Charles Stratton, more famous by his stage name General Tom Thumb, wed Lavinia Warren on on February 10, 1863. Both had a form of dwarfism and were among P. T. Barnum's most renowned performers. They toured the world and people gathered to marvel at their small size - Charles was 3'4" and Lavinia 2'8". They rode in a miniature carriage. They had miniature furniture.
All they needed was a miniature baby.
It was announced that their child was born on December 5, 1863. Most sources referred to it simply as a baby or child, and at least one periodical appeared to think it was a boy. The overwhelming evidence, however, points towards a baby girl who was named Minnie after her aunt. She went on tour with them and was mentioned by name as early as 1864 in English papers. There was some disagreement as to whether Minnie would take after her parents' "Lilliputian" stature, but she was undoubtedly a hit and always described as a very beautiful child. They sold a fortune's worth of pictures of the happy little family.
Tragically, less than three years later, newspapers reported that "Minnie Tom Thumb" (her nickname) had died. She suffered from an inflammation of the brain while in Norwich, where her parents were touring ("Foreign News and Gossip." Brooklyn Eagle. Oct 15, 1866). She was mentioned in Charles' obituary in the New York Times, and in 1882, the Strattons' manager, Sylvester Bleeker, said the child had looked just like her Aunt Minnie.
Then, in 1901, eighteen years after Charles' death, Lavinia told newspapers that she had never given birth at all.
Renting babies from orphanages? Abruptly announcing the child's death when the charade had run its course? It was exactly the type of thing people expected from Mr. P. T. "There's a sucker born every minute" Barnum. In fact, skeptics tended to preemptively declare Barnum's acts hoaxes; as soon as 1878, obituaries for Lavinia's sister mentioned "the spurious Thumb baby."
And the Strattons had played along with Barnum - or even suggested it to him in the first place. Tom Thumb's baby was all a hoax.
OR WAS IT?
In the BBC documentary "The Real Tom Thumb," historian John Gannon claims that they really did have a daughter. He produces a death certificate and burial record for "Minnie Warren Stratton, daughter of the celebrated General Tom Thumb," a contemporary news article, and finally a tombstone in Earlham Cemetery in Norwich.
The Norfolk News said that the private funeral was invaded by a crowd of about a thousand, and that the General planned to later have the body moved to America and reinterred (Norfolk News 29 September 1866 p.5). The reinternment never happened, and the grave still lies there today. Newspapers stated that the Strattons cancelled performances in order to grieve.
However, it has been accepted for over a hundred years that the child was a hoax. and John Gannon's records are far from conclusive evidence. Although it seems technically possible that Lavinia bore a daughter, the timeline makes it unlikely. She was performing onstage constantly during the year when the child would have to have been born.
Pregnancy would also have presented her with the same risks that took the life of her sister, who was even smaller than she was, and who died in 1878 after a painful and difficult childbirth. The baby died with her. It left a deep mark both on her family and on the public. Even years later, in 1892, an article on the wedding of Admiral and Mrs. Dot (another small pair of performers) said, “Every mother in the room thought of Minnie Warren, and felt a throb of fear at the risk this little woman in white was taking.” On the other hand, the same article indicates rumors “that Tom Thumb’s son is nearly six feet high, and that he is very proud of his little mother.”
There was no reason for Lavinia to say she'd faked a baby - willingly participating in such a hoax would not have made her look good. And it seems odd that, in her autobiography, she would mention the death of her sister (which affected her deeply) but not her daughter. As a matter of fact, her autobiography, which was probably written somewhere around 1900 or 1901, has no mention of a baby whatsoever. Because it was even more painful than her sister's death? Or because it had become an old shame?
Later on, Lavinia's family went out of their way to set the record straight. Her nephew, Benjamin J. Bump mentioned the baby hoax in his 1953 pamphlet, "The Story that Never Grows Old," and in his correspondence with researcher Alice Curtis Desmond. His wife Edna wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times on April 21, 1946, saying that "The Tom Thumbs never had a child."
It seems most likely that the Strattons never had children, but they may have grown attached to their surrogates. Based on the death record and grave, it seems that one of these borrowed children died in their care, and they grieved for her and had her buried under the name Minnie Warren Stratton.
That seems to have marked an end to the touring with babies. On the other hand, Bogdan in Picturing Disability dates one of the family photos to 1868, and Desmond reported in her 1954 book that they were exhibited with a baby in 1881 (page 215). On the other other hand, A. H. Saxon suggests that some European newspapers mistook Lavinia’s sister for a child (Autobiography). It was too long ago and there was too much misinformation to be sure.
