have been well earned.

After all, the wedding and their love story provided much-needed escapism for a conflict-weary nation. But Charles and Lavinia couldn’t charm everyone.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikipedia

29. They Faced Cynics

Most Americans viewed Charles and Lavinia’s wedding and story as a fairytale—but others were not so convinced. Some cynics believed this was nothing more than a publicity stunt. Charles responded furiously.

He responded, "We are simply man and woman of like passions and infirmities with you and other mortals. The arrangements for our marriage are controlled by no showman". But the offensiveness of these cynics paled in comparison to the nosy Nellies.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

30. People Wondered About Their Bedroom Activities

Much of the interest in Charles and Lavinia’s marriage wasn’t exactly PG and innocent. Turns out, their bedroom activities intrigued many. People entertained themselves by speculating how Charles and Lavinia did the horizontal tango.

Of course, Phineas didn’t encourage or discourage this interest. Sometimes, silence is golden and this was one of those cases.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

31. His Wife Received An Inappropriate Gift

Does anyone remember the ring Lavinia (re)gifted to George? Well, he returned the favor in the most inappropriate way. As a wedding gift, George gave Lavinia a diamond ring. Talk about awkward. What happened to just sticking with the registry?

But Charles and Lavinia refused to allow pining admirers ruin their amazing honeymoon.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

32. He Had A Presidential Honeymoon

Charles and Lavinia didn’t just tour Europe and India, President Lincoln even held a reception for them at the White House. It was an interesting scene: The newlyweds were famously short, while Lincoln was famously tall. But the legendary politician made them feel more than welcome.

When someone rudely asked Charles, "They call you General, do they?" Lincoln had the perfect response. The President interjected, "I wish my generals were as good a general as he is".

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

33. His Fame Got In The Way

Charles soon found out the hard way there were three participants in his relationship. This time, it wasn’t pesky George. It was his fame and the annoying fans that came with it. The newlyweds felt like "an army of curiosity mongers" were always breathing down their necks.

Fame was a double-edged sword, and they’d learned this the hard way. Over and over again.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

34. He Was Victimized

Charles and Lavinia were magnets for criminals who thought they would be easy victims, especially on their many tours. On one memorable occasion, two robbers stalked them. Luckily, the authorities stopped them in the nick of time. But the newlyweds weren’t always so lucky. 

Another time, they found a ton of money missing from their hotel room. Turns out, a maid had swiped it. But the girl was so distraught, the couple took mercy on her and didn’t press charges.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

35. They Told Tall Tales

The wedding had lifted Charles and Lavinia’s reputation to new heights. But they—including Phineas—wanted more. During their appearances, Charles and Lavinia started showing up with babies that everyone assumed were theirs. This addition to their story made the pair even more popular.

Eventually, Phineas claimed that the child had passed. But this was all an elaborate ruse. Lavinia later confessed they "rented" babies from hospitals and orphanages. It seemed like yet another tall tale…or was it?

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

36. They Left Behind A Mystery

It gets even weirder: Charles and Lavinia may have actually had a child after all. Centuries later, a historian discovered evidence suggesting that their child wasn’t just a hoax. But why would Lavinia randomly confess to lying? Frustratingly, this may always remain an unsolved mystery.

That said, starting a family wasn't Charles and Lavinia's only problem.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

37. They Were Infantilized

Phineas marketed Charles and Lavinia as childlike because sympathy sold tickets, but this came at a big cost. The two performers were adults, accomplished and brilliant, but people infantilized them and crossed boundaries. Fans even wanted to pet and hold Lavinia.

She raged, "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". And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

38. He Lived Through A Real-Life Nightmare

In January 1883, Charles and Lavinia were fast asleep in their room at the Newhall House when a frantic and loud knocking woke Charles. He groggily opened the door to an officer who raced inside. In an instant, he was wide awake. He realized fire surrounded the room.

Charles and Lavinia found themselves in the heat of the Newhall House fire, one of the worst hotel fires in American history.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikipedia

39. They Barely Survived

They realized, with dawning horror, that the only way out was the window. The officer frantically opened the window and screamed for a ladder. Wearing only his pajamas, Charles climbed his way down to safety. The officer, holding Lavinia, followed. They survived, but 71 unfortunate souls were not so lucky.

