Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues
On an unseasonably cold March morning, many years after Becky’s precarious start had given way to a blissfully uneventful childhood, I drove to the Middleborough Historical Museum, which consists of two small red houses just outside the downtown of the small town in southeastern Massachusetts from which it takes its name. I’d grown up in Middleborough and had visited the museum any number of times during my childhood. As kids, we had called it the Tom Thumb Museum because of its display of memorabilia on the lives of Charles Stratton — a.k.a. Tom Thumb — and his wife, Lavinia Warren, who is Middleborough’s best-known native daughter. I had come to see it again, for the first time in probably thirty-five years, not as a child marveling over the two tiny folk, but as the father of a dwarf, both curious about and repelled by the notion of little people being put on public display.
Gladys Beals, a thin, gray-haired elderly woman with a friendly and welcoming manner, was waiting for me. The museum operates on such a shoestring that it is open only from July through October. During the other eight months you have to make an appointment. The building was unheated and cold enough that we could see our breath. Mrs. Beals led me through three rooms devoted to General and Mrs. Tom Thumb. She pointed out such artifacts as a photograph of the mansion that the Strattons had built in Middleborough (still lived in, though long since retrofitted for average-size occupants), a black gown that Lavinia wore to an audience with Queen Victoria, books, gloves, shoes, roller skates, and a stereoscope with a three-dimensional photo of their wedding in New York City, one of the premier social events of the 1860s.
Mrs. Beals explained that she had become interested in Charles and Lavinia during the thirteen years that her late husband, Robert, had been head of the historical society. “We became so enamored of the little people,” she said. “When we came in, we said, ‘Hi, kids,’ and when we left, we’d say, ‘Bye, kids.’” She made it clear that she admired the Strattons, and she emphatically defended P. T. Barnum, the legendary nineteenth-century showman, against charges that he exploited his two most popular attractions. “He did it in a very, very fair manner,” she said. (That does, in fact, appear to be the case. By all accounts, the Strattons shrewdly exploited themselves, and Barnum gave them the means by which to do it.) Mrs. Beals saw nothing wrong with the Strattons’ making a public spectacle of their physical difference in order to earn a living. During my own childhood visits to the museum, it had never occurred to me that there might be something wrong with it either. Of course, that was a good twenty-five years before Becky’s birth raised philosophical issues for me that most people never have a reason to think about.
The Strattons represented the pinnacle of a time when dwarfs were treated as public curiosities, as wonders of nature. And though this phenomenon has not disappeared entirely, today we have a very different attitude toward dwarfism. We recognize it as a medical condition and consider it to be either a genetic flaw or a difference worthy of recognition and protection, like race or sexual orientation. People still stare, of course, as they stared at Becky during our Labor Day trip to Story Land. The difference is that today the stare is directed not at a person on display, but rather — or so I hope — at someone trying to go about her business just like anyone else.
Among the first recorded examples of a dwarf being put on display for the amusement of the paying public was that of an anonymous Dutchman, who was observed in 1581 by the English tailor and antiquarian John Stow and described in his Chronicles of England. As recounted by Hy Roth and Robert Cromie in their 1980 book, The Little People, the dwarf, who was three feet tall, was displayed in London alongside a seven-foot-seven giant. The larger man was hobbled by a stunt gone bad, having broken both legs in the course of lifting a full beer barrel. The dwarf, who was also lame, performed such tricks as dancing and walking upright between the giant’s legs, feathered hat and all.
It was within this dubious tradition that Charles Sherwood Stratton and Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump Stratton Magri launched their oddly spectacular careers.
Charles Stratton was born on January 4, 1838, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to parents of average height — or, as an 1863 pamphlet on the Strattons’ marriage put it, “His parents were persons about whom there existed no peculiarity, either in mental or physical organization.” His mother attributed her son’s dwarfism to the grief she had experienced when the family dog died during her pregnancy.
Charles never had a say over the direction his life would take. When he was just five years old, his parents allowed another son of Bridgeport, P. T. Barnum, to take him to New York City and put him on display at his American Museum. The museum showed everything from middlebrow plays for family audiences — Barnum went so far as to edit the sex out of Shakespeare — to such oddities as a “mermaid” consisting of a monkey’s head sewn onto a fish’s body. Barnum changed Charles’s age from five to eleven in order to exaggerate his short stature, gave him the name Tom Thumb after a legendary member of King Arthur’s roundtable, and trained him to do such tricks as imitating Napoleon and engaging in mock battle, with Barnum as Goliath and Stratton as David.
