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The Day Tom Thumb Came To Penn Yan

(A Short Story)

I was going through some Civil War letters from a man near Bellona to his son in the Union army on duty in Louisiana when I ran across this April 1864 reference to what the soldier’s younger brothers had been up to: ” Emily and Willy have just returned from Penn Yan where they had been to get a sight of General Tom Thumb and his Lady, Commander Nutt, and Miss Minnie Warren, the sister of Tom’s wife. They thought it was a grand sight. Only, in consequence of the crowd, they did not get as good and complete a view as they thought they had reason to expect. Eddy has gone down this evening on horseback to Penn Yan on the same business. The crowd in the afternoon was very great; doubtless it will be large this evening.” Well, that piqued my interest and my curiosity. I had heard of Tom Thumb but really didn’t know much about him. That called for some research.

“General Tom Thumb” was the creation of P. T. Barnum. The man was born Charles Stratton in Connecticut in 1838. Although a 9-pounder at birth, he was only two feet tall and 15 lbs. at the age of five when Barnum met him and contracted to exhibit him. Stratton never grew any taller than 33 inches. Barnum had him on a European tour in the 1840s as a “human curiosity” . He learned to sing, dance, and do imitations. In the early 1860s, he developed a romance with a Miss Lavinia Warren (height: 32 inches) who also was a discovery of Barnum’s. When they announced their engagement to Barnum early in 1863, the great showman knew he was in for a windfall. He paid for their lavish wedding which was held at the prestigious Grace Episcopal Church in New York City in February of 1863. He sold 5,000 tickets to the reception at $60 each. After their honeymoon (which included an audience with President Lincoln and other Washington dignitaries), Barnum put together a major tour with two other of his discoveries.....Commodore Nutt (height: 29 inches) and Minnie Warren (Lavinia’s sister, height: 27 inches) who had served as Charles and Lavinia’s Best Man and Maid of Honor at the wedding. That was what brought them across upstate New York to Penn Yan in April of 1864. The advertisement which accompanies this article was taken from the Yates County Chronicle the week before the show and it describes the entertainment quite well. It must have provided welcome relief from the dreariness of Civil War news and it certainly must have been quite a show.

If you’re curious as to what happened to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Stratton (a.k.a. General Tom Thumb and his Lady), Barnum actually made them quite wealthy. They had large homes in Bridgeport, Connecticut (Tom’s hometown) , another on an island off the Connecticut coast (the Thimble Islands...isn’t that appropriate for the Thumbs?) and another in Middleboro, Massachusetts (Lavinia’s hometown) and they lived comfortable lives when not on tour. They owned a string of race horses and a large yacht which they sailed on Long Island Sound. The couple retired from touring in 1882. Tom died of a stroke at the age of 45 the next year. Lavinia remarried another of P.T. Barnum’s “discoveries” (Count Primo Magri, height: 31 inches) two years later and died in 1919 at the age of 77. George Washington Morrison (“Commodore”) Nutt married Minnie Warren and shortly thereafter died of kidney disease in 1881 at the age of 33. Minnie eventually remarried another Barnum discovery, Edward J. Newell who went by “General Grant Jr”. Minnie died in childbirth at the age of 37. Minnie, who only weighed about 30 lbs., tried to give birth to a 6 lb. baby. The baby also died.

And if you’re curious where Washington Hall was in Penn Yan (as I was), Fran Dumas, the County Historian, reported that it was right downtown on Main Street above where Long’s store is today. That building had just been completed in 1864. It was built by Charles V. Bush and for a while was known as Bush’s Hall, later the Cornwell Opera House.

by Rich MacAlpine

Washington Hall, Penn Yan
The Four
SMALLEST HUMAN BEINGS
OF MATURE AGE
Ever Known on the Face of the Globe!
POSITIVELY ONLY ONE DAY!
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 20, 1864
TWO GRAND PUBLIC LEVEES
From 3 to 4 1/2 and 71/2 to 9 o’clock. Doors open half an hour in advance.
GEN. TOM THUMB
AND HIS
BEAUTIFUL LITTLE WIFE
The late Miss LAVINIA WARREN, the Fascinating Queen of Beauty!
COMMODORE NUTT
The Famous “$30,000 Nutt”
So called for having received that sum from Mr. P.T. Barnum for three years service.
ELFIN MINNIE WARREN
The Smallest Lady of her age ever seen.
Here are a Married Couple, a Bachelor and a Belle.
ALL FOUR WEIGHING BUT 100 LBS.
Perfect in Form and features.
The World never saw anything half so Wonderful!
NO LARGER THAN SO MANY BABIES!
Educated, intelligent, Social, Affable and Polite-
Who can wonder that crowds throng their Levees every day and are eager to feast their eyes, before their departure to another land?
“We shall never see their like again.”
At the opening of the 3 o’clock Levee, the General and his Lady will wear the IDENTICAL WEDDING COSTUME they wore at Grace Church on their MARRIAGE DAY Feb. 10th, 1863.
SIXTY DOLLARS were offered for a ticket to that wedding. Here the same thing can be seen for a trifle.
They will appear in a GREAT VARIETY of FASCINATING PERFORMANCES AND COSTUMES.
THE “$30,000 COM. NUTT” will appear as a DRUMMER; a SAILOR with a hornpipe, as PATRICK O’FOGERTY with a song; the WATER CURE, a comic song, in character; a POLITICAL ORATOR with ten changes of costume; the POLKA &c, &c. Also will dance “Jim Crow” in the character of a CROW; representing this well known ebony bird to perfection in appearance and in every movement! This is a most ludicrous and comic performance.
Mrs. LAVINIA WARREN STRATTONwill appear in SONGS, DUETS, AND DANCES and having an extensive and costly wardrobe, she will appear in THREE DIFFERENT COSTUMES at each Levee.
Gen. TOM THUMB Will represent Napoleon Bonaparte, a Scotch Chieftain, Grecian Statues, Dances, Songs, Duets, &c, &c.
LITTLE MINNIE WARREN will appear in Songs, Duets, Dances, &c, &c. A change of performance at each Levee.
The rich, rare, and costly WEDDING PRESENTS , also the MAGNIFICENT JEWELS presented to Gen. Tom Thumb by the Crowned Heads of Europe will be exhibited at each Levee.
A MAGNIFICENT MINIATURE COACH (costing $2000) no larger than a bushel basket, drawn by FOUR of the SMALLEST PONIES in the World and attended by ELFIN COACHMAN and FOOTMAN IN LIVERY will promenade the streets and the four little wonders will all ride at once in it to and from the Hall of exhibition and the hotel.
Admission 25 Cents, Children under 10 years of age 15 Cents.

Yates County History Center
107 Chapel Street, Penn Yan, NY 14527
Phone 315.536.7318 | Fax 315.536.0976
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Thursday, January 25, 2018 | Copyright © 2018