May 23, 2024 | J. Clarke

Resilient Facts About Commodore Nutt, The Tiny Entertainer With A Big Personality

Many people try to hide the ways they’re different. But in the case of Commodore Nutt, hiding his “unique” appearance was impossible. It made for a dramatic life of both fame and failure. 

1. He Should Have Had It All

Born in New Hampshire in the late 1840s, George Washington Morrison Nutt grew up in a fairly wealthy family. Not only did his father own lucrative farms, but he also served in prestigious roles, including time as a city marshal. With his parents and four brothers and sisters, he wanted for nothing. Well, almost nothing. 

Commodore Nutt

2. He Stopped Growing

Nutt was born with dwarfism. So while his parents and three of his siblings grew to normal size, he and his older brother never got much taller than the average child. Nutt’s full height ended up at about 2.5 feet. Even with his economic advantage, this likely caused him some discomfort. His ultimate response, though, set him on the path to stardom. 

Commodore Nutt in uniformCase and Getchell, Wikimedia Commons

3. He Used His “Weird”

While it isn’t clear exactly when he made his debut, most reports state Nutt began his career in entertainment in his early teens. Like many people with unusual genetics during that period of history, he found his place as a member of a traveling circus. His potential for entertaining seemed evident—so evident that he became easy to take advantage of. 

Commodore Nutt in striped clothes and a hatSmithsonian, Rawpixel

4. His Manager Called Him Dumb

Somehow, Nutt found himself under the management of a woman named Lillie. Reports on her connection to the circus are meager, but she allegedly charged just five cents for a look at Nutt. Worse off, she marketed him as a boy with no education. Luckily for Nutt, an unexpected savior soon spotted him, and ultimately changed his life forever.

Commodore Nutt posterUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

5. He Got Discovered

PT Barnum—famous American entertainer and founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus—first laid eyes on Nutt in 1861. He felt immediately that something was off. According to Barnum, Nutt’s manager didn’t have a clue as to the diamond in the rough she managed. In fact, Barnum found a young man shockingly different than publicized.

P. T. Barnum in suitCharles DeForest Fredricks, Wikimedia Commons

6. He Had The It Factor

In later notes, Barnum greatly praised the Nutt he first made acquaintance with. He called him “a most remarkable dwarf," taking notice of both his intelligence and how perfectly handsome and fit he appeared. In short, Barnum saw dollar signs. Getting Nutt to work with him, however, didn’t come easy.

P. T. BarnumUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

7. He Got Sneaky

Barnum needed to get past Nutt’s current manager to have a chance at him. In the end, though, he didn’t go through the manager at all. He sent his lawyer to Nutt’s parents with a huge down payment to convince them to get their son to work for him. As you’ll remember, though, Nutt’s parents weren’t short on money. They needed more to close the deal. 

Commodore Nutt's grand levéeUnknown Author, Rawpixel

8. He Promised The World

In addition to the payment to his parents and a fair wage for Nutt, Barnum committed to full care of the young man during the time of the contract. In essence, he obligated himself to take over for Nutts’ parents, ensuring their son’s education, health, and accommodation. His parents agreed, but even then the work wasn’t done. 

"Commodore Nutt and Miss Minnie Warren" performingUnknown Author, Rawpixel

9. He Liked The Drama

With Nutt now contracted to work for him, you might expect Barnum to simply put the boy on display with relief. But interestingly enough, the exact opposite happened. Barnum devised quite the sneaky plan to make the most out of Nutt joining his team. And like lots of his elaborate plans, it all began with a bold faced lie…

Portrait of Phineas T. Barnum - between 1860 and 1870Mathew Brady Studio, Wikimedia Commons

10. He Made It Up

Barnum leaked to several reporters that he very much wanted to work with Nutt, but claimed many other major showmen desperately wanted him in their shows as well. Just as he expected, this made Nutt seem like quite the hot commodity, and other showmen did indeed flock to him. But that only made up half the publicity stunt. 

