A conversation with best-selling writer Jon Krakauer on his latest book of non-fiction. The author of “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air” chronicles the lives of several women allegedly raped on campus at the University of Montana.
Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump was born on a Massachusetts farm in 1841. Vinnie, as her family called her, weighed in at six pounds and grew normally during her first year of life. Then she stopped growing and remained thirty-two inches tall for the rest of her life. Her height didn’t stop her from excelling at school and even becoming a school teacher. But she sought a bigger stage and at 17 embarked on a career in show business. It led to a partnership with P.T. Barnum, marriage to tiny superstar General Tom Thumb and a grand world tour. A novelist imagines what life was like for Mrs. Tom Thumb.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Lavinia Stratton never weighed more than 20 pounds, nor grew beyond 2'8" tall, 32 inches. Her family encouraged her to live a life hidden from public. Instead, she reached out to the impresario, P.T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar known as General Tom Thumb and performed on stages across the world.
MS. DIANE REHMMuch has been written about her career, but in a new novel titled "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb," Melanie Benjamin draws on notes Lavinia wrote about her life to portray the woman who refused to let her size define her. Melanie Benjamin joins me in the studio and we are talking about this new book, "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb," which, I must say, I found fascinating.
MS. DIANE REHMDo join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com, feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, Melanie, it's good to have you here.
MS. MELANIE BENJAMINWell, thank you so much for having me, Diane.
REHMYou and I share an appreciation of E. L. Doctorow and it was from E. L. Doctorow's novel, "Ragtime," that you sort of gleaned a little spark of interest about Tom Thumb's wife.
BENJAMINYes. Vinnie appeared in a very brief scene in "Ragtime" with Harry Houdini and this is towards the end of her life, but she was kind of feisty in it, even so. And so a few years later when I was really needed a new subject for a book quick (laugh), because I had a contract and I had a book that couldn't finish, so I needed to come up with an idea, I saw her name on a list of famous American women and I remembered the scene in "Ragtime" and I just did a just a quick, you know, search on her name and I was immediately entranced by her story.
REHMShe had written about her own life in sort of brief snatches.
BENJAMINRight. She had always intended to publish an autobiography. In fact, after her husband died, when Charles Stratton died, someone wrote to her asking if she intended to publish his biography and she answered by saying, no, but my own autobiography (laugh), I intend on publishing, you know, very soon, but she never did. She published a few essays around the turn of the century, around the turn of the 20th century and then left behind a collection of notes, but they were not published in her lifetime.
BENJAMINThey were edited in, I want to say, the 1970s or '80s.
BENJAMINHeavily edited, though, because she freely borrowed on other people's accounts of her life (laugh). She plagiarized and they were very interesting to me for what they told about, which was basically all the people she met and the amazing history she witnessed, but more fascinating to me for what they omitted.
REHMAlso interesting that your earlier book you chose to write about Alice Liddell.
BENJAMINMm-hmm. Again, someone who we know a few facts of her life, but there's such a great mystery. In that case, it was the relationship between Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson or Lewis Carroll and this break in their relationship when Alice was 11 that is fascinating and we don't know the answers to. I am fascinated by trying to, you know, imagine what goes on behind what the facts that are known of these women in.
REHMSo when Vinnie, as she came to be known, began her autobiography, it was really more just dates, wasn't it? And...
BENJAMINMm-hmm. Kept a travel log.
REHMBut she grew -- and it's interesting it was a travel log because she grew up in such a protected household. She was born as a child weighing six pounds and it wasn't until she was, what, a year old that she stopped growing.
BENJAMINRight, about a year. We -- she had a form of proportionate dwarfism, so every limb was in perfect proportion. She was born a normal sized baby, but then stopped growing around the age of one and grew very sporadically and very little afterwards. It's suspected today that both she and Charles Stratton had a pituitary disorder. So were she born in today's time, she would be given human growth hormone and while she might not actually reach full adult height, she would definitely be taller than 32 inches.
REHMBut her mother had had two or three prior births.
BENJAMINRight. She had seven or eight brothers and sisters. They all grew to adult height except for Vinnie and her younger sister by seven years, Minnie. Both of her parents were probably -- they were probably distant cousins, related, and this is why there is a gene that -- that can appear then in these cases.
REHMI wonder if you would read for us from the very beginning of the book over to the word humbug.
BENJAMINAh. "I suppose it would be fashionable to admit to some reservations as I undertake to write the history of my life. Popular memoirs of our time suggest a certain reticence is expected, particularly when the author is a female. We women are timid creatures, after all. We must retire behind a veil of secrecy and allow others to tell our stories. To that, I can only reply, rubbish. I have let others, one other in particular, tell my story for far too long.
