P. T. Barnum: America’s Greatest Showman

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P.T. Barnum and Tom Thumb

“In 1842, [P.T. Barnum had a chance encounter with] that miniature concoction, who was to make him rich beyond belief and famous beyond his wildest dreams. Four-year-old Charles S. Stratton was no bigger than a doll. All at once, at seven months, measuring 25 inches and weighing 15 pounds, the child had simply stopped growing. … Sherwood Stratton, the boy’s carpenter father, was only too happy to rent his little son out for a trial month at $3.00 a week plus room and board. … Barnum whisked the youngster away to New York City,  where speedily printed museum posters testified to the thorough Barnumizing Charles Stratton underwent; the four-year-old carpenter’s kid from Bridgeport had been transformed overnight into General Tom Thumb, an 11-year-old marvel just arrived from Europe and engaged at ‘extraordinary expense.’ … Barnum himself was the schoolteacher, training his small charge, first in manners, then in memorizing little quips and speedy comebacks, finally the words and actions for a number of dress-up roles he would play. … Tom, who was a natural mimic, would strike poses and in other ways imitate well-known individuals, including Cupid, Samson, a Highland chieftain, Hercules, an English fox-hunter, Frederick the Great,  and Napoleon. … From later-published scripts we know [how their routines] started off: ‘You being a general, perhaps you will tell us what army you command?’ ‘Cupid’s artillery,’ the General would reply. . …

“Instead of being bitter over his littleness, Tom seemed to glory in it, almost as if it were his own special blessing. He loved to strut out on the stage and show what he could do to an audience. … Of course, Tom’s childhood suffered from his full-time occupation as an adult. At five he learned to drink wine at meals, at seven to smoke cigars. … He loved money and hoarded it. … At the start of 1845, Barnum allowed the Strattons to become full partners in the Thumb adventure [and they became] ‘absolutely deranged with such golden success.’ …

“By 1862, Barnum was watching his wealthy Bridgeport neighbor Charles Stratton (alias Tom Thumb) sail his yacht and drive his thoroughbreds and smoke his imported cigars. … [Barnum soon added as an act] Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump [who] was a 21-year-old beauty from Middleborough, Massachusetts, [and] only 32 inches tall. … Tom Thumb took one look at the museum’s dainty addition and fell head over heels in love. … [Sixteen years later] in 1878, Lavinia’s sister Minnie died painfully while giving birth to a full-sized baby, not the miniature child she and her husband had expected. … [After this and another friend’s tragic death], Tom Thumb was never the same. … [In 1883] Tom died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 46.”

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