The Liliputians of
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
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
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 &
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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