Barnum in suit sitting at a tableSmith Collection, Getty Images

11. He Pushed 

In addition to his lies about not already having Nutt on his roster, Barnum claimed Nutt inspired an all out bidding war. Barnum ended his charade by finally telling reporters he paid a hearty $30,000 to hire him. There’s no confirmation of that amount in any articles. However, Barnum got just what he wanted. And Nutt? He got more than he bargained for. 

P. T. Barnum (1810-1891) and Commodore Nutt (1848-1881)Charles DeForest Fredricks, Wikimedia Commons

12. He Started Fresh

Thus began Nutt’s time at Barnum’s American Museum in the Big Apple. Barnum completely transformed his image, starting by giving him the name “Commodore Nutt”. His entire act revolved around this character. He dressed in uniforms made to make him look like a small navy general. But his clothes only served as a tiny part of the act. 

Commodore Nutt in uniformSmithsonian, Rawpixel

13. He Did It Big (Kind of)

Nutt received a small carriage to go with his general uniform. The kicker? Barnum ordered the carriage fashioned to look like a walnut. Nutt’s only sibling with dwarfism, his brother Rodnia Jr, completed the look as the coachman driving the Shetland ponies that moved the carriage. If that sounds like a must see to you, then you can probably imagine the success of his debut…

Commodore Nutt image in white and blue clothes and a hatUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

14. They Loved Him

Audiences just adored watching Nutt on display. People flocked to the museum to see him, and found themselves equally delighted when he visited town in his nut-shaped carriage. Just as Barnum thought he could, Nutt raked in the profit. But one issue started to interrupt the wild success. And honestly, Barnum should have seen it coming. 

The Commodore in uniform Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

15. They Didn’t Believe It

By the time Barnum hired Nutt, the public knew him as a bit of a trickster. He built part of his fame on his elaborate hoaxes, including claims of displaying a woman over 150 years old and a real-life mermaid. In the case of Nutt, though, the audiences seemed to have more than enough evidence to seriously question his authenticity. 

Barnum and Commodore Nutt in suitsUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

16. He Looked Suspicious

Nutt didn’t serve as the only dwarf in Barnum’s museum. Another dwarf, called General Tom Thumb, already entertained there for some time before he showed up. As such, people accused Barnum of trying to repackage Tom Thumb as a different character—Commodore Nutt. Nutt’s response to these allegations didn’t help at all. 

General Tom Thumb, Miss Lavinia Warren, Commodore Nutt and The Giant in photoLibrary of Congress, Picryl

17. He Egged Them On

Enjoying his own bit of fun, Nutt seemingly refused to flat out deny these claims. He found the entire thing amusing. Barnum, however, felt pressed to prove his shiny new attraction authentic through and through. Even though he sent General Thumb’s act on tour, he brought him back to NYC to prove himself. It ended up being a thorn in Nutt’s side. 

Charles S. Stratton, a dwarf known as General Tom ThumbUnknown Author, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

18. It Didn’t Work

Even with the two dwarfs side by side, some still called it some type of trick. Furthermore, neither Thumb’s older age or his larger girth seemed to convince crowds otherwise. Luckily for Barnum, though, the crowds’ suspicion didn’t put much of a dent in Nutt’s appeal. As a matter of fact, a very presidential fan soon came knocking…

Strattons, G.W.M. Nutt, and Minnie Warren in formal clothesSmithsonian, Rawpixel

19. He Got Political

Less than a year after his big debut, President Abraham Lincoln invited both Nutt and Barnum to the White House for a special visit. The president felt so eager to see them that he even walked out on a cabinet meeting upon their arrival. There’s not much report of Barnum’s behavior at this auspicious event. Nutt, on the other hand, kept things cheeky. 

Abraham Lincoln portrait in suitAlexander Gardner, Wikimedia Commons

20. He Spoke Fast

Nutt used this opportunity to display his wit with quick, fearless responses all around, regardless of station. He engaged in several memorable conversations, including one where he jokingly accused the secretary of the treasury of spending all “Uncle Sam’s money”. His jokes didn’t end there, though. Not even the President escaped him. 

