For a time, I resisted commenting on just who deserves the formal blessings of the church when they pledge a lifelong commitment to one another, but the furor over one wedding in particular compelled me to write. I, of course, refer to the much publicized and some have said “freakish” ceremony uniting, in holy matrimony, Charles Sherwood Stratton and the object of his affection at New York City’s Grace Church, an event which diverted the attention of a nation at war and prompted hundreds of “fairy weddings” in emulation.
The ceremony took place with the full cooperation of the clergy. The Rev. Junius M. Willey officiated; he was joined by the Rev. Dr. Putnam, and the Rev. Dr. Taylor, rector of Grace Church. A reporter noted, “”The interior of the church was crowded with a gay assemblage of the youth, beauty, wealth, and worth of the metropolis. The cards of invitation had requested full dress, which was, in most instances, complied with, so that the swarming, bustling congregation resembled one vast parterre of brilliant tulips all ablaze in the midday sun.”
In spite of the interest of the press and public, admission was by invitation only. And so at noon on February 10, 1863, the groom, Charles S. Stratton, known more popularly as General Tom Thumb, walked down the aisle with his bride, Lavinia Warren. Because the groom was only 33 inches tall, and the bride a tad shorter, there was much craning of necks, and most observers could only trace the couple’s progress by the soft rustle of satin as they walked to the altar.
For their fame, the couple had P.T. Barnum to thank. The famed promoter met Stratton in 1842, when he was but a boy, 16 pounds, 25″ in height, gave him the name General Tom Thumb, exaggerated his age a bit, put him on display as the world’s smallest man at his American Museum in New York City, and together they made a small fortune. Stratton’s wardrobe included many military uniforms (he was a smash as Napoleon) and he learned a rich variety of patter, dances and songs to keep the public coming back for more. Part of an audience with the General seems to have been the sharing of a token of affection; it was estimated that prior to his marriage, the General bestowed three million kisses upon his female admirers.
Barnum toured the nation and the world with the General. By the age of 10, young Stratton had already been the guest of U.S. President James K. Polk, Queen Victoria, Isabella of Spain, and King Louis Philippe of France. In New York, he numbered among his friends the Astors and Belmonts, Roosevelts and Vanderbilts. In 1862, Barnum found another little person, one Lavinia Warren Bump, brought her to New York and persuaded her to drop the less than euphonious “Bump” from her name. When Mr. Stratton and Miss Warren were introduced, Stratton asked to speak privately to Barnum, and informed him that he was in love. Miss Warren experienced similar feelings and soon the couple was engaged.
The news sent New York into a frenzy. Appearing together at Barnum’s American Museum, the couple grossed $3,000 a week plus the $300 they made each day selling their own autographed photos, or “carte de vistes,” by photographers such as Mathew Brady.
The pets of high society, and as wealthy now as many of their society admirers, Stratton and Warren sought a church that would hold all their closest friends. They settled on Grace Church on Broadway. But all was not rosebuds and orange blossoms. The Brooklyn Eagle said of Barnum, “he outrages public decency.” Nor did they spare the church:
“We are surprised that the clergy, or representatives of so respectable a body as the Episcopal Church should, for a moment, allow themselves to be used by this Yankee showman to advertise his business; or that a Bishop should allow himself to be exhibited like the Albino, or the What Is It. It is bad enough to turn the solemn rites of marriage into a public entertainment for the gaping crowd of morbid curiosity hunters, without profaning the house of God with such an exhibition.”
Imagine a journalist invoking the name of God and distorting the facts to bolster his argument. (Thank heaven such things no longer happen in our more enlightened age.) In fact, admission to the wedding was by invitation only; tickets were not for sale. Bishop Potter was not on exhibit. Barnum, however, did host the reception and charge admission, $75 per person; he had 15,000 requests for tickets of which he was able to honor 5,000. And he noted afterwards that the disapproval voiced by certain members of the press had the primary effect of boosting ticket sales at the Museum.
