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?
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This is so fascinating! Yet tragic to think of orphaned babies being used just for a publicity stunt and then returned...hopefully they were given lots of love and weren't too traumatized when given back. I wonder about the pregnancy aspect...there are some performers who will be able to go quite far into pregnancy still working, but I can't imagine how much harder it would be when so short! Even if you have a smaller baby, there's just a lot that has to fit inside an already tiny torso
2/3/2017 07:45:47 am
The more I read about this family, the more interesting I find their stories. There are a lot of tragic sides, though.
4/7/2018 01:02:31 pm
I collect 19th century sheet music and have half a dozen featuring Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren. But I also have a very curious publication called Minnie Redowo (should be redowa, a Czech dance). A young girl is pictured. Minnie Warren? The date is 1855. Minnie would have been six years old. This is not found online or at OCLC, the world catalogue. Obviously rare. It was published in New York and lithographed by Napoleon Sarony, the famous portrait photographer who took photos of Tom Thumb. Could it be Minnie Warren? Do you know of this music publication? I can scan the litho title page to you if you have an interest.
I'm not familiar with that publication, although I am interested! Does the image resemble her?
6/6/2021 08:02:52 pm
I feel so sad if Lavinia really did have a baby! Suffering at 3 years because of an injury to the brain. If her child really went through this, may God bless his/her soul.
Writing in Margins
6/8/2021 08:42:26 pm
I've since published another post on this (https://writinginmargins.weebly.com/home/general-tom-thumbs-baby-revisiting-the-evidence). I agree - whether little "Minnie" was their biological child or not, her death was heartbreaking.
6/12/2021 09:49:05 pm
Thank you for this article! Very interesting sources. Now I wonder if with modern technology, and if an incident like Minnie Warren Stratton's death occurred, would we be able to tell how she would have grown up? (e.g. would she be a proportionate dwarf like her parents, or would she be of normal size?)
Writing in Margins
6/27/2021 08:25:51 pm
I wouldn't use the word "normal." "Average" would be better.
7/3/2021 05:05:01 pm
Interesting. I hate the circus , because abuse the animals. Malformed people is interesting. I was born malformed of face and mouth .
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.