Stratton was two-foot-eleven at the age of twenty-five, but grew slightly more as he got older. His dwarfism was most likely caused by growth-hormone deficiency — that is, his body did not produce enough natural growth hormone for him to reach his full height. Such dwarfs, whose limbs are in the same proportion to the rest of their bodies as those of an average-size person’s, were prized in the entertainment business, since their appearance was thought to be more pleasing than that of, say, an achondroplastic dwarf. “As symmetrical as an Apollo,” Barnum once said admiringly of his prodigy.
Stratton was an enormous hit with the public, so much so that he secured Barnum’s reputation and fortune. In 1844 Stratton and his mentor traveled to London, where he was presented to Queen Victoria (“How d’ye do,” he said to her) and amused the court by becoming involved in an altercation with one of the royal poodles, memorably depicted in a drawing done at the time. From there he traveled throughout Europe, occasionally making use of an ornate miniature carriage pulled by ponies. When he returned to New York, in 1847, his appearances at the American Museum broke attendance records.
If Stratton’s parents set their son’s destiny before he was old enough to have a say in the matter, the opposite was true of his future wife. She was born on October 31, 1842, in Middleborough, to the long-established and prosperous Bumps, a family that traces its roots to the Mayflower and is well known in the town to this day. Her full name was Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump. Like Charles, Lavinia was apparently growthhormone deficient. She stopped growing at the age of ten, when she was two-foot-ten. In an unusually progressive move for its day, the town’s school committee hired her to teach elementary school when she turned sixteen. In a series of autobiographical essays that she wrote for the New York Tribune Sunday Magazine in 1906, she recalled the joy and dedication she brought to that task:
I was very zealous in my duty, and at the end of the term received the commendation and thanks of the committee for the excellent discipline I maintained, as well as the progress made by the pupils under my tuition. The youngest even was far above me in stature, yet all seemed anxious to be obedient and to please me.
Yet when a cousin suggested that she join his “floating palace of curiosities” on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, she agreed, apparently without hesitation. As she writes of her erstwhile teaching career, “I thought I had now found a proper and genial vocation, but during the subsequent vacation an event occurred which entirely changed the tenor of my life.” From there, it was a very short leap to P. T. Barnum’s revue.
Lavinia’s career choice shows why it’s intellectually hazardous to judge Barnum and his ilk by the standards of our time. As Gladys Beals insisted, quite rightly, Barnum didn’t exploit the Strattons, because they did exactly what they wanted to do — particularly Lavinia, who, unlike Charles, joined Barnum’s troupe as an adult. Lavinia gave up a promising career as a teacher, in a community where she and her family were respected, in order to join a freak show. The Strattons made a lot of money and lived well, denying themselves nothing. It wasn’t Barnum’s fault that they ended up blowing most of their fortune — after all, he was pretty good at blowing fortunes in his own right. Indeed, at one point, after a fire had consumed the American Museum, Charles Stratton came out of semiretirement to go on tour with Barnum, helping his old boss raise money for no reasons other than loyalty and affection. Criticizing Barnum for displaying dwarfs, along with “armless wonders,” microcephalics (dubbed “Aztecs” for some reason), Siamese twins, and other human curiosities, is like criticizing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson for keeping slaves. Such criticism is not so much valid or invalid as it is ahistorical.
Barnum dropped the harsh-sounding “Bump” from his new star’s name, and she was known as Lavinia Warren from that point on. Her 1863 marriage to Charles Stratton at Grace Church in New York was one of the great media spectacles of the era, with two thousand people attending and gifts coming in from the likes of the Astors, the Vanderbilts, and President and Mrs. Lincoln, who received the couple at the White House during their honeymoon tour. The attendants were two other Barnum dwarfs: “Commodore” George Washington Morrison Nutt, an earlier suitor of Lavinia’s, and her sister Huldah Pierce Bump, known as Minnie Warren. Months later, the proud husband and wife were photographed posing with a baby — a hoax aimed at keeping interest alive in the Strattons, as well as feeding curiosity about their sex lives. It was a hoax they could not sustain, and, after a discreet interval, it was announced that the baby had died of a brain inflammation.
