Middleborough museum exhibit recalls celebrity little people
By John Laidler
August 25, 2013
In the midst of the Civil War in 1863, a large crowd turned out at Grace Church in New York City to witness the wedding of a diminutive couple, Tom Thumb of Bridgeport, Conn, and Lavinia Warren of Middleborough.
The high-profile ceremony and a hotel reception afterwards that drew 2,000 guests was one of the most celebrated episodes in the eventful career of the two dwarfs, who earned fame as performers through their association with the legendary showman P.T. Barnum.
A century and a half later, the memory of Warren and Thumb remains alive in Middleborough, where Warren grew up and where the couple — when they were not on the road — resided for a good part of their 20-year marriage.
The Middleborough Historical Association maintains a collection of clothing and other artifacts from the lives of Warren and Thumb, whose real name was Charles Stratton, and exhibits them at its Middleborough Historical Museum on Jackson Street.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the fabled wedding, the association recently had a specialist restore a dress that had belonged to Warren and is now displaying the historic garment in a special exhibit at the museum.
“Seeing it on a mannequin specially made to her proportions, you can visualize her height and what she looked like,” Dan Thompson, a member of the historical association’s board, said of the 32-inch Warren.
The black two-piece silk-and-net dress embellished with sequins was originally thought to have been worn by Warren when she and Stratton had an audience with Queen Victoria in England, a meeting that occurred either during a European tour they took shortly after the wedding or on a worldwide tour that began about six years later.
But Marie Schlag, the textile conservator who restored the dress, determined based on design that it would have been made in the 1890s.
Schlag, a Scituate resident, said that the dress was in poor condition when she began working on it, but that she and the association chose it for the restoration in part because it was more glamorous than another dress they considered.
“The other was a lovely silk embroidered dress, but it was sedate. This had a lot more flash and excitement to it,” she said.
Due to the dress’s state of disrepair, the restoration was a challenge that required the use of many different conservation techniques, said Schlag, who estimated the project took her 200 hours to complete.
“I was dealing with silk net and with sequins made of gelatin, not metal or plastic. So you really had to be very particular about how you repaired the damage,” said Schlag, who also had to use a special dry-cleaning-sponge method to clean the dress.
“It’s wonderful to see it,” Cynthia McNair, president of the historical association, said of the dress. “You can talk about how little Lavinia was, but to see the dress, it’s like she’s coming alive.”
The exhibit is located in one of two old mill houses at the museum, a seven-building complex behind the police station.
Born in 1841, Warren grew up in a longtime Middleborough family. After attending school, she left Middleborough to work as a performer on a relative’s riverboat on the Mississippi River.
Stratton was born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1838. He vaulted into early stardom when Barnum tapped him at age 4 to perform at his American Museum in New York City. Through their affiliation, Stratton performed as General Tom Thumb during the next two decades in this country and abroad, playing the part of real and fictional characters.
Warren gained attention from her work on the Mississippi, and in 1862 Barnum recruited her to work as one of his performers. Warren and Stratton met soon after, and “it was love at first sight,” McNair said.
Their wedding on Feb. 10, 1863, was “a huge media event,” Thompson said, noting that it “put the Civil War off the front page of the newspapers.”
The spotlight on the couple continued when they traveled on to Philadelphia and then to Washington, D.C., where they were hosted at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, and later during their European tour.
In Middleborough, the couple lived in a three-story house that they built across from the farmhouse where Warren’s family resided and an adjacent Cape where the family previously lived. McNair said all three houses remain in use as private residences today.
Stratton died in 1883, but Warren remarried two years later to “Count” Primo Magri, an Italian dwarf performer. The two resided in Middleborough but traveled with a performing troupe. Warren died in 1918 and Magri in 1919.
Thompson said that like many in Middleborough, he grew up absorbing the lore of the town’s connection to Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren. The story had a personal connection for him, because when his mother was a child her family lived in a two-family house above Warren’s nephew, Benjamin J. Bump, and his mother. Bump’s father was a brother of Warren, who was born Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump.
“Growing up, it was seen as our connection to the world of the rich and famous, celebrities,” he said of the town’s link to Stratton and Warren. “They were the stars of their time.”
Association members hope that the dress exhibit — and the colorful story of Stratton and Warren it recalls — can stimulate local residents to take a greater interest in the town’s past and explore all the museum has to offer.
“The museum focuses on life here in Middleborough and the surrounding areas as it was in the mid-1800s, and they were certainly part of that,” Thompson said.
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.