General Tom Thumb was the shameless showman’s ticket to Buckingham Palace, respectability and a bigger payday.
P.T. Barnum may be the only man in history who ever attempted to achieve respectability by taking a midget to Buckingham Palace to meet Queen Victoria. And somehow he pulled it off.
It happened in 1844, when Barnum was 33 and decided the time had come to shed his reputation as a cheap con man. He had acquired that reputation the old-fashioned way: He earned it. He launched his career as a showman a decade earlier by exhibiting an elderly slave woman he claimed was 160 years old and had been George Washington’s wet nurse. Several years later, he outdid that hoax by displaying a dead “mermaid” that turned out to be an orangutan’s body sewn onto a fish tail and topped with a baboon’s head. In the meantime, he lured curiosity seekers to Barnum’s American Museum in New York City with a giant python, a beautiful albino woman, a hairy child dubbed the “Wild Boy,” several grotesquely obese tykes and the “Wonder of the World”—a tiny, armless fellow who used his feet to wind his watch, play musical instruments and fire a pistol.
Then Barnum discovered Tom Thumb, his ticket to Buckingham Palace.
Thumb’s real name was Charles Stratton. Son of a Bridgeport carpenter, he weighed a hefty 9 pounds at birth, but seven months later he simply stopped growing. When Barnum met him in 1842, he was 4 years old, 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds. Barnum signed him to a $3-a-week contract, changed his name to “General Tom Thumb” and taught him to sing, dance and do imitations of Cupid, Napoleon and Hercules.
The little general was a natural ham, gifted with what Barnum called “a keen sense of the ludicrous” and wowed crowds across America. So in 1844 Barnum raised his salary to $50 a week and took him to conquer Europe. The duo landed in Liverpool and proceeded to London, where Tom drew sellout crowds at Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall while Barnum rented a mansion in a ritzy neighborhood and began courting the aristocracy. One night, Baroness Rothschild invited Barnum and the general to dine with her upper-crust cronies.
“In this sumptuous mansion of the richest banker in the world, we spent about two hours,” Barnum later recalled, “and when we took our leave, a well-filled purse was quietly slipped into my hand. The golden shower had begun to fall.”
Barnum basked under the golden shower, but he also wanted something else. At that dinner and many others, Barnum dropped numerous unsubtle hints that he and little Tom would love to meet the queen. His shameless angling paid off when a palace guard delivered the queen’s invitation. Barnum hung a sign on the door of Egyptian Hall: “Closed this evening, General Tom Thumb being at Buckingham Palace by command of Her Majesty.”
When they arrived at the palace, the queen’s lord in waiting took Barnum aside and warned him not to say a word to Her Majesty. It would be exceedingly rude for a mere commoner to speak directly to the queen, the lord in waiting explained. Instead, Barnum should answer the queen’s questions through him. And when leaving Her Majesty’s presence, he should never turn his back on her but should instead shuffle backward out of the room.
The rules were ridiculous but of course Barnum agreed. He would have agreed to paint himself purple and howl at the moon if that’s what it took to meet Victoria.
Soon, the showman and his tiny protégé were escorted into the Queen’s Picture Gallery. Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, stood at the far end of the enormous room, surrounded by a gaggle of aristocrats. Most of the ladies were decked out in elegant dresses garnished with glittering diamonds, but Victoria—then a girlish 25 and in the seventh year of her long reign—wore plain black with no jewels.
“The General walked in, looking like a wax doll gifted with the power of locomotion,” Barnum recalled in one of several celebrity autobiographies he cranked out to remind Americans of his greatness. “The General advanced with a firm step, and as he came within hailing distance made a very graceful bow, and exclaimed, ‘Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!’”
The royals burst out laughing.
The queen took Tom Thumb’s hand and escorted him on a tour of the gallery, which the tiny, 6-year-old art critic pronounced “first-rate.” He asked if he could meet her 3-year-old son, the Prince of Wales, but the queen said the boy was asleep.
Soon, the general launched into his usual act, singing, dancing and doing impressions, including a parody of that other little general, Napoleon, which amused the British royals.
After his performance, General Thumb made small talk with Prince Albert while the queen questioned Barnum about the boy’s background. Barnum answered the first few questions by speaking to the lord in waiting, as instructed, but he soon tired of that ludicrous ritual and began addressing the queen directly. The lord in waiting looked “seriously shocked,” Barnum noted, but the queen didn’t seem to mind.
After an hour or so, it was time to leave and, much to the lord in waiting’s relief, Barnum backed out of the room in the correct courtly manner. The general, however, had problems dealing with this preposterous procedure. His little legs, unaccustomed to reverse locomotion, could not keep pace with his boss.
“We had a considerable distance to travel in that long gallery before reaching the door,” Barnum wrote, “and whenever the General found he was losing ground, he turned around and ran a few steps, then resumed the position of ‘backing out,’ then turned around and ran, and so continued to alternate his methods of getting to the door.”
Inadvertently—or maybe not—the tiny American was mocking the absurdities of courtly fawning. Coming from anyone else, such ridicule would be shocking, but the royals roared with laughter. Only the queen’s poodle took offense, chasing the little general and barking angrily. Startled, Tom flinched but, like a true trouper, he quickly recovered and ad-libbed a bit of stage business, brandishing his tiny cane like a sword and miming an attack on the poodle. He must have looked like a pintsize St. George jousting with a furry, yapping dragon.
As the two Americans made their dramatic exit, the elegant room echoed with royal laughter.
“After dinner we saw the greatest curiosity I, or indeed anybody, ever saw, viz: a little dwarf,” Victoria wrote in her diary that night. “He made the funniest little bow, putting out his hand & saying: ‘much obliged, Mam.’ One cannot help feeling sorry for the poor little thing and wishing he could be properly cared for, for the people who show him off tease him a good deal, I should think. He was made to imitate Napoleon and do all sorts of tricks.”
Needless to say, Barnum made sure that the newspapers quickly learned of his triumphant evening. Now, the man mocked as the “prince of humbugs” was no longer just a cheap hustler exhibiting a clever freak, he was an international impresario who’d entertained Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace.
“This notice of my visit to the Queen wonderfully increased the attraction of my exhibition,” Barnum wrote, “and compelled me to obtain a more commodious hall.” Soon, he was raking in $500 a day.
Eight days after their first visit to the palace, Barnum and Tom returned to meet Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales.
“General,” said the queen, “this is the Prince of Wales.”
“How are you, Prince?” the general asked as he shook the boy’s hand. “The prince is taller than me,” he added, “but I feel as big as anybody.”
At that, Barnum reported, Tom “strutted up and down the room as proud as a peacock, amid shouts of laughter from all present.”
Barnum was at least as proud as his protégé. His ego, formidable even on bad days, swelled to the bursting point. Two audiences with the queen of England in eight days! Nothing could have done more to erase Barnum’s image as a sleazy scam artist, and he couldn’t resist ballyhooing his royal connections in a letter to the New York Atlas.
“If I was not a remarkably modest man, I should probably brag a little, and say that I had done what no American ever before accomplished,” he boasted. “But being ‘remarkably modest,’ I shall say nothing, but wait for an American to appear who has visited the queen at her palace twice within eight days.”
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.