By Beverly Wilgus
The highlight of the 1863 New York City social season was the February 10 “Fairy Wedding” at Grace Episcopal Church of two of P. T. Barnum’s “little people,” Charles Sherwood Stratton and Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump. In the theatrical world, they were known as General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren—he stood 2’10”; she, 2’6″. There were 2,000 invited guests and Barnum also sold tickets to the reception after the wedding for $75 each. Although 15,000 ticket requests came in, only 5,000 were available. One newspaper, the Cleveland Daily Leader, noted that after the particulars were announced by Barnum, “then followed such a universal toadyism…all for the sake of begging, buying, or stealing invitations to the wedding.”
In spite of the event’s commercial nature, Tom and Lavinia’s marriage was a true love match. (Barnum, however, thought Lavinia was too tall for Tom and that her smaller sister Minnie would have been a better choice of a bride.) Lavinia had also been romantically pursued by Thumb’s rival performer, George Washington Morrison Nutt, whose stage name was Commodore Nutt, but Lavinia’s heart belonged to the Little General from the start. After their marriage, the couple lived in domestic harmony for twenty years until Tom’s death on July 15, 1883.
The Leader, which was only one of scores of newspapers around the world that covered Tom and Lavinia’s nuptials, explained to its readers, “Tom Thumb was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1838. He weighed nine pounds and a-half when born, but stopped growing at eighteen months old. Barnum took him in at ten years old and he has been a public character ever since. Miss Lavinia Bump was born in Middleboro, Mass., in 1842. She grew until one year old and then stopped… She and the General met a few months ago at Boston and a ‘mutual understanding’ developed.”
On the day of the wedding, the bride wore “plain white satin, the skirt en traine, being decorated with a flounce of costly point lace, headed by tulle puffings; the berthe to match. Her…hair, slightly waved, was rolled a la Eugenie…. Natural orange blossoms breathed their perfume above her brow and mingled their fragrance with soft sighs of her gentle bosom,” all-but moaned the Leader. Thumb was resplendent in a black dress coat and a vest of white silk, “his appearance that of a little old man in whom the juices of life were yet rich and whose jolly days were not done.”
After the wedding, the couple greeted reception guests from atop a piano amidst a mountain of gifts. At the end of the evening, Thumb ardently and grandiloquently thanked their guests and he and his wife withdrew, shortly thereafter to begin a European honeymoon. From start to finish, stated the Irish Meath People and Cavan and Westmeath Chronicle, Barnum had arranged the Fairy Wedding “with a true eye to business.”
Following the wild popularity of the wedding, a rather strange practice developed and has continued until today. Plays based on the event became popular, with children in wedding attire reenacting the marriage ceremony. My husband and I collect photographs of the original couple but also have a collection of photographs of children engaged in this activity from the 19th Century through 1950. The weddings were indeed so popular during the century after the actual event that there were professional Fairy Wedding planners who advised on the faux nuptials and rented out costumes.
Many Fairy Weddings were staged as fundraisers by churches and schools. For example, Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Telegraph of November 30, 1888, noted that a Tom Thumb Wedding was held on Thanksgiving evening at Wesley Union Church. It included the mock bride and groom, maids of honor and groomsmen, and the bride and groom’s family. “The couples were appropriately and beautifully attired and of such costly material, fitting splendidly the little bodies and producing much excitement even among the men and women,” the newspaper stated. The children performed with “great propriety and dignity, and won high praise.”
In 1893, the Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania, Daily News, reported a Tom Thumb Wedding held at the G. A. R. Opera House on May 12. “The youthful participants enacted their parts well and the quaint costumes created no end of amusement for the audience.” And the North Carolina Wilmington Messenger of February 28, 1894, published that “all the little boys and girls who took part in the ‘Tom Thumb Wedding’ at the Grace Church entertainment last night are requested to meet at city hall this afternoon [in their costumes] to be photographed.”
We possess a clipping from 1950 of my husband, Jack, acting as best man in a Tom Thumb Wedding at his family’s church. And if the term “Tom Thumb Wedding” is entered into Google, one will find many posts about churches, schools, and private birthday parties performing these weddings as late as just a few years ago. Ω
All images courtesy of the Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection.