Lavinia Warren was the 19th-century proportional little person who lived largely—and very lavishly. Despite being small in stature, she was huge in stardom. From her humble beginnings as a school teacher to her worldwide fame as one-half of a petite power couple, Warren did it all.
Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump would go on to become one of the most famous (if not the most famous) little people on earth. But she wasn’t always so tiny. As a baby, she tipped the scales at a hefty and healthy nine pounds. Her parents didn’t suspect that anything was amiss until she suddenly and rather dramatically stopped growing.
Various sources say that Warren stopped growing either as a toddler or when she was ten years old. We’ll likely never know those early details but we certainly know more about her condition today than people did back then. Warren suffered from proportional dwarfism, a pituitary gland issue. Fortunately, she did not have to suffer alone.
Warren had numerous siblings growing up, but only one who could really empathize with her condition. Her younger sister Minnie also had proportional dwarfism. As Warren later wrote in her autobiography, “All my other sisters and brothers were of normal size”. As such, she always felt “isolated from them” but nearer to Minnie.
Tragically, however, Minnie would one day suffer a terrible fate.
Even after doctors diagnosed Warren with dwarfism, her parents still had big expectations of her. They didn’t treat her any differently than they had before and still expected her to do all of her chores. The only help they gave her was a step stool, which aided her in reaching the kitchen table. Frankly, she never really needed the “leg up” anyway.
Warren never allowed her dwarfism to hold her back. At just 16 years of age, she became a school teacher. Standing at just 32 inches in height, however, it would have been easy to mistake her for one of her students. As much as she enjoyed teaching, she knew that there was a big world out there for her to explore and she intended to explore all of it.
Then she found a rare opportunity.
For proportional dwarves in 19th century America, work was hard to come by. So, when one of Warren’s cousins who owned a showboat in Mississippi offered her an opportunity, she knew she couldn’t pass it up. The cousin convinced her to spend one summer on his boat. But there was a catch.
Warren would be part of his “Museum of Living Wonders”.
Warren’s cousin saw the potential in turning her medical condition and tiny stature into big stacks of cold, hard cash. He marketed Warren as “The Lilliputian Queen” to paying guests on his showboat. Warren danced, sang show tunes, and chatted with the guests who looked on in wonder. And that’s when she knew: She was a big star trapped in a little body.
Warren found her tribe in her cousin’s “Museum of Living Wonders” and stood out as the star performer. Even if her fellow “wonders” towered over her. She quickly became good friends with Silvia Hardy, a “giantess from Maine”. The two often performed together and even bunked together as the showboat made its way up and down the river.
You might say, she was just following the current.
All of the guests simply adored Warren. They gushed about her charisma and found her particular condition truly fascinating, making her something of a star overnight. With the money rolling in, she didn’t want to go back to her normal life and asked her cousin to stay on. Pretty soon, her reputation spread far and wide—and that's when she met one of the most powerful men in the business.
In 1862, when she was 21 years old, little Warren entered the big leagues. After just a few years on her cousin’s showboat, she attracted the attention of the famous impresario PT Barnum. Barnum believed that Warren, with her talent for singing, dancing and eloquence, would be a perfect addition to his own museum.
Most importantly, however, she was single.
Barnum was very eager to get Warren to join his American Museum. He invited Warren and her family to his home in Connecticut in order to convince her to work for him. The little performer left a big impression as Barnum found Warren to be "refined," "intelligent," and "beautiful".
He thought that she was the perfect “woman in miniature". He just had to find her perfect man in miniature.
Barnum already had other proportional dwarves in his employ. Namely, two very eligible bachelors, George Washington Morrison Nutt (AKA Commodore Nutt) and General Tom Thumb (real name, Charles Sherwood Stratton). When Warren agreed to join Barnum’s American Museum, she became part of a tiny but tumultuous love triangle.
Barnum’s New York-based American Museum turned out to be the perfect place for Warren to showcase her uniqueness. The famous impresario decked Warren out in a “splendid wardrobe” with “costly jewelry”. She became an immediate sensation with the crowds that visited from all over the country, earning as much as $3,000 every day for the museum.
She just needed someone to share that success with.