Other journalists were kinder. Of the bride, one writer rhapsodized:
“The graceful form of Mrs. Charles S. Stratton was shown to advantage in her bridal robe, which was composed of plain white satin, the skirt en traine, being decorated with a flounce of costly point lace, headed by tulle puffings; the berthe to match. Her hair, slightly waved, was rolled a la Eugenie, and elaborately puffed in noeuds behind, in which the bridal veil was looped: natural orange blossoms breathed their perfume above her brow, and mingled their fragrance with the soft sighs of her gentle bosom. Roses and japonicas composed a star-shaped bouquet, which she held in her just-bestowed hand.”
The rector of Grace Church heard also from his parishioners. In particular, the letter of one “W*** S***” survives. The day after the wedding, he sputtered thusly:
“Sir: The object of my unwillingly addressing you this note is to inquire what right you had to exclude myself and other owners of pews in Grace Church from entering it yesterday, enforced, too, by a cordon of police for that purpose. If my pew is not my property, I wish to know it; and if it is, I deny your right to prevent me from occupying it whenever the church is open, even at a marriage of mountebanks, which I would not take the trouble to cross the street to witness. Respectfully, your obedient servant, W*** S***”
The Rev. Dr. Taylor’s reply was a masterpiece, and I excerpt liberally:
“Dear Sir: I am sorry, my valued friend, that you should have written me the peppery letter that is now before me. If the matter of which you complain be so utterly insignificant and contemptible as ‘a marriage of mountebanks’ it surprises me that you should have made such strenuous, but ill-directed efforts to secure a ticket of admission… You will pardon me for saying that a pew in a church is property only in a peculiar and restricted sense. It is not property, as your house or horse is property… In short, you hold by purchase, and may sell the right to, the undisturbed possession of that little space within the church edifice which you call your pew during the hours of divine service…
“Two young persons, whose only crimes would seem to be that they are neither so big, nor so stupid, nor so ill-mannered, nor so inordinately selfish as some other people, come to me and say, sir, we are about to be married, and we wish to throw around our marriage all the solemnities of religion… I tell you, sir, that whenever, and from whomsoever, such an appeal is made to my Christian courtesy, although it should come from the very humblest of the earth, I would go calmly and cheerfully forward to meet their wishes, although as many W*** S***’s as would reach from here to Kamtschatka, clothed in furs and frowns, should rise up to oppose me.
“Surely it is no light thing to call forth so much innocent joy in so few moments of passing time… thus to smooth the roughness and sweeten the acerbities which mar our happiness as we advance upon the wearing journey of life. Sir, it was most emphatically a high triumph of ‘Christian civilization!’ Respectfully submitted, by your obedient servant, Thomas House Taylor”
P.T. Barnum, for his part, was blackmailed by a woman who published a pamphlet entitled “Priests and Pigmies.” When she offered Barnum the option of buying the entire printing, he told her to return after its distribution so that he might estimate her value as an advertising agent and he would pay her accordingly at that time.
:: The Honeymoon ::
The bridal party was too happy to be bothered. They traveled first to Philadelphia, and then to Washington, where they were invited to the White House. The Washington Star reported that they were “introduced to the President, Mrs. Lincoln, Secretaries Chase, Stanton, Welles, Blair, and Usher, and Senator Wilson, Generals Butler and Clay, Hon. J. J. Crittendon, and many other gentlemen of distinction, nearly all of whom were accompanied by their families.” Mrs. Stratton later recalled:
“Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln received us cordially. When Mr. Lincoln stooped his towering form to greet us, there was a peculiarly quizzical expression in his eye, which almost made me laugh outright. Knowing his predilection for story telling, I imagined he was about to utter something of a humorous nature; but he only said, with a genial smile, ‘Mrs. Stratton, I wish you much happiness in your union.’ After receiving the congratulations of all present, the President took our hands and led us to the sofa, lifting the General up and placing him at his left hand, while Mrs. Lincoln did the same service for me, placing me at her right.”
