Warren, Lavinia (1841-1919)
Warren, Lavinia (1841–1919)
American performer who turned her genetically endowed dwarfism to her advantage through the showmanship of P.T. Barnum . Name variations: Mrs. Tom Thumb; Mrs. Charles Sherwood Stratton; Mercy Lavinia Stratton. Born Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump or Bumpus on October 31, 1841, on a farm in Middleboro, Massachusetts; died of chronic interstitial nephritis on November 25, 1919, in Middleboro; daughter of James S. Bump and Huldah (Warren) Bump; married Charles Sherwood Stratton (also known as General Tom Thumb), on January 10, 1863; married Count Primo Magri, in 1885; children: none, though one was reported.
There are two general types of genetic dwarfism, one involving a body that usually develops normally, but with truncated limbs; Lavinia Warren belonged to the other type, accurately described by the showman P.T. Barnum, who found her to be "a perfectly developed woman in miniature." She was born Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump or Bumpus in 1841 in Middleboro, Massachusetts, the daughter of parents who were six feet tall. Though Lavinia appeared normal at birth, her growth stopped when she reached age ten. She had eight sisters and brothers, all of whom were of normal height except for her younger sister Minnie (Newell) , who was also a dwarf.
Growing up, Lavinia did what other New England girls did. She went to school, learned to cook and sew, and did fancywork; with her predilection for music, poetry, and the fine arts, she studied to be a teacher and taught third grade in Middleboro. By age 20, she was 32 inches tall and weighed 29 pounds. Lavinia also had the wanderlust.
Capitalizing on a mid-19th-century trend, she set out touring on a Mississippi showboat. At that time, Phineas T. Barnum had made the exhibition of little people fashionable as one of the great attractions of his "living museum." His biggest publicity buildup had been for General Tom Thumb, three feet tall, whose real name was Charles Sherwood Stratton. In both England and America, lines had formed for a glimpse of him; England's Queen Victoria met with him three times. Originally hired at three dollars a week, Stratton had become Barnum's partner, then toured independently. In 1862, when Lavinia Warren joined Barnum's American museum, General Tom Thumb was very rich and had been happily retired from exhibiting since the previous year.
When Barnum signed Warren to a long-term contract, she was 21 and Tom Thumb was 24. Their romance was a press agent's dream. According to Helen Woodward , Lavinia Warren was the "Victorian ideal of the doll-woman." At the height of her fame, a New York Times reporter found her "intelligent, pleasant, modest … very lively in conversation … speaks with all confidence and even wit." There was even the real-life drama of a romantic triangle.
Tom Thumb's rival was another Barnum dwarf named George Washington Morrison Mc-Nutt, known as Commodore Nutt, the son of a New Hampshire farmer. The suitors came to much-publicized blows, but Lavinia Warren had eyes only for Charles Sherwood Stratton. When the wedding plans were announced, the two agreed to go on display for one last time, and with the curious clamoring for a looksee, the museum raked in $3,000 a day.
The wedding took place at Manhattan's Grace Church on February 10, 1863. Included among the 2,000 invited guests were Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sophia Johnson Vanderbilt ), whose husband was also a commodore, and General Ambrose Burnside, who lent his name to side whiskers. Outside the church, crowds were cordoned off, and when the tiny couple strolled down the aisle, along with Minnie as bridesmaid, an "audible giggle ran through the church," reported The New York Times. In the midst of the Civil War, the New York World tossed battlefield headlines off the front page to banner "Much Ado about Very Little," and the couple honeymooned in Washington, D.C., where they met Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln . Ten months later, it was ballyhooed that Warren had given birth to a three-pound baby girl who was said to have died shortly after her first birthday. But according to Barnum biographer Irving Wallace, there was no real daughter, only "Barnum's brainchild, invented for publicity."
In 1869, accompanied by Warren's sister Minnie and Commodore Nutt, the couple set off on a world tour that lasted three years and covered 56,000 miles. The foursome traveled to Australia, India, and Japan; they met Pope Pius IX, Napoleon III, and Victor Emmanuel. (When Minnie was nearly 30, she would marry an English skater who was slightly taller than a dwarf, known as General Grant, Jr.; Minnie later died in childbirth.)
Before their marriage, Charles "Tom Thumb" Stratton had made it clear that his wife would never work. The two were happily married for more than 20 years, but the general was extravagant,
spending his fortune on sailing sloops and pedigreed horses. By the time of his death, of apoplexy (probably a stroke), on July 15, 1883, at age 45, all that was left for his widow were a few pieces of property and $16,000. Two years later, Warren married a young Italian dwarf, Count Primo Magri, a piccolo player and pugilist who stood 3'9". Unfortunately for Magri, he became known as "Mrs. Tom Thumb's husband."
According to Wallace, Warren's last years were "a nightmare of one night stands." To earn a living, she and her new husband toured the country with a dwarf opera company, appeared in vaudeville and at world's fairs, made four movie comedies, and wintered in the sideshow at Coney Island. When she and Magri finally retired, in Marion, Ohio, she joined the Eastern Star and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and became a dedicated Christian Scientist. Their miniature home was a tourist attraction.
When Lavinia Warren died in 1919, at age 78, she was buried at the Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, next to her beloved Tom Thumb, who had been laid to rest under a 40-ft. column of Italian marble, topped by his lifesize statue in granite. Next to him, the plain headstone over Warren's child-size grave reads simply, "His wife."
Wallace, Irving. The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P.T. Barnum. NY: Knopf, 1959.
Woodward, Helen Beal. The Bold Women. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1953.