Hard times lay ahead. Charles, who enjoyed cigars and rich food, died of a stroke in 1883. Lavinia, strapped for cash, married another dwarf, “Count” Primo Magri; along with his brother, “Baron” Ernesto Magri, they formed the Lilliputian Opera Company, hit the road, and enjoyed some success. But Lavinia could never reconcile her spending with her income, and there was far less public interest in her as a plump, elderly dwarf than there had been when she was young and attractive. She and Primo opened a general store in Middleborough; they also for a time became the best-known residents of something called “Midget City,” at Coney Island, one of a number of such theme parks to spring up around the country. Lavinia died in 1919, and was buried in Bridgeport alongside Charles.
Don’t shed any tears for the Strattons. They lived the life they chose, and by all appearances they lived it well. But as the historian Robert Bogdan points out, the tragedy of Charles and Lavinia Stratton was that they lived a lie and convinced themselves that it was the truth. The Strattons were intelligent, normal, average people in every way except for their short stature. Yet they believed what they were constantly told: that they were exceptional performers, artists, entitled to the accolades and gifts that came their way, even though they were, in reality, mediocre talents whose only real attraction was their unusual appearance. They were exhibited in what Bogdan calls the “high aggrandized mode,” depicted as people of refinement and gentility. It was mostly farce, but as they got older, they ceased to see the farce.
“Tom Thumb became a serious Charles Stratton, a person who wanted others to respect him because of what he had achieved and to ignore how he might have achieved it, the basis of his fame,” Bogdan writes. In fact, the lives that they enjoyed were not just dependent on the mere fact that they were dwarfs, but that they were a certain type of dwarf, “perfect humans in miniature,” to use another of Barnum’s phrases. Had they been disproportionate, they never would have been dressed up in tuxedos and flowing gowns. More likely they would have been cast as clowns or freaks, or as “Esquimaux” (Eskimos), dressed in furs against a backdrop of fake icebergs, like an achondroplastic dwarf known as Miss Olaf Krarer. That the Strattons’ particular accident of birth turned out in their favor made it no less accidental.
In walking through the Middleborough museum, I found it difficult to reconcile nineteenth-century attitudes with twenty-first-century sensibilities — especially since the attitudes that were reflected in those displays were so at odds with what I want, and expect, for Becky.
So my favorite exhibit turned out to be something that spoke not of its time, but of any time. It was a photograph of Lavinia, Primo, and Ernesto, somewhat advanced in years, sitting around a dining-room table with three average-size adults — Lavinia’s brothers, perhaps — in the dark, Victorianstyle Bump family home. There was a certain quality to the photo that at first I couldn’t put my finger on. Later I realized that it was its simple portrayal of normal family life, away from the spotlight, unself-conscious, the three dwarfs composing themselves to be photographed not as curiosities but for the same reason that any of us pose for a camera-wielding brother or aunt.
In that photograph, I could see Lavinia Warren not as a world-famous oddity, but rather as the proper Middleborough schoolteacher that she was and might have continued to be.
The first dwarf whom researchers know anything about was a young man who died more than eleven thousand years ago in southern Italy. His grave was unearthed in 1963, but it wasn’t until 1987 that a group of anthropologists, led by David Frayer of the University of Kansas, studied his skeleton and reported on its significance in the journal Nature. According to Frayer, the young man appeared to be about seventeen years old and less than four feet tall. Although humans at that time had to contend with the severe, subsistence-level existence of the Ice Age, foraging for food and living in caves, the young man appeared to have been well cared for, and to have been treated as a valued member of his clan. At burial he was wrapped in the arms of a thirty-five-year-old average-size woman whom the investigators guessed may have been his mother.
The man’s dwarfism type was identified as acromesomelic dysplasia, a rare disorder that is similar in appearance to achondroplasia except those who have it tend to be a few inches shorter. Anthropologists disagree as to whether the clan’s acceptance of a dwarf was evidence of empathy or of his ability to adapt and contribute despite his disability. My betting is on the latter. Though he was probably exempted from having to spear woolly mammoths, he could have held his own at other tasks because acromesomelic dysplasia usually carries with it few health complications, fewer even than achondroplasia. As the Smithsonian Institution’s Donald Ortner told Scientific American, “Certainly some support mechanism had to be there. But it’s quite remarkable how capable people are at adapting to physical disabilities of one sort or another.”