Partly because of her youthful looks, Barnum paired Warren up with the teenage Commodore Nutt. Even though he was seven years younger than Warren, he became completely entranced the first time he laid eyes on her. Even though Warren was happy to be around more people like her, she couldn’t help but feel indifferent to Commodore Nutt. She preferred generals.
Warren loved her new job, working with Barnum’s American Museum—but she was less enthusiastic about her show partner. Despite his obvious affection for her, Warren never considered Commodore Nutt to be anything more than “a nice little boy”. However, for the sake of appearances, Barnum wanted Warren and Nutt to spark up a real romance.
If Barnum played the matchmaker, he made one seriously smooth move. He gave Warren a ring. The ring, however, did not fit her fingers properly so the impresario-turned-Cupid instructed Warren to give the ring to Commodore Nutt. In the meantime, he promised to find her another ring that would fit her properly. This seemed innocent enough—but it created a huge problem for Warren.
Warren gave the ill-fitting ring to Commodore Nutt, not thinking anything of it. The lovestruck teenager, however, thought that the ring was a token of her love. When Nutt tried to show his affections in return, Warren became distressed. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings but couldn’t deny her indifference to him.
Thankfully, a general came to her rescue.
It became clear to Barnum that, despite his efforts at playing matchmaker, Warren had no interest in Commodore Nutt. But he also had no shortage of little people to throw her way. That’s when Barnum introduced Warren to his most famous little performer, General Tom Thumb. Unsurprisingly, the Lilliputian Queen and the General hit it off.
Immediately after meeting Warren, General Thumb spoke to Barnum in private. The little performer, standing at just 25 inches in height, made a big pronouncement. He implored Barnum to help turn this potential love match into a reality—even promising that, if everything worked, Barnum could use their wedding for publicity.
There was no doubt; it would be the match of the century.
Barnum appealed to Warren with “fatherly advice” about her marital prospects. He explained to the big little star that General Thumb was rich, famous, and most importantly, of upstanding character. Warren, however, didn’t take much convincing as she was already quite fond of General Thumb. But her teenage crush, Nutt, wouldn’t let her go without a fight.
Lavinia Warren and General Thumb were madly in love and it was plain for everyone to see. But, while the whole country celebrated the relationship between the two famous little people, one person fumed. Commodore Nutt refused to accept that he had lost out on Warren’s affections and started a fist fight with Thumb backstage during one of their shows.
Warren, however, had clearly made up her mind.
In a last ditch effort to win over Warren’s affections, Commodore Nutt attempted to crash one of her dates with General Thumb. Sadly, he was too late. General Thumb had just proposed to Warren and she had said, “Yes!” Warren’s marriage to General Thumb would turn out to be one of the biggest social events of the 19th century.
With civil conflict ravaging most of the country, the news of Warren’s and Thumb’s pending nuptials gave the entire country something to celebrate. For weeks before the big day, Warren’s miniature wedding dress hung in the designer’s, Madame Demorest’s, display for passersby to gawk over.
No one could have guessed the big fuss the “little” wedding would have caused. No one that is, except for PT Barnum.
The big day came on February 10, 1863. In order to appease the eager public, Warren agreed to have an open wedding ceremony so that anyone could attend. And everyone who was anyone did. Warren walked down the aisle at Grace Episcopal Church in front of more than 2,000 guests, including many of America’s 19th-century A-list celebrities.
The reception, on the other hand, was a much more private affair.
Warren held her wedding reception at the fashionable Metropolitan Hotel in New York. Whereas she left the ceremony open to the public, Warren allowed Barnum to charge guests a staggering $75 to attend the reception. That would be the equivalent of more than $2,000 today. Despite the hefty admittance fee, they still expected their guests to shower them with gifts.
Warren and her new husband greeted their high-paying reception attendees, perched upon a grand piano. From their vantage point, they had a spectualar view of all their devoted fans. The New York Times recorded the extravagant gifts, including “jewelry from Tiffany’s, a miniature billiards table,” and most impressively, “a carriage from Queen Victoria”.
But one person was sick to his stomach.
While Warren celebrated her marriage in style, her spurned lover looked sick to his stomach. The Times reported the next day that, during the service, Commodore Nutt appeared “ill” with jealousy. In all likelihood, however, the Times' story was likely idle gossip as Nutt served in the wedding as Thumb’s groomsman.
