They toured New England until she died in February, , at which time a doctor pronounced her no more than eighty years old. The New York Sun declared the whole thing "one of the most precious humbugs that ever was imposed upon a credulous community. Barnum left plenty of room for doubt in the public's minds, though, with the very logical statement, "If Joice Heth was an imposter, who taught her these things? And how happened it that she was so familiar, not only with ancient psalmody, but also with the minute details of the Washington family?
But perhaps his most memorable humbug came with the "Fejee Mermaid," a strange half-fish, half-monkey cobbled together in a taxidermy shop. In the summer of Barnum rented this Fejee Mermaid from Moses Kimball of Boston and perpetuated an elaborate hoax in the papers in which he built up the public's appetite for weeks to see this "mermaid," fooling newspapers into promoting this curiosity in an elaborate ruse worthy of the most cunning media manipulators. This trickery would become a fundamental element of the popular entertainment industry in later years, used in magic acts, circus sideshows, photographs, and films.
But it was not ignorance that brought spectators into the seats; it was the very question of authenticity itself. People consistently questioned if these exhibitions were indeed humbugs, and if so, how they were achieved. Barnum had already become a master of creating these questions for a curious public, and was simultaneously creating the market for them.
He also knew how to promote the unusual and the bizarre. So, when the Hudson River froze over in November , and he was forced to take the rattling Housatonic Railroad down to Bridgeport, he was very interested to meet the miniature boy everyone was talking about. In later years, various people claimed to have a part in this historic meeting. The wife of the tavern-keeper at the Daniel Sterling House, Theodosia Fairchild, professed to have known Charles and Cynthia well, and been instrumental in bringing them to the world's attention. According to her, she had been at choir practice and heard the rumor that Barnum was in town, though he was hardly so famous at this point that it would have stirred gossip.
She says that she encouraged Cynthia, who worked with her, to allow "Charlie" to meet the showman, and that the boy even wore a blue velvet suit she had made for him. In her version, she acted as a mediator with the showman's half-brother Philo Fairchild Barnum, the proprietor of the Franklin House, a rival hotel. Philo came to the Stratton's house on Main Street, though apparently he had never seen Charles before, unlikely in such a small town. Cynthia needed to be convinced, but both she and Sherwood finally went over to the Franklin House to meet P. However, Theodosia was not the only one who made a claim to arranging the famous meeting.
Three years after Charles's death, a New Yorker named Henry Folsom claimed to have been drinking buddies with Sherwood Stratton, and also acquainted with the showman and his brother Philo. Acting as a go-between he told Barnum of this small boy not "bigger than a pint of cider," who would be perfect for the new museum.
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According to him, Barnum took his advice and went up to see the child. Others made similar claims, all no doubt wanting to be part of the incredible story of Tom Thumb, and no doubt many had a grain of truth in them. Barnum himself credited his older half-brother exclusively. Philo's claim is supported by the fact that he solicited or perhaps threatened Barnum that he was owed "half the money" for introducing him to Charles, or more specifically to his profitable abilities.
Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity
Later, this uncomfortable family situation would nearly prevent the showman from settling in Bridgeport, despite his wife's wishes. Whatever the case, P. Barnum and Charles Stratton met in the smoky dining room at the Franklin House, and the showman was suitably impressed. The small boy had dark, twinkling eyes, framed with "light hair and ruddy cheeks. At first he seemed bashful around this stranger, but after encouragement talked enough to convince the showman that he was not dim-witted.
Barnum already knew that physical oddities could sell tickets for the New York museum he had recently purchased, and that "giants and dwarfs" who were otherwise suitably proportioned were amongst the biggest draws. However, he noted that "I felt that the venture was only an experiment, and I engaged him for four weeks at three dollars a week. Charles was hardly the first little person to perform on the American scene.
However, in the s none became famous beyond limited regions, except one "dwarf child" also renamed Tom Thumb. Calvin was advertised in much the same way as Charles, as "handsome, and well proportioned," but unfortunately for him was not taught more than "childish amusements.
However, like Calvin Phillips, spectators found them to be "infantile. He was still working part-time at the New York museums when Charles Stratton arrived in the city and took his job and name in dramatic fashion. The first steamboat to connect Bridgeport and New York had been the Fulton in , replaced seven years later by the General Lafayette, named in honor of the Marquis's visit to the city.