Dwarfs played a special role in the court and religious life of ancient Egypt, some four thousand to five thousand years ago. The scholar Bonnie Sampsell writes that dwarfs served the pharoah in such positions as “personal attendant in elite households, supervisor of clothing and linen, pet handler, jewelry maker and entertainer or dancer.” Achondroplastic dwarfs were often the subjects of statues and carvings, sometimes with the facial and limb characteristics of achondroplasia toned down and stylized, sometimes portrayed with perfect realism.
The most fascinating of these Egyptian dwarfs was Seneb, whose mastaba, or tomb, was excavated in 1927. Sampsell writes that inscriptions on the tomb show Seneb held such positions as “Director of Dwarfs in Charge of Dressing,” “Director of Weaving in the Palace,” and “Great One of the Sedan Chair” — possibly a reference to the chair of the pharoah himself. Seneb, who lived in approximately 2300 B.C., was also a priest. Seneb’s most striking legacy is a beautifully painted statue of him, his wife, Senetites, and their son and daughter. Seneb and Senetites are sitting on a slab; Senetites is average-size, and her legs dangle over, her feet resting on the floor below and her hand affectionately touching her husband’s arm. Seneb sits cross-legged on top of the slab, his short arms folded in front of him, his head slightly larger than his wife’s. To fill in the space next to Senetites’s legs, the sculptor added carvings of their son and daughter. It is a remarkable piece of art, not just for its stunning execution, but for the sense of easy normality it imparts to a dwarf husband and his average-size wife, a relationship that would draw stares today, let alone more than four thousand years ago.
Some Egyptian gods also seem to have been portrayed as dwarfs, such as Ptah-Pataikos and Bes — the latter of whom, Sampsell writes, was thought to protect the bodies of the dead and to keep diseases, dangerous animals, and evil spirits away from the living. (I say “seem” because Sampsell notes that Bes was also part animal, which calls into question whether his dwarf-like features were actually intended as such.) “In probably no other culture,” Sampsell says, “have dwarfs been given a more visible role and apparently a chance to enjoy a normal life than in the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt.” That’s a bold assertion on the basis of scant archeological evidence, but the benign countenances of Seneb and Senetites suggest that the ancient Egyptians could teach us a few things about accepting — and even celebrating — diversity. Certainly the same could not be said of all ancient peoples. Consider the Book of Leviticus, in which God himself forbade dwarfs — not to mention anyone who was blind, lame, deformed, had scabs, or had even suffered a ruptured testicle — from serving at his altar, lest they “profane . . . my sanctuaries.”
Throughout history, dwarfs have played roles separate and apart, both high and low, from valued advisers to pets or jesters. According to the anthropologist Francis Johnston, dwarfs were kept by the Roman emperors Tiberius, Alexander Severus, and Mark Antony, sometimes as counselors, sometimes as mere decoration. Dwarfs were also forced to fight as gladiators in the Colosseum.
An unusually detailed history of dwarfs is offered by Hy Roth and Robert Cromie in The Little People. Their presentation raises questions — the book is filled with photographs of dwarfs in offbeat and often-demeaning entertainment roles, and the foreword, by Irving Wallace, begins unpromisingly, “This is a wonderful big book about a mad assortment of little people.” Still, Roth and Cromie appear to have done their homework. They are particularly good on the role of dwarfs in Western mythology: the mine dwarfs of England, who could kill miners by causing the roof to collapse, the shaft to explode, or water to rush in unless they were bribed with food and other gifts; the “Black Dwarf,” a curmudgeonly hermit who inspired Sir Walter Scott; the Teutonic dwarfs, skilled swordmakers who, when angered, stole crops and children, and who were created from grubs found in the decaying body of a giant; trolls, who hated noise; elves, who danced in the moonlight; and on and on it goes.
As for actual historical figures, Attila the Hun is sometimes described as having been a dwarf, although Roth and Cromie caution that little is known about him. Most likely references to Attila’s possible dwarfism survive because it’s included in Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which in turn relied on ancient works of dubious accuracy. The Lancet published an article in 1991 suggesting that Richard III was a dwarf. St. Gregory of Tours is sometimes described as having been a dwarf, though that claim, like the one regarding Attila, is considered unlikely by experts today.