Warren’s own later diary entries gave deeper insight into the little-person love-triangle.
Throughout her travels, Warren frequently had to dispense with rumors that she considered to be troublesome. For promotional purposes, Barnum had taken photographs of Commodore Nutt proposing to Warren’s sister, Minnie, around the time of Warren’s big marriage. The photographs led to speculation that the love triangle had expanded to a love square.
It wasn’t until decades later that Warren finally managed to “refute a general impression”. In her autobiography published in the New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, she dispelled the notion that Commodore Nutt had gone from being her admirer to her brother-in-law.
She chalked the whole misunderstanding up to the fact that the four little people had a close, friendly relationship but that there was nothing romantic between Minnie and Nutt.
Following their lavish wedding, Warren and Thumb embarked on a whirlwind, worldwide honeymoon. One of their first stops, however, was right at home. Wanting to further distract the nation from the conflict tearing the country apart, then president, Abraham Lincoln, invited the little celebrity couple to the White House.
Warren, however, had a small opinion of the tall president.
When Warren arrived at the White House, she received a warmer welcome than she was comfortable with. Without warning, President Lincoln leaned in and kissed Warren on the cheek. He further quipped, “sometimes God likes to do funny things; and here you have the long and the short of it,” indicating to Warren as the “short of it”.
Warren had no qualms telling her friends after the encounter that she considered Lincoln to be “quite rude”.
One year after their wedding and tour, Warren returned to New York and Barnum’s American Museum. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, she and General Thumb did not return from their travels empty-handed. Warren and Thumb posed for pictures and public appearances carrying a mysteriously large baby.
The public interest in this latest little addition to Warren’s family sent the public into an absolute state of frenzy. In fact, the public was so excited that no one stopped to ask whether or not the baby actually belonged to Warren. Frankly, no one even seemed to notice that the baby, curiously, did not appear to have dwarfism.
As it turns out, the baby was not, in fact, Warren’s. In a stroke of marketing genius, Barnum had borrowed the baby from an orphanage. For the first few months, Warren and Barnum pulled off their little charade perfectly. However, as the months passed, Warren pointed out that the baby was growing too much for audiences to believe that it was hers.
So, she came up with a brilliant idea of her own.
Before embarking on a cross-country tour, Warren hatched a bold, if a little Machiavellian, plan. She proposed dispatching a representative to each town, ahead of time. They'd be tasked with discreetly choosing an infant from the local orphanage to use as a prop during their show.
After a day of basking in the limelight alongside Warren, they would return the selected baby, safe and sound.
Warren’s plan worked better than even she could have expected. It ensured that their traveling troupe had a steady supply of small babies. They were able to maintain appearances while also alleviating the hassle of having a child in tow throughout their travels. But there is another, darker, theory as to where these mystery babies came from.
Various sources offer different theories as to where the baby (or babies) in Warren’s photos originated. Some sources stick to the theory that she and Barnum sourced the babies from local orphanages and that is, perhaps, the likeliest version of events. But other sources tell a far more tragic tale and offer compelling evidence.
One theory purports that Warren and Thumb did have a child of their own. Unlike Warren and Thumb, however, the alleged baby lacked the natural charm and photogenicity to become a star. As such, this theory suggests that they simply replaced their own baby in the photos with cuter little cherubs. Still, there’s an even darker theory.
One source claimed that the baby in Warren’s early photographs was, in fact, her own. However, they replaced the baby after a few years—not because she wasn’t cute enough but because she wasn’t, well, alive enough. Allegedly, Warren’s and Thumb’s only child, named Minnie after Warren’s sister, passed on at the tender age of two.
There is some credit to this theory.
In General Tom Thumb’s obituary in The New York Times, it clearly states that Warren and Thumb had a child. The alleged baby, once again, passed away at just two years of age. However, various sources give various dates for the birth and untimely demise of Warren’s mystery baby. The theory further falls apart given a personal tragedy that Warren suffered.