They were about to put a diminutive four-year-old child on display in the largest city in America. This could easily be seen as the basest form of exploitation, though for his age more than his size. His parents wanted money, yes, but the pay was not so great at the beginning that they would have been swayed solely by that. The options for a "dwarf" in the mid-nineteenth century were limited, and perhaps they thought they were doing something that would help him survive.
Nevertheless, as a child he was being "put" on display, rather than choosing to do so himself, as he would later in life. His wife said in later years that "He [Charles] had often remarked that he never remembered having been a child, being placed on exhibition when he was but four years of age, and was then educated to act the part of a man and put childish things away.
Adams, who says that in conversation Charles expressed regret "that he had never known childhood. New York must have seemed a strange country to little Charles, who had never seen anything but the dirt roads and ramshackle houses of provincial Bridgeport.
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British author Charles Dickens had visited New York shortly before the Strattons arrived, and his account gives a good idea of what they would have seen. Dickens found Broadway a "wide and bustling street, which, from the Battery Gardens to its opposite termination in a country road, may be four miles long Was there ever such a sunny street as this Broadway! The pavement stones are polished with the tread of feet until they shine again; the red bricks of the houses might be yet in the dry, hot kilns; and the roofs of those omnibuses look as though, if water were poured on them, they would hiss and smoke and smell like half-quenched fires.
Beggars collected in areas like Five Points, where "narrow ways" reeked of "dirt and filth.
On Wall Street where the "houses and tables are elegant," merchants "locked up money in their strongboxes," and by the waterside "bowsprits of ships stretch across the footway, and almost thrust themselves into the windows. Upon his arrival, Barnum covered the city in broadsides advertising "Tom Thumb," a designation his brother Philo often took credit for, but one that was of course already popular for any little person of the time. This much-used name originally came from the first fairy tale printed in the English language, in , in which a boy no larger than his father's thumb fights dragons and giants, and becomes a knight in King Arthur's court.
Perhaps drawing on this English background, Barnum's first broadside read: "P. But the showman's rationale for this change was simple: the foreign and exotic sold more tickets than the domestic and common. The age change was based on the idea that a four-year-old of that height would not be seen as so extraordinary as would an older child.
Without this, and other promotional methods, he said, "it would have been impossible to excite the interest or awake the curiosity of the public. A remarkable historic journey and a brilliant tale of challenge and success. Barnum "With this book, Eric Lehman has contributed positively and significantly to the history of Charles Stratton, and I am sure his work will inspire others to continue to uncover the story of this great American performer.
See All Customer Reviews. Shop Books. Read an excerpt of this book! Add to Wishlist. USD Barnum met twenty-five-inch-tall Charles Stratton at a Bridgeport, Connecticut hotel in , one of the most important partnerships in entertainment history was born.
Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity
From his days as a precocious child star to his tragic early death, Becoming Tom Thumb tells the full story of this iconic figure for the first time. It details his triumphs on the New York stage, his epic celebrity wedding, and his around-the-world tour, drawing on newly available primary sources and interviews. Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press. All rights reserved.
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Average Review. Write a Review. Barnum, and the dawn of American celebrity. Responsibility Eric D. Series Driftless Connecticut series. Garnet books. Online Available online. Full view. Green Library. T L45 Unknown. More options. Find it at other libraries via WorldCat Limited preview. Bibliography Includes bibliographical references and index.
Summary When P. Barnum met twenty-five-inch-tall Charles Stratton at a Bridgeport, Connecticut hotel in , one of the most important partnerships in entertainment history was born. Adored worldwide as "General Tom Thumb, " Stratton played to sold-out shows for almost forty years.
Project MUSE - Becoming Tom Thumb
From his days as a precocious child star to his tragic early death, Becoming Tom Thumb tells the full story of this iconic figure for the first time. It details his triumphs on the New York stage, his epic celebrity wedding, and his around-the-world tour, drawing on newly available primary sources and interviews. From the mansions of Paris to the deserts of Australia, Stratton's unique brand of Yankee comedy not only earned him the accolades of millions of fans, it helped move little people out of the side show and into the lime light.