It was America’s first full-blown celebrity wedding, choreographed, publicized and staged by P.T. Barnum, the genius of hype, and it came in the depths of the Civil War, when Americans were eager for a moment of joyous distraction.
The groom was Charles Stratton, 25, the world’s most famous midget, a 3-foot-tall man with a gift for singing, dancing and comic repartee, whom Barnum had discovered 20 years earlier, renamed “General Tom Thumb” and turned into an international showbiz sensation.
The bride was 21-year-old Lavinia Warren, a 32-inch-tall former Massachusetts schoolteacher hired by Barnum in 1862 and billed as “The Queen of Beauty.” She was indeed beautiful, and when Stratton saw her, he was smitten. So was another of Barnum’s little people, George Washington Morrison Nutt, known as “Commodore Nutt,” who stood 29 inches high. Both men courted the Queen, but Stratton won her heart. He proposed, she accepted and a date was set— February 10, 1863.
Barnum made sure New York’s newspapers learned the happy news and announced that he would proudly pay for a princely wedding. Then he exhibited the little lovebirds to huge crowds in his American Museum on Broadway, earning so much money that he offered the General and his lady $15,000 to postpone the wedding for a month and keep the show going.
They refused. “Not for $50,000,” the General replied in a huff. Or so the story went—it’s always hard to separate fact from fiction when Barnum is involved.
The great showman considered selling tickets to the wedding but decided that commercializing such a sacred ceremony would be unspeakably crass, so he sold tickets to the reception instead. He arranged for Charles and Lavinia to wed at the prestigious Grace Episcopal Church, which appalled the pious and the humorless.
“When Mr. Barnum brings the church and its solemn rites into his show business, he outrages public decency,” the Brooklyn Eagle editorialized. “We are surprised that the clergy, or representatives of so respectable a body as the Episcopal Church should, for a moment, allow themselves to be used by this Yankee showman to advertise his business.”
But most New Yorkers didn’t share the Eagle’s umbrage, and wanted only to witness the historic event. Outside the church, huge crowds packed Broadway, held back by lines of police. Inside, 2,000 invited guests filled the pews, among them tycoons, politicians and generals, including General Ambrose Burnside, whose foolish frontal assault on a Confederate army at Fredericksburg, Va., had resulted in a horrendously bloody Union defeat two months earlier.
As the tiny bride and groom strode down the aisle, the guests strained to catch a glimpse of them. “Many stood upon the seats, others stood upon stools placed on the seats,” the New York Times reported in its delightfully detailed account of the wedding. “Irrepressible and unpleasantly audible giggles ran through the church.”
At the altar, the couple climbed six steps to the top of a tapestry-covered platform so they could look the minister in the eye as they repeated their vows. “After the benediction was pronounced,” the Times reported, “the General honestly kissed his wife, and in the presence of the entire audience bestowed upon her the ‘killing glance’ with which he has, in days gone by, captivated so many millions of equally susceptible damsels.”
General and Mrs. Tom Thumb rode through cheering crowds to the reception at the Metropolitan Hotel, where they stood atop a grand piano and shook hands with several thousand guests. Among their many wedding gifts was diamond jewelry from Mrs. John Jacob Astor, a mechanical singing bird from Barnum and Chinese ornamental fire screens from Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.
“It is understood that the little General and his wife will proceed to Washington tomorrow,” the Times reported.
Honeymooning at the Willard Hotel in Washington, the newlyweds received an invitation to a reception in their honor at the White House. Held on Friday, February 13, it was one of the Lincolns’ first social engagements after a long mourning period following the death of their 11-year-old son, Willie, a year earlier. Robert Lincoln, 19, the couple’s oldest son, refused to attend. “I do not propose to assist in entertaining Tom Thumb,” he told his mother. But Tad Lincoln, 9, eagerly joined the celebration, and so did General Benjamin Butler, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles.
“Mr. and Mrs. Charles Stratton!” an attendant announced to the guests, and then the newlyweds marched into the East Room, Charles in a formal suit, Lavinia in her white satin wedding gown, its 2-foot train trailing behind her. They strode slowly toward the president, who wore a black suit and white kid gloves, and Mary Lincoln, who looked festive in a pink silk dress, with pink roses in her hair. When the newlyweds reached the 6-foot-4 president, he graciously bowed to greet them.
“It was pleasant to see their tall host bend, and bend, to take their little hands in his great palm, holding Madame’s with especial chariness, as though it were a robin’s egg, and he were fearful of breaking it,” wrote another guest, journalist Grace Greenwood. “Yet he did not talk down to them, but made them feel from the first as though he regarded them as real ‘folks,’ sensible, and knowing a good deal of the world.”
“The President took our hands and led us to the sofa, lifting the General up, and placing him at his left hand,” Lavinia later recalled, “while Mrs. Lincoln did the same for me, placing me at her right.”
Amazed at these tiny adults, Tad Lincoln studied the bride and concluded that she resembled his mom. “Mother, if you were a little woman like Mrs. Stratton,” he said, “you would look just like her.” Then he compared the newlyweds to his father. “Mother, isn’t it funny that father is so tall, and Mr. and Mrs. Stratton are so little?”
His father overheard that remark. “My boy, it is because Dame Nature sometimes delights in doing funny things,” the president said. “You need not seek for any other reason, for here you have the long and short of it.”
Making small talk, Lincoln asked General Thumb how he ought to conduct the war against the Rebels. The General proffered some sage advice. “My friend Barnum,” he said, “would settle the whole affair in a month.”
The next day, the newlyweds visited a Union army garrison in Virginia. “As we rode through the vast camp, we were greeted with cheers, throwing up of caps, and shouts from all sides,” Lavinia later recalled. “It seemed a joy to them to see a face which recalled to their minds memories of happy days at home.”
The couple traveled the world for three years, making 1,471 paid appearances and accumulating a fortune. They remained happily married for 20 years, until 1883, when Charles died of a stroke. Ten thousand people attended his funeral. Later, Lavinia returned to showbiz and married her co-star, a 45-inch-tall Italian piccolo player. She died in 1919, a short, plump 78-year-old member of the Christian Science Church and the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.