The following day, General Tom Thumb and his bride visited the troops on Arlington Heights. Mrs. Stratton recalled:
“As we rode through the vast camp, we were greeted with cheers, throwing up of caps, and shouts from all sides, such as, ‘General, I saw you last down in Maine!’ — ‘ I saw you in Boston!’ — ‘I saw you in Pennsylvania!’ — ‘I saw you in old New York!’ — ‘Three cheers for General Tom Thumb and his little wife!’ It seemed a joy to them to see a face which recalled to their minds memories of happy days at home. It was a grand but a sad sight to me. I reflected how many of those brave fellows would perhaps never again see home, wives, or children, but their bodies now so full of life be lying inanimate on the battle field.”
From the United States, the couple traveled to Europe via steamship. Upon arrival in Liverpool, they were greeted by a crowd of thousands, and as they traveled were received by the royal families of England and France.
:: Skaneateles ::
The couple’s touring brought them to Skaneateles on May 21, 1869; the General was joined by his wife, Commodore Nutt, and Minnie Warren: “a married couple, a bachelor and a belle, all four weighing a little over 100 pounds.” There were two performances in Legg Hall, at 3 and 8 p.m., and “Ladies and Children are considerately advised to attend the Day Exhibition, and thus avoid the crowd and confusion of the Evening Performance.”
The cast was advertised as performing The Old Folks, New Year’s Calls (“a side-splitting Comicality”) and Distinguished Arrivals. Patrons were notified that the dresses worn by the two young ladies were worth $50,000 — Mrs. Thumb guaranteed three costume changes per performance — and that their splendid jewels would be on exhibition at each levee (reception). Commodore Nutt, who was best man at the wedding, appeared as a drummer, a sailor with a hornpipe and as the Drunkard, performed a Scotch Broadsword Dance, and also danced “Jim Crow, in the Character of a Crow!” Tom Thumb gratified the crowd by appearing as Napoleon Bonaparte.
The quartet arrived and departed in a miniature coach drawn by “the smallest ponies in the world” and staffed by a miniature coachman and footman in livery. The price of admission was 25 cents, with 50 cents bringing a reserved seat. I’ve got to believe it was worth every penny.
* * *
The couple toured together, happily, until their retirement in 1882. As for the wedding, it spawned legions of similar “fairy weddings,” featuring young children in wedding garb, all across the nation.
An actual Fairy Wedding in Skaneateles, courtesy of the Skaneateles Historical Society
The critics, badly outnumbered and overwhelmed by the world’s love for the couple, fell silent. For once, the world managed to live and let live
* * *
Compliments of Charles Stratton
Compliments of Lavinia Warren Stratton
From Photographic Negative by (Mathew) BRADY
Published by E. & H.T. Anthony, 501 Broadway, New York, Manufacturers of the Best Photographic Albums
Autographed carte-de-viste from the Strattons’ visit courtesy of the Skaneateles Historical Society; thanks also to the Onondaga Historical Association; Barnum: A Unique Story of a Marvelous Career. Life of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum by Joel Benton; Sketch Of The Life, Personal Appearance, Character And Manners Of Charles S. Stratton, The Man In Miniature, Known As General Tom Thumb, And His Wife, Lavinia Warren Stratton; Including The History Of Their Courtship And Marriage, With Some Account Of Remarkable Dwarfs, Giants, & Other Human Phenomena, Of Ancient And Modern Times, And Songs Given At Their Public Levees, published in 1863 by the Press of Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, New York; excerpts from Mrs. Tom Thumb’s Autobiography by Lavinia Warren, New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, September 16 and October 7, 1906; “Marriage a La Barnum,” Brooklyn Eagle, January 26, 1863; The Skaneateles Press, May 1869.