Commodore Nutt in brown clothes Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

21. He Sassed A President

Just before Nutt and Barnum departed the White House, President Lincoln poked fun at Nutt’s title by telling him to “wade ashore” if he had any trouble with his “fleet”. Nutt took one look at the president’s legs and quipped he’d do a better job. He left with the president’s approval, but sometimes he took his tricks a little too far.

B&W photo of Abraham Lincoln looking at camera.Archives New Zealand, CC BY-SA 2.0 , Wikimedia Commons

22. He Made A Switch

After a few months on display at the American Museum, Nutt reached out to the local police department and arranged to visit their precinct. Once there, he insisted he wanted to join the force. Though it’s not clear whether they took this seriously or not, they dubbed him an officer and gave him a uniform. The punchline came after he left…

Commodore Nutt (George Washington Morrison Nutt, 1848-1881), the Best Man, and bridesmaid Minnie WarrenArchive Photos, Getty Images

23. He Loved His Games

His telegram to the officers afterward held another healthy dose of his now trademark sharp wit. He told them he worked for the “Broadway” squad, claiming authority to arrest persons at the Museum and “take [them] upstairs”. Trickster or not, people seemed deeply entertained by Nutt’s antics. But things couldn’t be perfect forever. 

Broadway old imageInternet Archive, Picryl

24. He Had A Weak Spot

Nutt’s achilles heel arrived on the scene that same year, in the form of another dwarf, Lavinia Warren. After her time working as a teacher in Massachusetts, Barnum discovered her and hired her to join his museum of attractions. He dubbed her “The Queen of Beauty”. Perhaps that title explains the huge effect she had on Nutt…

Lavinia Warren in plaid dress next to a chairMathew Benjamin Brady, Wikimedia Commons

25. He Fell Hard

Although there’s no detailed report on their first meeting, whatever took place left a huge impression on Nutt. He fell completely in love with Warren, and made it known. Unfortunately for him, she very reasonably considered Nutt’s 15 or so years no match for her very adult 23. She found the boy, however, much harder to convince. 

Lavinia Warren in black dressNational Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

26. She Led Him On

As part of her act, Barnum gifted Warren with exquisite jewels, including an emerald ring. When they discovered it couldn’t fit her, he suggested she pass it off to Nutt. You can probably guess what happened next. Nutt thought this a gift of love, and only fell harder for her. But she didn’t feel romantic toward him, as Nutt found out when his chickens came home to roost…

Lavinia Warren in  blackLaurence Hutton, Wikimedia Commons

27. He Played Too Much

Remember when Nutt refused to confirm that he wasn’t General Thumb during his debut? Well, when Barnum finally brought Thumb to the museum in New York to confirm his identity, Thumb caught his first sight of Warren. He went to Barnum the very same day, proclaiming his love for Warren. This is where things started to get sticky. 

Lavinia Warren By Mathew BradyMathew Brady, Wikimedia Commons

28. He Didn’t Play Fair

Thumb didn’t just tell Barnum to get his amorous feelings off his chest. He harbored a plan of action. In essence, he wanted Barnum to be his wingman, helping him to get with and ultimately marry Warren. You’d think a boss would stay out of his employee’s affairs—especially love affairs. But Barnum did the exact opposite.

"Tom Thumb" (Charles Sherwood Stratton) (1838-1883) and his wife Lavinia Warren Stratton (1841-1919)Unknown author, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

29. He Wanted The Money

While Thumb confessed his feelings, Barnum heard one huge “cha-ching!” He envisioned a money maker right away—a dwarf wedding he could play up and charge admission for. Barnum took his wingman duties seriously, encouraging Watten to truly consider Thumb’s advances. And Nutt? Well, Nutt went a little nuts. 

Charles Sherwood Stratton (known as General Tom Thumb) and his wife Lavinia Warren (known as Mrs. Tom Thumb)Mathew Brady Studio, Wikimedia Commons

30. Things Got Messy

Nutt refused to take things lying down. In fact, he resorted to getting physical with Thumb. He tracked him down while they were both on the job at the museum, and fully attacked him. No word on Barnum’s response to the mess he helped create, but he didn’t seem too concerned, considering what happened next.