Lavinia was beyond grateful they survived but realized Charles wasn’t exactly on the same page.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

40. He Had Weird Priorities

Surrounded by destruction and suffering, Charles did what any normal, well-adjusted person would do. He complained about all the luxury items he lost. Shocked and disgusted, Lavinia scolded him, "What if we have lost everything? Look at those people there". She had a point.

Lavinia then proved she literally was his better half by helping fellow survivors out. Charles may have survived the fire, but he wouldn’t be so lucky next time.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

41. He Aged Badly

While the infantilizing marketing continued, Charles aged rapidly. And badly. For example, his skin didn’t just wrinkle, it yellowed. He gained a lot of weight and even a little height. A newspaper even wrote that Charles looked "like an orange that had been sat upon". Most people would’ve called it quits at this point, but Charles couldn’t bring himself to.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons

42. He Was Addicted To The Limelight

Why wouldn’t Charles retire after struggling with his health, and securing his fame and fortune? You see, Charles was addicted to the limelight. He admitted, "I can’t do without the excitement of public life". After all, his life, as crazy as it was, was the only one he’d ever known.

Tragically, Charles would never experience the peace and serenity of retirement.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

43. He Passed Unexpectedly

On July 15, 1883, Charles woke up tired, but otherwise fine in his Middleborough mansion. It was supposed to be another normal day. He chatted with his brother-in-law Edward. Immediately after Edward left, he heard a loud noise, as if something heavy dropped on the floor. He ran back and found Charles lifeless on the floor.

It was a stroke. This was barely six months after the Newhall House fire. Charles was 45 years old. Lavinia wasn’t with him.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

44. His Funeral Was A Grand Event

Charles’ stature was the only small thing about him. Everything else? Larger than life. He’d lived the life of a hundred men. He’d achieved enormous fame, fortune, and success. This included a huge wedding. His funeral was no different and saw over 20,000 attendees.

Phineas even commissioned a life-sized statue to stand forever at his dear friend’s gravestone. Charles left behind a mourning wife who was about to get another unpleasant surprise.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikipedia

45. He Spent It All

Lavinia planned to retire but realized she couldn't. Turns out, she couldn’t afford to. While Charles and Lavinia earned mountains of money, they spent too much—especially Charles. Sadly, Lavinia resorted to selling many of her most prized belongings, including her wedding gifts and jewelry.

The widow continued to work—and that's where she crossed paths with her next lover.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

46. His Wife Remarried

Two years after Charles’ passing, Lavinia married again. This time, it was to Count Primo Magri, an Italian and fellow little person. "Count" wasn’t just a stage name: Primo claimed he was actually a Count. Unfortunately, this title didn’t come with any wealth—and so the newlyweds had to work at their famous roadside show.

On paper, it appears as though Lavinia had moved on. But as it turns out, she never got over Charles.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

47. He’s With His Wife Forever

On November 25, 1919, Lavinia passed at 78. She outlived Charles by 33 years. Her second husband outlived her by a year, which makes her burial situation even more…interesting. You see, Lavinia is buried next to Charles. Remember how he got a fancy gravestone and statue? Well, Lavinia got the short end of the stick.

All she got was a gravestone that reads "His Wife".

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsPicryl

48. He Couldn’t Rest In Peace

Unfortunately, Charles continued to be a magnet for criminals even well after his passing. In 1959, some hooligans senselessly destroyed the statue by his grave. Did they know they’d just desecrated the grave of an icon? Or did they not care?

Fortunately, the local community eventually restored the statue and grave to their former glory.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsWikimedia Commons, Richard Croft

49. He Never Got Answers

Perhaps even more tragically, answers came too late for Charles. In his lifetime, no one knew the cause of his size. He just had to live with it. Today, we know the cause of his shortness was pituitary dwarfism. But thanks to the lack of knowledge and tools in his day, we’re still left with more questions than answers about Charles’ condition.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsLook and Learn

50. He Was Immortalized

Countless films and actors portrayed and immortalized Charles on film. Most notably, he was a character in the 2017 musical film, The Greatest Showman. The movie was a huge Hollywood production that raked in $435 million. It also featured some household names you might have heard of: Does Zendaya, Hugh Jackman, or Michelle Williams ring any bells?

But most importantly, Sam Humphrey, an actor with skeletal dysplasia, played Charless—history’s most famous little person with a legacy that looms larger than life.

Charles Sherwood Stratton FactsThe Greatest Showman (2017), Chernin Entertainment

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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