Charles Sherwood Stratton

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2014), Volume 22

Charles Sherwood Stratton was born in Connecticut in 1838 or 1839. He had stopped growing at seven months old (although some reports suggest at the age of two). Unusually, he was perfectly proportioned, both as a child and as a man, and this was part of his attraction. It seems that Stratton suffered from hypochondroplasia, a variation of achondroplasia (the most common form of dwarfism), but in the former the limbs are more proportionate. Barnum, also from Connecticut, persuaded Charles’s parents to allow him to act as mentor and manager to the five-year-old boy. Since 1841 Barnum had been the proprietor of the eponymous ‘Barnum’s American Museum’ in New York City. Flamboyant and enterprising, he possessed a reputation as both a showman and a trickster. Nonetheless, he was a master of spectacle, publicity and promotion.

Barnum taught Charles to dance, sing, tell stories and strut around in various guises. Less palatably, the young boy was taught to drink wine, smoke and chew tobacco. In spite of his extreme youth, Charles proved an accomplished pupil, naturally funny, charming and intelligent—attributes that were commented on throughout his life. Barnum advertised his new act as ‘General Tom Thumb, a dwarf eleven years of age, just arrived from England’. The name derived from a seventeenth-century fairy tale, ‘King Arthur’s Dwarfe’. Tom Thumb later claimed that the title of ‘General’ had been bestowed on him by Queen Victoria. Other aspects of the act were fictional, with Barnum suggesting that his new protégé was older than he actually was.

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