Lavinia Warren, The Queen Of BeautyUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

31. He Set It Up

Barnum went a step further in his wingman work, inviting Warren, Thumb, and Thumb’s mother over to his home for a weekend. Nutt decided to head there also, but went under the impression that Barnum only invited Warren. Perhaps he even planned some grand gesture of love to push ahead of the competition. But his rival still beat him to the punch.

Lavinia Stratton and Minnie Warren in dressesNational Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

32. He Was Too Late

Upon Nutt’s arrival to Barnum’s home, he walked right in on Thumb and Warren getting cozy and having some alone time. This likely enraged him, considering how he’d treated Thumb prior. Still, it seems he let this go, returning to life as usual once they all got back to work. That is, until he realized he’d seen more than he thought.

General Tom Thumb and wife Lavinia portraitHulton Archive, Getty Images

33. He Was Devastated 

A week after Nutt returned from this rendezvous, he got terrible news. Thumb proposed to Warren during that weekend at Barnum’s home, and Warren accepted! Nutt likely felt totally burned, and in more ways that one. But the worst was yet to come. His boss added insult to his already deep emotional injury.

General Tom Thumb, 19th century (1955) in uniformPrint Collector, Getty Images

34. He Didn’t Care

Barnum ramped up the ante when he asked Nutt to be Thumb’s best man at the ceremony. It all played into his huge money-making plan for publicity. He seemingly didn’t give two hoots about how Nutt felt, considering the fact that he knew of Nutt’s love long before Thumb got into the picture. Take one guess at Nutt’s response.

Lavinia Warren, General Tom Thumb weddingMathew B., Wikimedia Commons

35. He Didn’t Want To

Nutt all out refused Barnum’s request. Furthermore, he took personal offense to both Barnum and Thumb’s involvement in the whole affair. On one hand, it’s understable, as he worked closely with both men. On the other hand, it seemed Warren never looked at him romantically anyway. Perhaps that fact prompted his eventual change of heart.

Tom Thumb Lavinia Warren wedding photoPaul Taylor, Flickr

36. He Gave In

After his first refusal, Thumb himself approached Nutt to ask him to be his best man. Despite the entire situation, it’s likely they experienced some sort of friendship as people who shared a unique way of life. Either way, Nutt finally accepted, and decided to play his part in the affair. And what a grand affair it turned out to be…

Charles Sherwood Stratton And Lavinia Warren MarriageMathew Brady Studio, Wikimedia Commons

37. He Faked It

Barnum advertised the union of Thumb and Warren as a “Fairy Wedding”. Nutt filled his role as best man, and Warren’s sister Minnie (also a dwarf) served as the maid of honor. As Barnum expected, the event drew huge crowds to both the church they married at and the elaborate reception. But all the fanfare didn’t sit well with everyone. 

Mr. And Mrs. Tom Thumb With Best Man And Bridesmaid, 1863Unknown author, Wikimedia Commons

38. They Caused A Stir

The actual members of the church that hosted the wedding felt jilted by the event. With the huge crowds it drew, their usual seats got taken up by people who wouldn’t be there otherwise. Controversy aside, though, Barnum’s plan went off without a hitch. Nutt, however, still found himself dealing with the consequences long after. 

Tom thumb wedding paintingUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

39. He Gave Up On Love

Still focused on what could benefit himself in the long run, Barnum encouraged Nutt to date Warren’s sister. Not only did he refuse, he claimed himself done with romance all together. In fact, he said that when it came to relationships, he wouldn’t even marry “the best woman living”. And even with his broken heart, he couldn’t get away from the group.

