Lavinia Warren never let her height—or the lack of it—prevent her from leading a full and adventurous life. Although she never grew more than three feet tall, she became a beloved teacher, a world traveler, an entertainer and the friend of many powerful figures. Lavinia was teaching at a local school when she heard about an opportunity to travel doing shows as a “human curiosity” on a Mississippi River boat. Eventually she met P. T. Barnum and worked at his American Museum. It was there that she met Charles Stratton, a little person known to the world as “Tom Thumb.” Their wedding, which took place on February 10, 1863, brought joy to a nation at war. President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln held a reception for the couple at the White House. The newlyweds later toured the United States and the world. Lavinia faced several tragedies but always found the strength to go on. Lavinia’s extraordinary story also provides a social history of one of the most devastating periods in American history. With additional material on Tom Thumb Weddings, readers' questions, time line, and notes and bibliography, this is sure to be a valuable title for adventurous middle-grade readers.
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Living Life Small
There were lots of Bumps in Middleborough, Massachusetts, and every one of them was tall. James Bump was over six feet tall. His wife, Huldah, was tall too. Their first four children grew as tall and slender as corn in August. On October 31, 1841, a fifth baby Bump was born. Her parents named her Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump. At birth, Mercy weighed six pounds. Everyone assumed that she would become a big Bump too.
But around the time of her first birthday, Mercy stopped growing — or at least she slowed way down. It took her five years to grow as much as most children grow in a single year. At age 10, Mercy measured 24 inches tall and weighed 20 pounds. Many two-year-olds were bigger. Her fourth-grade classmates towered above her.
No one knew what caused Mercy to stop growing, not in 1842. Today, doctors know that children like Mercy lack a certain growth hormone. Mercy's medical condition was called dwarfism. There are more than 200 different kinds of dwarfism. Mercy was a proportionate dwarf. Proportionate means that all the parts of her body were small to the same degree. She looked like other children except that she was much, much smaller.
Mercy's parents accepted her just as she was. They sent her to the local school, took her to church on Sundays, and insisted that she help with chores around the house. Although her parents tried to treat her exactly as they had treated their other children, they had to make allowances for her small size.
Her father, James, was a farmer and often carried her on his arm when he went to the barn to care for the cattle. To make life easier for her, he built a lightweight set of steps so she could reach the kitchen countertop and fetch items from the cabinets. She could move the steps from place to place whenever she needed them. Mercy's mother, Huldah, taught her to sew her own clothes, embroider, and knit her own sweaters. Mercy especially enjoyed embroidery and other kinds of needlework.
It wasn't always easy for someone so small to handle household chores, but Mercy was smart. She figured out how to get things done. Sometimes she had to remind her mother that she couldn't accomplish a particular task because of her size. But little setbacks didn't stop Mercy Bump. She wanted to please her parents and live up to their expectations. When she wrote her autobiography, she dedicated it to them:
To the memory of my Father and Mother, to whom I owe a happy childhood and whose integrity and uprightness has given me a standard which, if often my arrow falls below, has held me to the motto "Aim high."
* * *
Middleborough was a small town; everyone knew everyone else. When Mercy went off to school the first day with her brothers and sisters, her size was no surprise to her classmates. She was as bright and capable as the other students; she was simply much smaller.
To reach her desk, Mercy sat on a high stool. Most of the time, she worked hard at her studies. Sometimes, however, she quietly climbed down to play tricks on the others. She would run beneath the desks and give her classmates tiny pinches. They gasped or squealed in surprise until they realized that it was Mercy, and then they sputtered and giggled.
Mr. Dunbar, the teacher, was not amused. By the time the tall, gangly teacher crouched down to identify the culprit, Mercy had already darted back to her seat. Mr. Dunbar would find her sitting quietly at her desk, hard at work, and with an angelic look on her face. That didn't fool Mr. Dunbar. He knew exactly who had caused the trouble. "What shall I do with you? Shall I shut you in my overshoe?" he asked. "What does your mother do with you? Does she set you on top of the sugar bowl and make you wipe the dishes?" One day, after some such mischief, Mr. Dunbar plunked Mercy down on top of the biggest dictionary he could find. He glanced at the giant book from time to time to make sure that his smallest pupil stayed put.
Despite her good sense of humor and her generally cheerful nature, Mercy didn't like being different. For a while at least, she tried to behave. She found it embarrassing when the teacher, or anyone, commented about her size. Even so, temptation soon called out to her. Mercy was the perfect messenger, so her classmates asked her to carry notes for them. She would sneak beneath the desks and place the forbidden notes directly into the children's hands. Mr. Dunbar didn't see a thing, at least not most of the time.
* * *
When Mercy was seven years old, her sister was born. The baby's name was Huldah Pierce Warren Bump, but the family called her Minnie. Would this baby grow to be as tall as her older brothers and sisters, or would she be as tiny as Mercy? The answer soon became apparent. Like Mercy, Minnie stopped growing when she was about a year old. The two smallest Bumps became best friends. Here, at last, was someone who looked up to Mercy. The rest of the world, even children who were much younger, looked down at her.