What gives me more pause is the 1901 interview with Lavinia. Although this article is frequently quoted, something seems off with the math, and the mention of the child apparently reaching age four before any problem was seen. Even though this was decades later, and memory can fade, how does the life and death of "Minnie Warren Stratton" mesh with the baby boy described in that article?
The dwarves of fairy tale and fantasy literature are characterized by their short stature and impressive beards. Tolkien defined the trope, and Disney undoubtedly helped by portraying six of Snow White's seven dwarves with full beards. In some stories, even female dwarfs are frequently supposed to have similar amounts of facial hair. Other little folk are similar, like garden gnomes with their white beards and leprechauns with red beards.
Unlike the people of Europe who told stories of gnomes and leprechauns, Native American men rarely wore beards. However, in such countries there are stories of excessively hairy little people, like the Anishinaabe's Memegwesi, the Lakota's Wiwila Men (in some versions) or the Metis tale of the adventurous and womanizing "Little Man with Hair All Over" (a version of The Bear's Son, Type 650A).
Tolkien based his dwarves on the dwarfs of Norse myth. However, Norse and Germanic dwarfs may not have originally been the short beings we immediately picture today.
Still, the bearded dwarves we know today go back a long way. For instance, the ancient Egyptian god Bes had achrondroplasic proportions and was one of the few Egyptian deities depicted with a full set of facial hair. (James Romano theorizes that Bes is visually descended from a lion, which would explain his sometimes manelike 'do.)
Through export, Bes would become a popular deity with other peoples such as the Phoenicians and the Cypriots.
In the 5th century BC, Ctesias described Indian pygmies two cubits tall, who raised livestock that was similarly small, and had a war going on with some cranes. These pygmies had grew their hair out to their knees and their beards past their feet, so long that they did not require any other clothing. There may have been seeds of truth in this story.
Dwarfs in Arthurian romances were frequently described with beards, and in folklore throughout Europe, dwarves were described and drawn as little old men with long beards.
So why do dwarves have beards?
Facial hair makes it immediately clear that despite his small size, the dwarf is not a child but a miniature adult. Such illustrations leave no room for confusion. (Fairies, who are not typically shown with beards, are usually more childlike and/or feminine.)
From there, the exaggeration takes over. Sometimes the beard's length becomes purely silly and imaginative, as in stories where the tiny man's beard is longer than he is and trails on the ground like a parody of Rapunzel's hair.
Some readers - from Jane Yolen on Rumpelstiltskin, to numerous critics of Tolkien's gold-loving dwarves - have suggested that these bearded dwarves are anti-Semitic caricatures. Jews in the Middle Ages were frequently depicted wtih beards. However, the trope of the bearded dwarf is so widespread and so old that it seems unlikely that they were all based on Jews. I think it's more likely that they were based on real people with achondroplasia, or real pygmy tribes.
I feel like I should also mention that there was a story published by the Grimms called "The Jew in the Thorns," which featured both a bearded, thieving Jewish man and a supernatural-type dwarf who helped the hero get revenge on him.
The beard is a symbol of wisdom and age. According to SurLaLune, a beard can also symbolize magical powers or invulnerability, or a sign of a somehow animal nature.
The hairy little people of many Native American lores could have been influenced by Europeans coming over, but hair can still be a mark of physical maturity, as well as, again, a sign that the being is more like an animal than a human.
In Snow White and Rose Red, the dwarf's beard is the source of his power. He catches it in a crevice in a tree and in a fishing line, and the girls cut it off to free him, taking his powers away in the process.
Along the same lines, in the Pomeranian "Das Wolfskind," an ugly little man with a long black beard is poisoning people's food. The hero, Johann, traps the dwarf's beard in a split block of wood, and later hangs him by the beard from the ceiling and treats him like a tetherball (Jahn). This is type 650A.
Here we see the beard as a physical manifestation of power. When someone else gains control of it, he is quickly left emasculated and powerless. There is definitely room for some Freudian reading here.
Ultimately, my instinct is that the simplest explanation is the best: dwarves were drawn with beards so that nobody would mistake them for children. Egyptian art of Bes, for instance, sometimes had childlike attributes (such as going naked or wearing a lock of hair on the right side of his head). He could have easily been mistaken for a child had he not been drawn with facial hair (Åkerblom 15). And it just went from there, until beards were a defining characteristic of fairytale dwarves.
Fairy Tale: A True Story is available on Netflix now. It’s based on the story of the Cottingley Fairies, which I’m fascinated by, so I gave it a watch, skipping through some scenes because it was late. I enjoyed it more than I expected.
It is indeed based on a true story. Starting in 1917, two cousins in Cottingley, England, named Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced photographs of themselves with what appeared to be real, live fairies.
