Thumbthing to talk about

IMG_7798 This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2008, issue of the Wareham Courier.

WAREHAM - Dorothy Thayer walked around the room with a yardstick as she introduced members of the Wareham Historical Society to the General Tom Thumb.

The performer, who lived in Middleborough with his wife, Lavinia, was only 3 feet tall around the time of his death in 1883, which made him an object of fascination from the Jersey Shore to Japan. Thayer, the president of the Middleborough Historical Society, spoke a little bit about her own organization and its projects to renovate and restore some of the historic properties in that town. That wasn't the only reason that Thayer was on hand however. “The real reason I'm here is to talk about the General and Mrs. Tom Thumb,” Thayer said. Thumb was born in 1838 under the name of Charles Sherwood Stratton in Bridgeport, Conn., not too far from the home of showman P.T. Barnum. As Stratton grew up, it was soon clear that he wasn't going to do much growing. By age 4, he had only gained about 6 pounds and a few inches from his birth. That was when Barnum discovered him and convinced his parents that the young child would be suited for the stage. After some negotiating, Barnum took the young boy under his wing and taught him how to sing and dance. Dubbed Tom Thumb after a fairy tale character, the young boy proved to be a quick study and was soon on his first tour of the United States. He built up routines of comedic sketches, songs and impressions of characters like Napoleon Bonaparte that delighted audiences. When he was 6 years old he embarked on his first tour of Europe and met Queen Victoria for the first time. For Thumb, it was just the first taste of fame and fortune that would carry him through until his death. About the time that Thumb was touring Europe, a young woman named Mercy Lavinia Warren was born in a house in Middleborough. Although her four brothers would all grow to more than 6 feet tall, and she would have two average-size sisters, Lavinia was a remarkably small girl. According to Thayer, Warren was so short that she could easily walk under the desks in her small schoolhouse to pass notes or pinch her classmates. Because of her height, and perhaps the trouble that she caused in the classroom, her mother withdrew her from school at age 10 to learn at home. Unlike Thumb, Warren had a long time to live out her childhood. Her initial steps into show business came when a relative who owned a steamboat convinced her parents that she'd make a great entertainer. At 16, the young girl worked as a singer on the Mississippi River for almost four years before returning to her hometown to teach in the very same schoolhouse that she had left almost a decade before. Barnum eventually heard of the young woman and tried to convince her parents that their daughter should come work at his American Museum in New York City. The Warrens were hesitant, and it took Barnum's personal appearance, along with a very favorable contract, for them to let their daughter go. “He truly felt that a little couple would do a lot more for his entertainment business,” Thayer said. The little couple became more than just a stage act after a whirlwind courtship of only a few months. Thumb and Warren, who took the stage name Lavinia Bump, were married at Grace Episcopal Church Feb. 10, 1863. Thousands of people turned out to see the couple. At their wedding reception in the Metropolitan Hotel, they stood on top of a grand piano to see and be seen by some 2,000 guests. The wedding was such a spectacle that it displaced other pressing events, those of the Civil War, from the cover of Harper's Weekly. After the wedding, the couple was received at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln. The couple, along with Commodore George Washington Morrison Nutt and Lavinia's sister Minnie Warren, formed a troupe called the Tom Thumb Company that struck out on their own to great success. Together, the husband and wife toured much of the world and received accolades and gifts from many heads of state. Thumb kept a close connection with Barnum, although he no longer worked under the man who had become such a dominant force in his life. Several times when Barnum got into financial trouble, Thumb would come to his rescue by forwarding all of his proceeds to his friend. “He always gave half of what he earned to P.T. Barnum, because he felt without Barnum that he would have been nothing,” Thayer said. Where ever the couple went, they were sure to draw a great crowd. Often they would ride through town on a special carriage driven by miniature ponies that would give people a glimpse of the famous couple and entice them to pay the admission. In 1883 the couple were caught in a fire when their hotel in Milwaukee burst into flames. The old wooden building would later be described in papers as a fire trap just waiting to happen. While more than 70 people died in the fire, the couple managed to escape from the blaze thanks to the help of their manager. In July, Thumb would suffer a fatal stroke that would put an end to a career that had dominated most of his short life. Lavinia, who eventually remarried, continued to perform well on toward the end of her life with the Little Lilliputian Opera Company. She finally settled down in Middleborough to run a refreshment stand with her second husband. Lavinia died in 1919 and was buried next to her first husband under a simple grave marker that read “his wife.” As part of her will, she hoped that her effects would be kept to tell the story of the couple and the life that they shared, but the mission was complicated when her second husband decided to auction off many of those items so he could spend the rest of his life in his native Italy. “She is the reason we have a museum,” Thayer said. The Middleborough Historical Society maintains a collection of Warren's artifacts, as well as several historic buildings in the town of Middleborough. The Tom Thumb Museum is located at 18 Jackson St. in Middleborough and is open Wednesdays starting at 10 a.m. from July to August. It may also be opened by appointment. The Wareham Historical Society meets on the third Monday of each month and is working with the Wareham Garden Club to put together a special standard flower show for the month of June.