Mercy included Minnie in her pranks. In her autobiography, Mercy writes about the day she "borrowed" the peddler's wagon and took Minnie for a wild ride. In those days, peddlers traveled door-to-door selling pots, wooden items, and brooms from the back of a wagon. One day a peddler stopped at the Bump home. Mercy and Minnie were playing outside while the peddler sat in the kitchen visiting with their parents. Mercy suggested a ride in the peddler's wagon. Little Minnie agreed.
It was no easy task for the tiny girls to climb into the wagon. Mercy had to push, tug, and pull Minnie up the steep steps onto the wagon's seat. When both girls were perched on the big seat, Mercy put her arm around Minnie and grabbed the horse's reins. The thick reins were far too large for Mercy's tiny hands, but she was determined to take her little sister for a ride. When Mercy said, "Get up! Go 'long!" the horse trotted off, pulling the wagon down the hill toward town.
Crunch. Crackle. Crunch. The sounds of the wagon wheels alerted the adults that something was amiss. By the time they ran outside, the wagon was bumping down the gravel road. Onlookers saw what they thought were two dolls bouncing precariously on the wagon's wooden seat.
Mercy gripped her sister and the seat, still urging the horse forward. "It required my utmost strength to retain my hold upon Minnie and cling to the seat," she later wrote, "and it was a wonder we were not thrown upon the road."
One of their older brothers ran to the stable for a horse. He leaped onto the horse bareback and raced to rescue the girls. He caught up with the wagon a mile from home, grabbed the reins, and pulled the runaway horse to a halt. Luckily it was a gentle creature. As Mercy later wrote,
We were in high glee, laughing and enjoying the fun, but my brother took us back and I received a long lecture upon the danger I had incurred, and a promise [never to do it again].
The peddler, after examining his wares and finding no damage, treated the matter as a good joke, saying "I have owned that horse for 12 years and the greatest speed I could get out of him was three miles an hour, but I now believe that the animal is a racer."
LITTLE MISS BUMP, TEACHER
* * *
Mercy did so well in school that she graduated early. When she was 16, members of the local school board came to call. They were seeking a teacher for the primary students, children aged four through nine. In the 1850s, teachers were not required to go to college or to hold teaching degrees. The school board knew Mercy and trusted her. They knew she was clever enough to teach the younger students. They offered her the job, and she accepted.
Even the youngest students were taller than Miss Bump. Mercy made it clear that although she was small, she was in charge. She stood on a table to teach. She later wrote, "The youngest even was far above me in stature, yet all seemed anxious to be obedient and to please me." Her students mastered their lessons, followed the rules, and never took advantage of their tiny teacher. In fact, they did what they could to make life easier for her. On muddy days, the big boys clasped their hands together to make a seat for Miss Bump. They carried her over deep puddles. On snowy days, they pulled her to school on a sled.
Teaching suited Mercy. She enjoyed it. She was naturally reserved, meticulous in her appearance, and dainty. Children and parents respected her. At the end of the school year, the district school committee thanked her for an excellent job. Mercy thought that she had found the perfect career. But a surprise visit from a distant cousin changed the course of Mercy's life.
AN UNEXPECTED OFFER
* * *
George Wood visited Middleborough during the summer vacation. He'd heard about his little cousin and wanted to meet her. It was more than just a friendly visit; Wood planned to offer Mercy a very different opportunity.
Wood, who was called Colonel Wood by his employees, worked for the Spaulding and Rogers's North American Circus, a company that sailed showboats up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Showboats provided entertainment for people living in river towns and villages. Showboats often included what were called museums. These museums featured displays of animals or birds, often stuffed. But the main displays were people labeled "living curiosities" or, unkindly, "freaks" or "human oddities."
People are often curious about those who are different. In the mid-1800s, people who were unusually tall or short, fat or thin, sometimes found work as living curiosities. So did people born with missing limbs or extra limbs. People with developmental disabilities, conjoined twins, and those with extra hair (such as bearded women) were hired as curiosities. In addition to those on showboats, some of these so-called museums were located on land in major cities. Shows that featured living curiosities were called "freak shows." At the time, knowledge of science and medicine was increasing rapidly. Doctors and scientists often visited such shows to learn more about unusual conditions. Their comments and interest spurred others to go too. Showmen took advantage of people's curiosity.
George Wood knew that people would find Mercy fascinating because of her size. He offered her a job as a curiosity on Spaulding and Rogers's Floating Palace of Curiosities. She would meet and greet the people in river towns who paid to come aboard the showboat. George assured her family that Mercy would become famous, not just in America but also throughout the world. At the time, no one guessed that his prediction would come true.CHAPTER 2
A Curious Opportunity
As a child, Mercy had been embarrassed about her size, but her cousin's proposal intrigued her. It ignited her sense of adventure. Sailing unfamiliar rivers on a steamboat and meeting interesting people stirred her imagination. So did the idea of exploring the West.