It’s strange to think that these photographs convinced so many. Even with the camera quality, their gnomes and sprites look flat and sharp-edged, like paper cutouts . . . which, of course, they were. Elsie’s father picked up on this, but somehow the “proof” of real fairies became huge news. This was mainly thanks to one of their most prominent champions, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was totally on board with it.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Frances and Elsie admitted that it had all been faked. The delicate, dancing figures were copied from picture books onto cardboard and supported with hatpins. They still maintained, however, that they had really seen fairies.
The film, which came out in 1997, wholly embraces the idea of the real live fairies. They are constantly flittering around. However, this makes the film somewhat disturbing on another note, because so much of it is about faith and belief in things unseen, in a higher power. It opens with a performance of Peter Pan, with the lead character crying, "Clap if you believe in fairies!" The audience of children applauds and cheers. One character is having a crisis of faith and searching for hope after her son's death; characters talk about belief again and again. And then it all turns out to be real. Yay!! But the “true story” it’s based on was a hoax. The filmmakers most definitely knew that it was a hoax. The end result is that the film feels like a mockery.
That said, we never actually see the girls take a photo. And in one of the final scenes of the movie, juxtaposed with two other cases revealing hoaxes, a reporter discovers the paper fairies on their hatpins, in exactly the poses from the photo. However, the scene then turns around, and the supernatural takes back over. A ghost appears and frightens him away. The movie later ends with fairies filling the family's house and even the skeptical father finally being convinced.
Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to portray the girls in the most positive light. Frances and Elsie always said, even after confessing to the hoax, that they really had seen fairies. Still, I don’t think it’s right to market this to children as "A True Story," with taglines like "Believe!" because it cheapens the truth. It's like saying "You can believe in this thing! Well, in this case, the proof turned out to be a bald-faced lie, but you should still believe in the thing because it's a happy thing that brings you joy!"
And the fairies feel like a marketing ploy.
That's right - there were books and a doll line. "Fairies of Cottingley Glen." But at least it was well-researched.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a spiritualist who by all accounts wanted to believe. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was an alcoholic who suffered from epilepsy and depression, and spent the latter part of his life in a mental institution. While there, he filled sketchbooks with elaborate, fantastical artwork of elves and fairies. The movie touches briefly on this and it makes Doyle's motivations much more understandable.
There was one scene that I actually stopped and rewound because the girls are walking through the woods calling the names of the fairies, and they’re all names from real folklore. A cast list reveals the names of even more fairies.
I've read about the Cottingley Fairies before, on the Internet and in The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World, by Mary Losure. This book is written for children, but is a great read and incredibly well-researched. However, like the movie, it still clings to the idea that the girls really did see fairies, and they faked the photos because . . . um . . . they saw fairies.
Back to the movie. There’s beautiful scenery, the effects have aged surprisingly well, and I found myself enjoying it overall. Still, I was still bothered by that whole faith/fakery complex, and also the feeling that the fairies were real so that the moviemakers could sell toys. I would have much preferred to see the movie simply reveal that yes, the fairies were faked, and leave it at that, with maybe a faint hint at real supernatural events rather than full-blown "FAIRIES ARE REAL AND THEY'RE IN YOUR HOUSE." Even better, it'd be nice to see the girls actually taking the photos.
(I must say, I never expected to see Dame Habetrot or the Shellycoat marketed as cute, big-eyed Barbies with fluorescent hair. The Shellycoat!)
I have an old copy of the Arabian Nights written for children, and I read it a few times. I always loved the one with Periezade best. (She's so cool!) However, some stories left me with questions. There is one line in the story of Aladdin that has always mystified me.
So, the original story is much longer and more complicated than the Disney version. It even takes place in China! Well, sort of. It's called China but none of the names or settings seem particularly Chinese. It reads more like a name tacked on to say "oh, this story took place far away." Aladdin is not one of the original Thousand and One Nights, but a story added in the 18th century by French translator Antoine Galland. He claimed to have heard it himself from a monk from Aleppo.
There are two genies. And there are two villains - the sorcerer who's after the lamp in the first place, and then his brother, who comes in to avenge him. The brother is legitimately terrifying. He kills an old lady, dresses up as her, and gains the princess's confidence, filling her with greed for . . . the egg of a roc, so that she can hang it up in her house, as you do. Just as planned, the princess asks Aladdin for one, and he promises to wish one up for her.
Here's where things take an unusual turn - for the first time, the genie refuses a wish. Not just refuses, but screams in Aladdin's face.
Where did this come from? I thought rocs were just giant birds that threw rocks at Sinbad. Now the roc's egg is the genie's master?