Among the most famous dwarfs was the Englishman Jeffrey Hudson (1619-1682), who was introduced to Queen Henrietta Maria when he popped out of a cold pie that had been brought to her. Hudson’s biographer Nick Page describes the mindset of the seventeenth-century court of Charles I this way: “A dwarf, a tiny boy only eighteen inches high. What better present for the Queen with her monkeys and dogs than a little human, all of her own?” (The extent of Hudson’s short stature was almost certainly exaggerated.) Hudson did enough living for several lives. He was named a captain for the royalist side in the English Civil War; he shot and killed a man in a duel; and he was captured by the Barbary pirates twice — the second occasion resulting in more than two decades in slavery in North Africa, during which time he allegedly added nearly two feet to his foot-and-a-half-high stature, apparently the result of his pituitary system’s belatedly kicking in.
A French dwarf by the name of Richebourg, said to be somewhere between twenty-three-and-a-half and thirty-three-and-a-half inches tall, was an aide to the Duchesse d’Orléans, mother of Louis Philippe, the future King of the French. Richebourg’s claim to fame was his role as a surreptitious courier during the French Revolution. “The device,” Roth and Cromie write, “was simple: Richebourg, dressed in a baby’s outfit, was carried by a nursemaid with the papers concealed in his clothing.”
Until the modern era, no one did more to imbue dwarfs with a sense of dignity and humanity than the seventeenthcentury Spanish-court artist Diego Velázquez. To do so, Velázquez had both to adopt and rise above the standards of his day. As the art critic Norbert Wolf writes,
In Spain (and other countries, too), there was a long tradition of including dwarfs in royal portraits as subordinate figures. Basically, these deformed little creatures were merely attributes of royal dignity, part of the furnishings of the court and regarded as neuter beings rather than fully human. Velázquez accepts this distinction, yet ultimately he cancels it out.
As an example of this duality, Wolf offers Prince Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf (1631), in which the sixteen-month-old prince is shown with a young female dwarf in a dark green dress. She is clearly subordinate, and Velázquez paints her in darker, broader brushstrokes than he does his royal subject. Yet, somehow, he manages to depict the girl with more realism and humanity than her playmate. As Wolf writes, “the melancholy inherent in the picturesque shadows says more about the dwarf girl’s destiny than the bright flesh tints of Baltasar Carlos’s face can tell us about his radiant, princely figure.”
Dwarfs were also depicted in Velázquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas (1656-57), a surrealistic treatment of the Infanta Margarita and the rest of the royal family that anticipated Salvador Dal’ by three centuries. A central figure in Las Meninas is Velázquez himself, caught in the act of painting. In the foreground, on the right-hand side of the canvas, are a female dwarf, Mari-Bárbola, and a male dwarf, Nicolasico Pertusato, who rests his foot on an enormous dog.
Among the more notable aspects of the painting is Velázquez’s sympathetic portrayal of Mari-Bárbola, whose gaze evenly meets that of the viewer, straightforward and unashamed. So I was stunned by Wolf’s description of her as “grotesquely misshapen.” To me, her looks are pretty much standard achon; her facial figures appear to be more affected by achondroplasia than is typical, but she is hardly grotesque, or even particularly unattractive. And unlike Wolf’s earlier description of dwarfs as “deformed little creatures,” when he was writing about seventeenth-century attitudes, this time he is speaking for himself.
Is this how the world sees Rebecca Elizabeth Kennedy? As “grotesquely misshapen”? Is that why strangers stare and point and whisper? Just as I can’t imagine why Norbert Wolf finds Mari-Bárbola’s face so repulsive, I can’t imagine what people are thinking when they stare at my daughter. Or why anyone would pay money to stare at another human being. But it happened. It happens still, under the guise of “dwarf tossing” or “midget wrestling.” The roots of such spectacles are deep and apparently not easily eradicated. They say much about cultural attitudes toward difference. Rather than seeing dwarfism as one of many attributes of a person, dwarfism is seen as the person: he is a dwarf, not a person. That’s why some people within the dwarf community would rather talk about persons with dwarfism rather than dwarfs. To substitute the difference for the person is to deny his humanity. It’s an old story, and a current one, too.