Minnie Warren in white dressNational Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

40. He Kept Going

Interest in the four small entertainers piqued after the “fairy” wedding. Barnum capitalized on this spike by sending the entire group out on a lengthy world tour, branding them “The Tom Thumb Company”. I can’t imagine Nutt found it easy to travel the world with his lost love and the man who took her, but perhaps the other major benefits soothed him…

Portrait of General Tom Thumb & Wife. Commodore Nutt and Miss Minnie WarrenNational Library of Wales, Wikimedia Commons

41. They Hit Big

The four toured from 1869 to 1872. During their travels, they made hundreds of stops and gave over a thousand performances. By the time they returned to America, both they and Barnum held far more wealth than they likely expected. However, once back at home, things didn’t go nearly as smoothly. Nutt just couldn’t take it anymore. 

Nutt And Warren 1865E. & H. T. Anthony & Co., Wikimedia Commons

42. He Broke Up With Barnum

Shortly after his return, Nutt entirely fell out with Barnum. While there’s not much reported as to what the final nail in the coffin turned out to be, it’s easy to find several reasons for Nutt to argue with his sketchy boss. In his view, it likely seemed like Barnum manipulated him out of the love of his life. Tragically, things didn’t get any easier once he went solo.

Minnie Warren and Commodore Nutt in 1863Mathew Brady, Wikimedia Commons

43. He Tried To Keep Going

At first, Nutt tried to continue his work in the entertainment business. He launched a variety show with his brother, Rodnia Jr. He couldn’t get it off the ground. After failing to run a successful show in neither Oregon nor California, he tried to turn his attention to something entirely different than before. He failed again.

Commodore Nutt and Minnie Wareen in 1864E. & H. T. Anthony & Co., Wikimedia Commons

44. He Couldn’t Get It Together

Done with the stage, Nutt ventured into small business. He bought saloons in multiple states, deciding to try his hand at running them. But owning a business is rather different than being a performer, and requires a very different set of skills. Perhaps that explains one major business mess up that cost him more than he bargained for. 

Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren photoSmithsonian, Rawpixel

45. He Got Caught

While trying to get his saloon in New York City off the ground, authorities caught Nutt selling alcohol without a proper permit. They shut him down right away, naming the final end to his efforts with saloons. Maybe tired of working at things he felt inexperienced with, he took a quick turn back to the life he knew the best. 

Horse-drawn fire engines in street, on their way to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, New York CityGeorge Grantham Bain Collection, Wikimedia Commons

46. He Went Back To The Fans

Nutt returned to entertainment with a run at Rockaway Pier. He did a show entitled “Tally-Ho”. Despite his short break from entertainment, it’s quite likely that fans still sought him out, and enjoyed the chance to see him perform. But even with a return to his career comfort zone, he still had a ruined love life to sort out. 

Rockaway Boardwalk 1903New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons

47. People Talked

Regardless of Nutt’s declarations against love, the press continued to have a field day with their ideas about his love life. They married him off to Warren’s sister, Minnie, several times in their gossip articles. Nutt remained good friends with his first love’s sister, but they never became more. Eventually, though, he gave up his bachelor promises.

George Washington Morrison Nutt And Minnie WarrenMathew Brady, Wikimedia Commons

48. He Found The One

Nutt finally gave love a try again in the late 1870s. Although the details of their relationship are scarce, he reportedly married one Lilian Elston in 1879. Much to Barnum’s chagrin, she turned out not to be a dwarf (though she wasn’t particularly tall). Tragically enough, after waiting so long to find love, he didn’t truly get much time to enjoy it. 

Commodore Nutt in coat imageUnknown Author, Rawpixel

49. The End Drew Near

Just about two years after his marriage, Nutt fell seriously sick. Doctors diagnosed him with liver disease, and he struggled to get well for months. Ultimately, he succumbed to the sickness in May 1881. While his wife wept over his grave and he received a fair funeral, his burial ended up being a lot less notable than he deserved.

Stowell Cemeteryihamr, Flickr

50. They Dishonored Him

Although he physically never appeared normal and likely faced struggles because of it, Nutt managed to turn his disadvantage into a life of success. Even so, he somehow ended up buried under an unmarked grave. Reporters claim he’s buried somewhere near his family members. His story and personality, though, live on. 

Commodore Nutt & Minnie WarrenBlank Archives, Getty Images

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