Most of those who were called living curiosities had no other choice than to accept a job as a "freak." Colonel Wood's showboat — and others like it — gave people who were born different an opportunity to make a living. Managers and showmen paid good wages and provided room and board. The curiosities developed their own communities within the world of show business. Mercy, however, had a choice. She had proved her worth as a teacher; she could continue making a good living in a respected profession, or she could accept Colonel Wood's curious offer.
Wood promised Mercy's family that he would protect her — with his life, if necessary. He would provide whatever she needed or wanted while she was in his care. He argued with passion, and he seemed sincere.
With adventure in mind, Mercy chose to leave teaching behind and become a performer — if her parents would give their blessing. They looked to their eldest son for advice. He argued against the plan. He felt that Mercy's life would be in danger. Showboats sometimes burned and sank. The towns along the river were rough, and rowdy crowds flocked onto the showboats. Mercy was too small to protect herself, her brother said, and she would be alone in a big and scary world. Mercy's parents listened closely to their son's arguments. He was right, they thought. Mercy could be in danger.
Mercy waited patiently. Her parents knew that she was confident. They knew that she was curious and craved adventure. They had always treated her as they treated their other children, and she had proved herself to be responsible and self-reliant. In addition, George Wood had promised to protect her. Mercy wanted to go. How could they say no? Finally, if somewhat reluctantly, they agreed to let her accept her cousin's offer.
A NEW NAME FOR A NEW LIFE
* * *
In April 1858, Mercy bid farewell to friends and family. She exchanged the safety they offered for a life of adventure. Everything was about to change, even her name. She wanted an elegant name, something with a more theatrical ring than Mercy Bump.
Mercy was particularly proud of the name Warren. Two of her ancestors had played major roles in American history. The first was Richard Warren. He had come to America on the Mayflower in 1620, signed the Mayflower Compact, and was one of the original settlers of Plymouth Colony.
The second was Dr. Joseph Warren, an American patriot. Dr. Warren had been a well-respected physician practicing in Boston just before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. His patients included John Adams, Paul Revere, and William Dawes, all of whom became leaders during the Revolution. Dr. Warren felt that a doctor's duties extended beyond medicine. He became a trusted spokesperson in the colonies' fight for independence from the British. He worked with Paul Revere to organize America's first spy network — the very group that warned the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord that the British were coming in April 1775. The next day, the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. Dr. Warren was a member of the Continental Congress, and on June 14, 1775, he was appointed a major general. He died during the Battle of Bunker Hill while providing cover for retreating American soldiers.
Mercy considered both of these ancestors genuine American heroes. She decided to use the name Warren as a surname and Lavinia as her first name. After all, her parents had chosen these names when she was born, and Mercy loved and respected her family. Using names they had chosen honored them as well as her ancestors. She became Lavinia Warren. Eventually, even her family called her Lavinia or Vinnie.
THE FLOATING PALACE
* * *
George Wood was as good as his word. He escorted Lavinia safely to Cincinnati, Ohio, where the Floating Palace of Curiosities was anchored. The Floating Palace was the most spectacular showboat of them all. It was a combination floating theater, minstrel hall, and museum. The showboat was 200 feet long. (That's more than twice as long as a professional basketball court.) Two hundred gas lamps lit the interior. The showboat's central theater had 1,000 seats on the main deck, another 1,500 seats on a second level called the family circle, and another 900 seats set aside for African American customers. People came aboard to watch singers, dancers, and other entertainers put on variety shows and plays. There was also an animal show featuring performing horses. The museum claimed to house 100,000 items from the past. Lavinia and the other living curiosities appeared in the museum area as well. The showboat included a stable for the animals and bedrooms, called staterooms, for the performers and staff.
Lavinia was to share one of the showboat's staterooms with Miss Sylvia Hardy. Lavinia's first look at Sylvia sent fearful tremors through her body. Miss Hardy was a giant! She was eight feet tall, almost five feet taller than Lavinia. The stateroom was not only Lavinia's bedroom; it was where she spent her free time. Years later, Lavinia wrote in her autobiography, "My heart failed me at the thought that I was to be almost continually in her company."
Soon, however, the giant and the dwarf became great friends. Lavinia later wrote, "I was with her [Sylvia] but a short time when I learned to love her and to realize that her great body was quite a necessity if it was to contain her large heart." When Lavinia suffered one of her frequent headaches, Sylvia would lift Lavinia onto her huge lap and soothe her to sleep as if she were a small child.
The friendship between Lavinia and Sylvia was not unusual. Despite their great size difference, they had much in common. They were both objects of curiosity, and they both faced difficulties related to their size. The world was too big for Lavinia's comfort and too small for Sylvia's.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Big, Bold, Adventurous Life of Lavinia Warren"
Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Raum.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Living Life Small 3
2 A Curious Opportunity 13
3 Drifting Toward War 26
4 Moving onto the World Stage 36
5 Charley 49
6 Friends or Lovers? 60
7 The Biggest Little Wedding 71
8 At the White House 88
9 Traveling Near and Far 98
10 Dangerous Journeys 109
11 The Other Side of the World 122
12 "I Belong to the Public" 131
Tom Thumb Weddings 145
Questions to Ponder 149
Time Line 151
Image Credits 164