Despite her love for children, Warren lived in constant fear of having any of her own. Because of her condition, she feared that childbirth would be too much for her tiny physique to bear. Especially if she gave birth to a normal-sized baby. In a devastating blow, her sister Minnie proved her theory about the dangers of childbirth right.
Warren’s younger sister, Minnie, had also married another little person in Barnum’s employ. No, not the forever lovelorn Commodore Nutt, but a Major Edward Newell. Minnie became pregnant with Newell’s baby and managed to carry to term. Giving birth to a full-sized baby, however, proved to be too much and she and the baby passed on shortly after the ordeal.
Devastated, Warren held her sister in her arms as she drew her final breaths.
Another reason that Warren likely never had a child of her own was that everyone always mistook her for one. Barnum marketed Warren and his little people performers as children, even as they grew well into their 30s and 40s. That constant infantilization kept the money rolling in, but it also kept Warren rolling her eyes in utter exasperation.
Throughout her career, Warren complained about the way her “fans” treated her. Because of her size, they found it hard to believe that she was a grown woman and they often wanted to “pet her and hold her” as if she were still a child. In her diaries, she wrote about her “womanly instinct of shrinking from a form of familiarity” that she deemed inappropriate.
But the job had its perks.
Despite some of her misgivings, Warren and Thumb continued touring and performing all over the world and raked in a massive fortune. They went as far as Japan, China, Australia, Egypt and India where the King of Benares tried to gift them with an elephant. In a sense, they were on fire. And pretty soon, they would almost literally catch flames.
In 1883, Warren and Thumb found themselves at the Newhall House hotel in Milwaukee. The local fire department described the hotel as a “tinderbox” where tragedy was just waiting to catch a spark. It was almost a fateful morning for the little performers when, at approximately four in the morning, the building became engulfed in flames.
The Newhall House hotel quickly became, as one eye witness described it, “a flaming strawstack”. As the flames consumed the famous luxury hotel, Warren and Thumb found themselves trapped on the sixth floor. Dozens of other guests made the painful decision of jumping to their deaths. However, Warren’s small stature saved her life.
Being little people once again paid off for Warren and Thumb. A single firefighter, named O'Brien, managed to reach the couple from their sixth storey window. With the tiny couple tucked beneath one arm and a firm grasp on his ladder with the other, he carried both Warren and Thumb down to safety. It was a feat that he would not have been able to accomplish with two full-grown adults.
Still, the fire had scorched the couple more deeply than they knew.
Warren and Thumb survived the inferno at the Newhall House hotel. As many as 90 other guests, including an associate of theirs, hadn’t been so lucky. But the event took its toll on their health all the same. Writing in her memoirs, Warren stated, “The General never recovered from the shock of that terrible ordeal”. Only months later, Thumb passed away from a sudden stroke.
Thumb’s sudden passing left Warren crestfallen—and broke. In her autogiobraphy, she claimed that she had wanted to retire following Thumb’s stroke and that Barnum had coaxed her back into work. It’s likelier, however, that Warren returned to performing in order to maintain her lavish lifestyle. But she would need another sidekick.
A few years after Thumb’s passing, Warren married Count Primo Magri, an Italian little person with a similar history of performing. Even though he was a few inches shorter than Warren’s late-husband, he had a higher rank. Allegedly, Pope Pius IX had given Magri the title “count," making him more or less, actual royalty and making her, technically, a real countess.
Warren continued performing with Count Primo Magri into the early 1900s. She even starred in a silent film alongside him, The Lilliputians’ Courtship. Eventually, however, as the public learned more about the science of dwarfism, they lost interest in Warren and performers like her.
Eventually, she retired to her hometown of Middleboro, Massachusetts and opened up an ice cream shop.
Warren passed away in November 25, 1919, at the age of 78. As she requested, she was buried next to Thumb, her first husband and true love. However, Thumb’s tombstone was a massive obelisk, topped with a lifesize (albeit still small) statue of him. Despite her massive stardom (and miniature stature), Warren only has a simple gravestone that reads “His Wife”.
Lavinia Warren’s dwarfism made her rich and famous, but it also caused everyone to regard her as either a child or an attraction. But she never regretted her decision to join Barnum and cash in on her small stature. “When asked if I don't get tired of this public life, I am wont to answer that in a sense I belong to the public".
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