On 24 August 1848 an advertisement in the Brooklyn Eagle triumphantly announced a performance by 'the most extraordinary and interesting man in miniature in the known world'. Charles Sherwood Stratton was a perfectly formed 25-inch-tall midget, who weighed only 15 pounds. It had been the idea of the Victorian freak show impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum to present him in the guise of 'General Tom Thumb'. Before long, the general's imitations - 'in full military costume' - of Napoleon Bonaparte and Frederick the Great, and a varied repertoire including a 'Scotch song' and a rendition of the polka, would make him a wealthy man. Following his hugely successful London debut at the Princess's Theatre four years earlier (the Illustrated London News had described him as 'a little monster'), he had received three separate invitations to visit Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. His unexpected success spawned a host of copycat acts including 'Anita the Living Doll', 'Leonine the Lion Woman', 'Chang the Chinese Giant', 'Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy' and John Merrick, the 'Elephant Man'. But by the turn of the century, the mood of the public had changed and the public display of such 'human prodigies' - as they preferred to be called - had become unacceptable in many countries. The profession of 'museum freak' was in terminal decline.
LRB 6 January 2005 | PDF Download