By: George Sullivan
Publisher: Clarion Books
Publication Date: April 2011
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: March 22, 2011
"Show Charley with those freaks?" There was little chance that Mrs. Stratton was going to have her son exhibited by P. T. Barnum. By all accounts her son, Charles Sherwood Stratton, was born a normal child. In fact, he was a rather large baby at "nine pounds, two ounces," but somehow he stopped growing when he was six months old and because of that fact he was a "well-known curiosity in Bridgeport." He was however, not going to be fodder for Barnum's American Museum if she had her say. Barnum, who had been "denounced for staging a hoax" about one too many times needed to regain his reputation and Charley could be just the ticket. Barnum, "The Prince of Humbugs," wove a tale of riches, a tale that had great impact on Mr. Stratton. Five-year-old Charley would only be exhibited for four short weeks, weeks that would turn into a lifetime of exhibition.
Barnum wove his magic and quickly put his hoaxes, Joice Health ("George Washington's nursemaid") and "The Feejee Mermaid," behind him as he prepared to exhibit Charley, whom he renamed Tom Thumb. Tom's training began in earnest and soon he became a superstar, "the nation's first celebrity." The cash began to flow and apparently Mr. and Mrs. Stratton's objections to exhibiting their son with freaks abated. When he joined "the cast of Barnum's Museum, Charley was being assigned an occupation from which he would be known as Tom Thumb for the rest of his life." He was a mischievous boy and enjoyed entertaining people. Barnum, ever the humbugger, inflated his age so the crowds would marvel at his size and symmetry. Tom, however, was a real little boy who had no choice in the matter.
In spite of continual exhibition "Tom seemed to thrive on all that was taking place." Mrs. Stratton, ever the mother, continued to travel with her son as his fame continued to grow and his reputation spread. Tom was quick to learn and exited audiences everywhere with his enchanting, delightful performances. His specialty was singing "Yankee Doodle," his theme song. Barnum made so much money he was able to purchase Peale's Museum, a feat that enabled him to become "the only show in town." As a boy Tom had an "impish, rough-and-tumble nature," but as he approached manhood would he realize what he was missing in life? Was being continually exhibited to hoards of people going to emotionally satisfy Tom as he grew to adulthood? Would he ever have one special person in his life to love him?
This is an amazing, rare look into the life of Charles Sherwood Stratton, "Tom Thumb." Aside from brief mention in books, I haven't read any biography as well written and concise as this one. Perhaps the thing I appreciated the most was that the majority of the material was drawn from primary sources and not lifted bit by bit from other books. The flow of this biography is such that it will not only interest the young reader, but is also suitable for the adult interested in Stratton's life. The photographs are plentiful and very well chosen. There are reproductions of circus advertisements, newspaper ads, steel engravings from period artwork and other ephemera. There are informative sidebar materials that will be of high interest to the reader. For example, there is one about dwarfism with reference to "The Little People of America" (website link included).
Quill says: This stunning, rare portrait of Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb) is a marvelously intriguing glimpse into the past!