The first celebrity wedding?

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Whilst we may think of celebrity weddings as events derived from modern celebrity culture, a justifiable argument can be made that they were an invention of the 19th century. And, furthermore, we can make the case that the first celebrity wedding took place 150 years ago, on 10th Februrary. So, let’s travel back before Peter and Katie, Posh and Becks and raise a glass to Charles and Lavinia.

And here are the happy couple:

Wellcome Library no. 33492i

Wellcome Library no. 33492i

Alas, not shown is the most important person in this dimunitive couple’s relationship: their manager, showman extraordinaire Phineas T Barnum.

Charles Stratton came into the orbit of Barnum in 1842. Stratton was born in 1838 and stopped growing when he was 6 months old. As a four year old, he was signed up by Barnum, given the appellation ‘General Tom Thumb’ (after the English fairy story) and joined the giants and bearded ladies as an an attraction at Barnum’s American Museum.

As General Tom Thumb, Stratton developed into a fully-fledged artiste. He performed as a number of characters and his impersonation of Napoleon was particularly noted – most aptly by the Duke of Wellington – during a tour of Europe organised by Barnum in the mid-1840s . This tour was a huge success: General Tom Thumb performed in front of Queen Victoria and the royal household on three separate occasions (this due to Barnum’s powers of persuasion with the American Ambassador) and also had a hugely successful (and lucrative) residency at London’s Egyptian Hall.

Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump was born in Massachusetts in 1841. In the 21 years before she came to the attention of Barnum, Lavinia had already worked as a performer, including a period on a showboat-cum-museum on the Mississippi.

According to Barnum, the Thumb’s courtship was not easy. Lavinia caught the eye of another of the dwarfs in Barnum’s company, George Washington Morrison Nutt (given the stage name “Commodore Nutt”, by Barnum). Barnum’s autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs discusses Nutt and Tom’s rivalry for Lavinia’s hand – Tom won out, even through a heartsore Nutt had beaten up Tom in a dressing room. Seemingly the two rivals patched up their differences by the time of the wedding: Nutt was Tom’s best man (Lavinia’s sister Minnie acted as maid of honour).

Wellcome Library no. 33470i

The wedding took place at Grace Episcopal Church, New York on 10th February 1863. The service was conducted in front of an invited audience (Barnum’s describes in Struggles and Triumphs how he could have sold tickets for the service, but sensitively thought the better of it) and the wedding reception was held at the Metropolitan Hotel, New York on the same day. Over 2000 people were in attendance (Barnum did sell tickets for this part of the day): the great and the good of New York society wished the couple well and a plethora of gifts were received (President Lincoln and his wife sent a set of Chinese fire screens and later held a reception for the couple at the White House).

Although not strictly their honeymoon, Tom and Lavinia did go on an extended tour of Europe and America between 1869 and 1872. This took in Japan, China, Indonesia, Australia, India, Egypt and Europe – with over 1,000 performances in over 500 cities and towns. The advertising for some of these dates suggested the Thumb’s had become a showbiz family: however, even though it was claimed their new born baby joined them on stage, it seems different babies became part of the act in different cities on the tour.

This tour, Barnum claims, was a result not of pressure by him but by the Tom and Lavinia’s longing for (in his words) “the peculiar pleasures of a public life”. Like much of Struggles and Triumphs, we should take this suggestion with more than a pinch of salt.

Our suspicions, naturally, fall on the marriage: a love match or purely a business relationship? Barnum claims it was love at first sight and devotes a chapter in his autobiography to their courtship (Barnum even claims he cleared the chapter’s contents with its participants). But Barnum also notes that his American Museum increased in visitors when the marriage was announced: to stoke up publicity ahead of their wedding, Tom and his wife-to-be performed at the Museum.

Understandably, the Tom and Lavinia’s careers looks odd to our eyes: surely they suffered through their relationship with Barnum? A number of recent revisionist studies (such as Nadja Durbach’s Spectacle of Deformity) have, however, challenged our perceptions of 19th century freak shows.

Tom certainly did very well materially from his life with Barnum: he owned not only a sizeable house in Bridgeport but also his own yacht. He died, in 1883, in relative comfort. Even through she re-married two years later Lavinia still signed her name as “Mrs. General Tom Thumb” and on her death, she was buried next to her first husband.

An account of the first celebrity wedding also gives us a taste of the modern concerns surrounding celebrity, particularly child performers. Lavinia’s autobiography revealed that Tom – a professional performer from the age of four – regretted that he had no childhood. A H Saxon in P.T. Barnum : the legend and the man (1989) goes further, asking who was the “real” Charles Stratton?

“Was “Tom Thumb” an early example of an almost totally manufactured personality? A personality that, taking hold when he was only four years old, prevented the real Charles Stratton from developing an individuality of his own? An interesting problem for psychologists, perhaps, and possibly for some future biographer”.

Questions that are certainly pertinent to Stratton but also to many of the other celebrities that have followed him up the aisle. And just like the married couple pictured above, you seldom see the managers in modern celebrity wedding photos either.

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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