Even holding the lamp, we learn, does not make Aladdin the true master of the genie. There is a higher, sacred authority.
So, in the story of Aladdin, the genie's master is apparently a roc's egg. This is something that sorcerers know, but ordinary citizens are ignorant of.
One thing that muddles this for me is that Aladdin was likely, at least in part, invented by Galland. So there's a chance he made up that exchange with the genie and had no idea what he was talking about.
However, after a little bit of thought, I think there is a logical rationale behind it. The reason goes back to the simurgh.
There are giant birds like the roc in many mythologies. One tale of the Arabian Nights, "The Story of Damir and al-‘Anqa,’" features a female djinn named Al-Anqa - that being the name of another Arabic monster-bird, the anqa or anka. The phoenix, a symbol of rebirth, also routinely shows up in these lists, along with the Egyptian bennu, the Jewish ziz, and the Greek gryphon.
The Persian equivalent is the simurgh, which like the roc is described as big enough to carry off elephants. Iranian legends say that the bird is so old that it has seen the world destroyed three times over, and is nearly all-knowing. In some stories, like the Phoenix, it plunges itself voluntarily into flames. The simurgh is a being of healing and purity which purifies things, bestows fertility, in one story taught humans to do Cesarean sections, and represents the union between the Earth and sky. It nests in the Tre of Life, the source of all kinds of plants and healing medicine. A similar bird, the Hōm, is a healer and messenger which represents the divine right of kings. In Sufi mysticism, the Simurgh would later become a metaphor for God; it was the king of the birds in the 12th-century work "The Conference of the Birds."
In the Arabic-speaking world, the Simurgh was combined with other birds of myth like the Ghoghnus, and became the Roc or Rukh. Like the Simurgh, the Roc is a huge bird big enough to carry off elephants.
Eating the fertilized egg of a Roc was said to grant eternal youth - hearkening back to the Simurgh's powers of healing and life. (Sinbad's companions try to eat a Roc's egg in one story.)
So here you have a birdlike creature that heals and purifies; its flesh grants eternal youth; it connects Earth and Sky and has been used as a metaphor for God and royalty. Eggs themselves are symbols of new life.
Djinn are mysterious creatures of flame, more akin to angels and demons than to humans. Many seem to have powers beyond human comprehension. They may be evil or good, but fall under the dominion of Allah. Many served King Solomon.
The name of the female genie Al-Anqa suggest a further connection between djinn and large birds. In Muruj al-dhahab, by Al-Mas'udi (c. 896–956), the first iblises, marids and ghouls are all described as hatching from eggs laid by a jann lady - these all being different types of djinn.
Some writers have taken notice of this scene. One source, somewhat fancifully, describes an embryonic Roc as the "Prince of Djins." Another talks about a Voldemort-style "Lord of the Lamp" that has enslaved these genies. I don't know where the author got that interpretation from. Others have the roc's egg described in feminine terms, as the genie's "Liege Lady" or "mistress." However, I haven't been able to find any real in-depth discourse or adaptations.
When I researched Tom Thumb weddings a while back, there was one thing that mystified me - and that was the name Jennie June. This was the name used in the Baker's play published in 1898, and in the majority of advertisements and reviews found as my research.
It was clear how the Tom Thumb name had been inherited from General Tom Thumb and thence from the fairytale, but who was Jennie June? Wouldn't it have made more sense to call the bride Lavinia, after Mrs. Stratton? Another skit gave the bride the thematically appropriate name Lilly Putian.
Maybe I'm overthinking it and it's just a random name that they threw in thinking it sounded good. Maybe, as I initially guessed, there's a connection to the tradition of June weddings. There have been plenty of women with this name. Anyway, I set out to create a timeline, seeking out possible inspirations for the name of Tom's bride.
1853: A book of poems by Benjamin Franklin Taylor, "January and June." I'm not sure of the original date of publication of these poems; they may have been previously published in the Evening Journal.
Anyway, one poem is titled Jenny June/The Beautiful River.
In a twilight like that, Jenny June for a bride,
Oh ! what more of the world could one wish for beside,
Jennie June (Jane Cunningham Croly): A very famous journalist who founded the Sorosis club for women in 1868. Wikipedia mentions that she may have first used the pen name of Jennie June as early as 1855. Whenever she first used it, she seems to have used a few at first before settling on that one and starting a trend of alliterative pen names.
Her pen name soon became a household name, with her columns and clubs gaining popularity. In the 1880's, she edited a series of manuals for ladies, including an American Cookery Book and several books on needlework and sewing.
I found many different accounts of what inspired her name.
