General Tom Thumb Was The Most Famous Circus 'Freak' of All Time

General Tom Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton, was a dwarf born in the mid-19th century who became a famous circus performer under P.T. Barnum. Stratton started his career as a performer at a very young age, his parents willingly putting their son on public display as a means to earn $3 per week. In the modern era, many would consider the actions of Barnum, Stratton's parents, and the media to be exploitative. Because of his work in the era's "freak shows," Stratton managed to use his disability to travel the world, mingle with royalty, and bring General Tom Thumb's net worth to levels you probably will never reach.

During an age when disabled people had few opportunities and were shunned by society, Stratton used his short stature to entertain others and make a good life for himself and his wife. As one of the most famous circus sideshow performers ever, Stratton achieved a fame that made him recognizable to even Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln. Even today, it remains unclear what caused Stratton's short stature. X-rays weren't invented until 12 years after his death, and doctors at the time were mystified by his condition. Though Stratton may have been small, his legacy is anything but.

  • He Was A Big Baby At Birth

    He Was A Big Baby At Birth
    Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

    Charles Sherwood Stratton was born on Jan. 4, 1838, weighing in at a heavier-than-average nine pounds, eight ounces. For the first six months, Stratton developed like any other normal child. Then he stopped growing. His parents, who were of average height, got worried after their son turned one year old and he hadn't grown in six months. When he was 13, Stratton was 29 inches tall. Despite his lack of growth, Stratton was a healthy child. At the time of his death, he was 40 inches tall and weighed 71 pounds.

  • He Was Discovered By Distant Relative P.T. Barnum

    He Was Discovered By Distant Relative P.T. Barnum
    Photo: Samuel Root or Marcus Aurelius Root / Wikimedia Commons

    In 1842, circus pioneer P.T. Barnum traveled through Bridgeport, Connecticut, when he heard about an "extraordinary local boy" from the residents. They said Charles Stratton was four years old and just 25 inches tall. Since freak shows were so popular during that time, Barnum eagerly wished to meet the youngster. According to Lord Garde, who created a documentary about Stratton, "The public at the time craved freaks of nature." It turns out that Barnum was distantly related to Stratton - he was his half-fifth-cousin, twice removed.

  • Barnum Inflated The Boy's Age And Changed His Name

    Barnum Inflated The Boy's Age And Changed His Name
    Photo: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) / Wikimedia Commons

    Barnum created an elaborate backstory for Stratton and made him perform in humorous skits. Changing Stratton's name to General Tom Thumb after the character from English folklore, Barnum dressed Stratton in custom-made clothing and claimed he originated from England. Barnum also advertised that Stratton was 11, not four, so people wouldn't think he was merely a small child being exploited by adults (though he was). The use of the word "General" elevated Stratton's status even farther.

  • He Earned $3 A Week At Barnum's Museum

    He Earned $3 A Week At Barnum's Museum
    Photo: Baugniet 1844 / Wikimedia Commons

    In the 1840s, people who looked different or lived with a disability were basically ostracized from society, either feared or hated or both. Naturally, this made procuring a form of income extremely difficult. When Stratton's parents learned that their four-year-old son could earn $3 per week for appearing at Barnum's famous American Museum in New York City, they quickly agreed. Stratton was offered a one-month trial to see if he was a good fit among the other "freaks" in the show.

  • Americans Obsessed Over "Freaks Of Nature" Just Like Him

    In the mid-19th century, Americans loved the odd and unusual. P.T. Barnum showcased strange individuals, such as giants, dwarves, albinos, and people covered in hair in his Hall of Living Curiosities. Nobody thought freak shows were inappropriate. In turn, these shows were very popular and made the organizers a lot of money. For the "freaks" themselves, such shows offered opportunities the able-bodied world denied to them.

  • He Performed For Queen Victoria

    He Performed For Queen Victoria
    Photo: W. & D. Downey / Wikimedia Commons

    Aiming to make Stratton an international star, Barnum took him to England. A risky play, it was at that point unclear what the English would think of a performing dwarf. Eventually, Barnum's protégé was personally invited by Queen Victoria to perform at Buckingham palace. Stratton sang and performed impressions, but what the audience loved most took place after his performance. While etiquette required one to leave facing the queen, Stratton's little feet prevented him from walking backwards. So he would run a few steps, stop, turn, and bow, which agitated the royal spaniel. As the dog barked repeatedly at him, Stratton in turn took out his ceremonial sword and pretended to fight the canine. Everyone loved it.