Barbara and I think Becky is beautiful. To those who don’t know her, though, her size and disproportionate appearance are the first things they notice. Achondroplasia? What’s that? For many people, she’s the first dwarf they’ve ever seen — maybe the only one they’ll ever see outside of a media context. Most people never have the opportunity to assimilate dwarfs into their consciousness the way they have assimilated, say, people of different racial backgrounds. To them, dwarfs will always look funny, or wrong, because they’re never going to see enough dwarfs to register them as just another type of normal. Three days at a Little People of America conference and they’d get over it. But unless they have a family member who’s a dwarf, that’s probably not going to happen.
Documentaries on dwarfs appear regularly on the Discovery Channel, HBO, even MTV. Sally Jessy Raphael, Maury Povich, Montel Williams, and other TV talk-show hosts frequently have dwarfs on as guests. Howard Stern puts on the air such sorry cases as “Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf,” who died in 2001 from complications related to alcohol abuse, and “Beetlejuice,” an African-American dwarf who makes a fool of himself by pretending (or maybe not) to be mentally disabled. Somewhere in the deep recesses of our collective psyche, we haven’t evolved much past the delight that Henrietta Maria felt when young Jeffrey Hudson popped out of her pie.
Recently, the public has been captivated by a commercial for Apple Computer starring “Mini-Me,” Verne Troyer, the two-foot-eight actor from the Austin Powers movies, and Yao Ming, the seven-foot-five center for the Houston Rockets. Yao’s role is to make you gasp; Troyer’s, to make you laugh — as, in fact, Yao does when Troyer pulls out a big-as-he-is Macintosh PowerBook. It’s an entertaining ad, and Troyer’s non-stereotypical role as an airline passenger, perhaps a businessman, is something of a step forward. But the humor depends on our having internalized a stereotype about who is automatically entitled to respect and who must earn it — in this case, by whipping out the biggest, uh, laptop on the planet.
“We seem to be a fad,” says Hillary Melechen, a woman with achondroplasia from St. Louis, Missouri. I’d met Melechen at a screening of Liebe Perla, a documentary about a family of Hungarian-Jewish dwarfs who survived Auschwitz only because the infamous Josef Mengele had saved them for his experiments. Melechen had said some interesting things about being both a dwarf and a Jew, and so I sought her out later to ask her about our cultural fascination with dwarfs.
“I don’t know,” she told me, but she quickly warmed to the subject. “I think it’s — I wonder if it’s partly because difference is so uncomfortable in this culture. And we’re an easy target. We’re so few. It’s a difference that’s so looks-based, and we do so much in this culture based on looks.” She added: “We are disturbing to people to look at. When I was a kid, there were people who saw me and they’d scream.”
They’d scream? Sitting before me was an attractive, thoughtful forty-three-year-old woman with blond frizzy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Yes, she was four feet tall. But for me, an average-size person who assimilates into my consciousness the way dwarfs look every day of my life, the only thing that stood out about her appearance was that she pulled a hand cart with a stool and a pillow everywhere she went, the better with which to make herself comfortable following back surgery. As with Becky, it wasn’t her height that I noticed so much as the complications of achondroplasia. The idea that anyone would scream because of her size was incomprehensible. Will people ever look at Becky and become so overwhelmed with fear and revulsion that the only thing they can do is scream?
With his training in psychology, Len Sawisch offers specific answers to the question What is it about dwarfs? He points to three reasons why dwarfs receive an inordinate amount of attention, even compared to people with other visible disabilities.
First, of course, they simply look different. “Our attention is drawn to incongruity,” Sawisch explains. “Our attention is drawn to dissonance. Our attention is drawn to differentness. There is so much sensory stimulation available to us that we can’t afford to tend to all of it, or most of it. So what we do is filter out the sameness.” Dwarfs, obviously, do not get filtered out.
Second, we associate size with age, and dwarfs break that particular mold. “Everybody was once small, regardless of where you are as a human,” Sawisch says. “We all grow at least some, and everybody went through that whole growth process or maturation process.” And one of the lessons that kids learn, he adds, involves “size and power and freedom and autonomy and the ability to force your will on others.” The message that kids hear is, “You’re not big enough, you’re not old enough. When you get older, when you get bigger, older/bigger, older/bigger.” Dwarfism turns this simple childhood rule on its head.
Finally, there is the matter of “innate releasers,” sensory stimuli that trigger the most instinctive, primitive parts of our brains to react in preprogrammed ways. Sawisch cautions that this is theory rather than established fact. But the idea is that dwarfs have certain characteristics that make people think of infants, and thus simply seeing them can conjure up some of the same emotions. Sawisch specifically cites achondroplastic dwarfs, whose large heads and small limbs mimic the proportions of babies. But the innate-releaser theory, if true, would presumably apply to other types of dwarfs as well.
Including Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren. Unlike achondroplastic dwarfs, they had the same proportions as average-size adults, even though they were less than three feet tall. Yet surely the innate-releaser theory would apply to them, since their childlike appearance was their principal attraction. It was an attraction they were able to exploit their entire lives, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health. At a time when the display of “human curiosities” was an ingrained part of American culture, General and Mrs. Tom Thumb figuratively stood above them all.
Charles and Lavinia Stratton’s hold on the imagination persists. The Tom Thumb memorabilia is the highlight of the Barnum Museum in Charles’s hometown of Bridgeport. Among other things, you can see several of the miniature carriages that the Strattons used, including one shaped like a walnut. On the wall opposite is an inscription that manages both to capture Tom Thumb’s appeal and to strip Charles Stratton of his humanity: “Like a living Peter Pan, Tom Thumb seemed to bridge the gap between man and boy — to be a clever child who refused to grow up. People came to see him out of curiosity, but quickly identified with his spirit of mischief and fun.”
It is in Middleborough, though, where the allure remains strongest. At the Tom Thumb Museum I picked up a sheet of paper with the outline of a tiny hand that is supposed to be that of “Mrs. Tom Thumb.” The instructions: “Please place your hand on the drawing to get a better idea of her size.” I also bought a book called General Tom Thumb and His Lady that turned out to be little more than a deification of its subjects, complete with endless descriptions of the gifts they received and their “fairy wedding.”
I wondered whether I would ever take Becky to such a place. I liked Mrs. Beals, and the memorabilia was displayed with both affection and respect. Yet the prevailing atmosphere was that of a different, crueler era, a time when viewing “wonders of nature” such as the Strattons was seen as no more perverse than, say, keeping people as slaves. At the very least, I knew I didn’t want Becky to see this until she was old enough to understand it fully. Surely it would never mean the same thing to her that it did to me when I was a child — that is to say, nothing much, just a place to while away a rainy afternoon.
After taking my leave of the museum, I stopped by the Middleborough Public Library. In one of the library’s reading rooms, exactly as I remembered them, were enormous portraits of Charles and Lavinia; in another, Minnie Warren and Commodore Nutt.
But there was one more stop I wanted to make. I recalled that the Bump family lot was not twenty feet from where my parents were buried, in Nemasket Hill Cemetery. I drove up and started looking around. I found a weather-beaten old tombstone, a cross, a crown, and the name minnie inscribed on one side. On the other was a more complete description:
J.S. & H.P. BUMP
BORN JUNE 2, 1849
DIED JULY 23, 1878
This was Minnie Warren, Lavinia’s only dwarf sibling in a large family of large people. Minnie had become pregnant and, according to Mrs. Beals, was advised to have an abortion; but she rejected the idea on religious grounds. Sadly, because of her small size, both she and her child died. The baby was supposedly buried in its mother’s arms, although there was no mention of that on the headstone. Her husband, also a dwarf, returned to his native England and remarried, later performing off and on with Lavinia and the Count.
Minnie’s grave had one other noteworthy quality: rectangular stonework, covered with lichens, that outlined what must have been the dimensions of her child-size coffin.
Thus even in death was Minnie Warren singled out for her dwarfism. As with the figure of Seneb, benignly looking out over the expanse of more than four thousand years, balancing himself on stunted legs, his tiny arms held in front of him, Minnie’s survivors made sure that her difference would transcend life itself. It says something interesting and maybe a little unsettling about us. Yes, she was a dwarf, but she was also a person — a person with dwarfism, if you will. To the living, though, it seems that her size was her most important characteristic.