However, Croly would have been twelve in 1841, and the earliest I can find proof of Taylor's poem is 1853. At seventy, when she is supposed to have been interviewed about this, Croly may have had trouble remembering the real specifics. However, the varying accounts, as well as the overly flowery style in the Oshkosh paper, make me think that there was some significant embellishment going on. Also, the first-person account in the New England Magazine never mentions Taylor.
1863: – “Jennie June” appears in Beadle's Dime Song Book, copied by permission of Firth, Son & Co. “Did you see dear Jennie June . . .”
Also in 1863, General Tom Thumb got married, and the wedding was a huge media spectacle. In following years, other small performers, like Francis Joseph Flynn/General Mite in 1884, would also have widely publicized weddings. In 1892, of performer Admiral Dot and his wife Lottie Swartwood, it was said that "in their wedding garments they looked more like pretty little children than like a man and woman about to embark on the uncertain sea of matrimony." Perhaps it wasn't just the Strattons who inspired the wedding pageant.
1875-1876: The McLoughlin Brothers Paper Dolls includes a doll named Jennie June - a small girl with several different outfits, sold alongside characters like Polly Prim and Gerty Good for 8 cents; these were part of a series of smaller paper dolls, 5 5/8 " inches tall.
I don't know exactly when this paper doll first appeared; the Uniform Trade List Circular has a mention of the name dated in 1866.
Interestingly, there were also McLoughlin paper doll versions of General Tom Thumb, Lavinia Stratton, and their companions.
1891: The absolute earliest mention I've found of a Tom Thumb wedding in print - hosted by the First African Presbyterian Church. William Dorsey’s Philadelphia cites the Leon Gardiner Collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
1892: A song called “Little Jennie June” is printed in Album Melodies by Richard Ferber.
1896: “Sweet Jennie June,” a song by Henry J. Sayers
1898: Thirty-five years after the Stratton wedding, The Walter H. Baker & Co. of Boston put out a play 35 years later called, 'The Tom Thumb Wedding" - “as originally performed at the Union Tabernacle Church, Philadelphia, PA”. From this, we know that there was already a pageant tradition forming; it was just that now people were creating scripts.
Here, the bride is named Jennie June, and this was the name I found most often browsing through old newspapers and photos. This was the name that kicked off a burning question that would only ever torment one single person in history.
However, at the time, there were other scripts bopping around. Jennie June's chief rival seems to have been Lillian Putian Midget or simply Miss Midget. Again, this name seems less random than Jennie June. People would have gotten the reference to Gulliver's Travels; Tom Thumb was often compared to the people of Lilliput, and at their wedding, General Tom Thumb and his bride were headlined as "The Loving Lilliputians." (Speaking of General Tom Thumb, in Ohio in 1957, there was a "Mock Marriage of Tom Thumb and Miss Lavinia Warren."
The earliest mention of Lillian I could find dates to 1901 in the Oklahoman, with a facetious wedding announcement. The writer was clearly having fun with references, as there's a mention of their address at "Gullivar Avenue."
In 1911, a copyright was issued for "The Marriage of Miss Midget," or "The Marriage of the Midgets, or The Tom Thumb Wedding," written by May Burnworth. It was renewed in 1914. This was the Lillian Putian version - not the Bakers Plays version, though it usually bore the same name. Here, in a brochure filled with glowing reviews, at the end there is a stern "WARNING!!" All public performances must be under the direction of C. A. Rose, of the Baxter Printing Company, Kansas City, MO.
(Incidentally, I found a mention in an 1914 Illinois Newspaper -
Still, that warning is pretty strong. In this reprint of their play, Bakers' puts up a bit of a defense.
In the meantime, there were some odd blends of the two brides' names. In an announcement in 1915, Mr. and Mrs. Lyttle Smalle Lilliput announced their daughter Jennie June's wedding. And in 1926, the bride was Miss Jennie June Midget.
However, ultimately it seems to me that the Baker play and Jennie June have lasted longer. At least, in this day and age, I can easily track down the Baker play online, while I'm at a loss for finding any others. And references abound - for instance, there was a skit called "Tom Thumb's First Wedding Anniversary" by Donald V. Hock, published in 1934, with Jennie as the wife.
Anyway, back to the mystery at hand. Namely - who is Jennie June?
Maybe the writers thought of the little paper doll; maybe it was inspired by someone's copy of a Jennie June manual for ladies; perhaps they remembered Taylor's poem with the line "Jennie June for a bride." But I'm guessing it was just a random name that the writer found cute - most likely something born in the original Union Tabernacle Church skit cited by Baker's Plays.
This website is based on my research into folklore. Home to the Thumbling Project, collecting different versions of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina from around the world.