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The Liliputians of Connecticut

The circus has a history dating back to antiquity. The word itself goes back to the Greek “kirkos” meaning “circle,” but it was the Romans who really popularized the circus with the famous “circus maximus.” Horse races, chariot races, gladiatorial combat, trained exotic animals, jugglers and acrobats these activities were all part of the offerings at a Roman circus. American influence on the development of the circus as a form of popular entertainment came about largely as a result of a famous Connecticut resident Phineas T. Barnum of Bridgeport.

 

One of Barnum’s innovations was to develop “sideshows,” sometimes referred to as “freak” shows. Such shows would often feature human oddities such as a bearded woman, extremely thin or fat people, or extremely short or tall people. Two of the shortest people who made a name for themselves as circus attractions and a very good living as well were also from Connecticut: General Tom Thumb of Bridgeport and the lesser-known, Princess Nellie, of the East Haddam/Salem area. In fact, Princess Nellie was born 128 years ago  on March 25, 1884.

 

The son of a Bridgeport carpenter, Charles Sherwood Stratton (AKA General Tom Thumb) was born on January 4, 1838. Although rather large at birth—9 lbs. 8 oz.—young Charles stopped growing for awhile after reaching just 15 lbs. in weight and 25 inches in height. That’s when P.T. Barnum entered his life and changed it forever.

 

Barnum made financial arrangements with the Stratton family to “show” young Charles, who was soon dubbed “General Tom Thumb” by the age of 11. Barnum taught the doll-sized Tom Thumb to sing, dance and impersonate people. His popularity exploded, and he became Barnum’s biggest attraction.

 

General Tom Thumb went on extended American and world tours and made an enormous amount of money. He then married another dwarf named Lavinia Warren of Massachusetts in 1863 in New York City (see photo) . The newlyweds greeted guests at their wedding reception from atop a grand piano, charging $75 per person. Five thousand attended; do the math that’s a ton of money for that time!

 

Mr. And Mrs. Tom Thumb were arguably the most well known celebrities of their time. President Abraham Lincoln even received them in the White House in the middle of the Civil War! Tom died of a stroke at age 45 in 1883. Lavinia lived to be 77 and died in 1919. Both are buried in Bridgeport, CT.

 

Less famous and not associated with P.T. Barnum’s circus  was Nellie Frances Way, born on March 25, 1884 in East Haddam, CT. Nellie was one of 11 children of Frank and Roxana Way. Two siblings were also dwarfs; unfortunately, both of them died while very young. Nellie grew to be 30 inches tall and would have towered over Tom Thumb by 5 inches! Like Tom Thumb, Nellie was a talented entertainer who was known to travel with the Otis Smith Circus as “Princess Nellie.”

 

While on the road, Nellie met and married Major Stanley Jober, originally from Warsaw, Poland. Although small, Major Jober stood 46 inches 16 inches taller than his wife. The Jobers traveled around the country in a specially equipped truck to suit their special needs and entertained people.

 

 

PRINCESS NELLIE & MAJOR STANLEY

 

Like most entertainers of the time, the Great Depression hurt their business. They eventually settled in Waterford, CT, living in a specially made house on the Boston Post Road. Princess Nellie died at age 57 on September 29, 1941 in Waterford. She is buried in the Jordan Cemetery there next to her sister, Carrie.

 

In one of the chapters of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift tells us that Gulliver is found by a farmer who is 72 feet tall  12 times his size. The farmer treats the tiny Gulliver as a curiosity piece and puts him on exhibition for money. The queen of the island then has a special “traveling box” built for him. Sound familiar? P.T. Barnum of Bridgeport followed a similar pattern with Tom Thumb, creating a sideshow component to the circuses of 19th century America. Princess Nellie, another Connecticut resident, created her own “traveling box” a modified truckand took her show on the road with her husband, Major Jober. Just as writer Jonathan Swift in 1725 understood the attraction and economic potential of extremely small people, so too did the Liliputians of Connecticut heritage General Tom Thumb and Princess Nellie. 

 

 

 


 

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