BENJAMINNow is the time to set the record straight, to sort out the humbug from the truth and vice-versa. Had -- has any other female of our time been written about as much as I have? It was not so very long ago when it was impossible to open a newspaper without reading about my husband or myself. We even pre-empted the war between the states during its very darkest days. For a solid week, every newspaper in the land was interested only in our wedding plans, the guest list, the presents we received, my trousseau, in particular, receiving much press.
BENJAMINPresident and Mrs. Lincoln were so eager to make our acquaintance that they put aside their own cares, graciously welcoming us to the White House on our honeymoon journey. During the elaborate reception in the Blue Room, where we met a number of dignitaries, including many generals who would win themselves glory on the field of battle, I permitted Mr. Lincoln to kiss me. This was not something I allowed strange men to do as a rule, but felt I had to acquiesce to a presidential request.
BENJAMINMy husband, however, had no reservations of this sort. Without even asking, he rose on tiptoe to bestow his usual happy kiss upon Mrs. Lincoln, who twittered and giggled and blushed a rosy red. 'Mr. Lincoln,' she exclaimed with surprise, 'The general kisses every bit as nicely as you.' 'Well, why shouldn't he, Molly?' Mr. Lincoln asked with a twinkle in his gray eyes. 'I reckon he's had much more practice.' Everyone laughed appreciatively and none harder than my husband.
BENJAMINI could not join in. It was a sore subject between the two of us already, so early in our marriage. I determined to mention it to him later that night when we were preparing for slumber. A more immediate problem, however, soon drove the thought from my mind. The enormous four-poster bed piled high with the downiest of mattresses, pillows and plush counter-pane was so tall that we despaired of ever reaching the top. Even my wooden steps, which I had carried with me since childhood, were not high enough.
BENJAMINWith great embarrassment, I had to summon a hotel chambermaid to assist us in attaining our goal. Once ensconced, naturally, we were required to put off any thoughts of nighttime ablutions, unless we wanted to sleep the rest of the night on the floor. The newspapers naturally did not recount this particular detail of our visit. This is but one example of why I have decided to write down my own recollections of my life thus far and I vow I will do my best to keep them free of humbug."
REHMAh. And in fact, the couple did go to the White House...
REHMIndeed they did.
REHM...on their honeymoon.
REHMThey were welcomed by the Vanderbilts, all of New York's Society truly hosted them. How did Vinnie actually meet Tom Thumb?
BENJAMINWell, Charles Stratton, or Tom Thumb, was a performer with P. T. Barnum. Vinnie left home to perform on the showboat, so the Mississippi quite a rude awakening, but it was her first taste of show business. And then in 1862, P. T. Barnum somehow heard of her. I have my theory on how he heard of her, but he sent for her and she appeared on stage at the American Museum, which was the Grand Palace of entertainment in that time. It was Barnum's American Museum and soon after appearing, she was engaged to Charles Stratton. He met her while she was performing there.
REHMPrior to that, she had not only become quite educated, she had become a teacher.
BENJAMINYes. Her parents were loving, sweet people in Massachusetts, farmers, pious farmers. You know, she was expected to be kept at home lovingly. You know, with a loving family, but her mother didn't even want to send her to school, but when Vinnie was seven or eight, she demanded to be let go to school with her brothers and sisters.
REHMShe was very bright.
BENJAMINVery bright and she saw and she just wanted to go with her brothers and sisters. And she thrived in the school situation and when she was 16, the town elders of her hometown of Middleboro, Mass. offered her the position of school teacher. And so she spend one year teaching the primary grades and they were much taller than she was and, you know, that would have been enough to make her life extraordinary, but it was not enough for Vinnie.
REHMIt wasn't enough for her. She really had an eye on the world.
BENJAMINShe had a thirst to see new things and I think she was smart enough to realize in part because of the fame of General Tom Thumb and Barnum that her size could be her ticket out.
REHMMelanie Benjamin, her new book, it's a novel, is titled "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb."
REHMAnd of course in the 1800s, women, generally speaking, did not have too many options or opportunities. But Melanie Benjamin has taken what she knows about Mrs. Tom Thumb and created truly a wonderful but fictional biography and included many, many details that are simply outlined in what we have of the writings that Lavinia left for herself.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Karen in Detroit, Mich. She says, "Thanks for enlightening us about such a fascinating woman. How difficult was it for you to imagine what it was like to live in such a small body? Did you literally get down on your knees to visualize the world from that viewpoint?" You always carry that tape measure with you, don't you?
BENJAMINI do. That's a wonderful question. You know, I didn't get down on my knees, I just -- I have a healthy imagination, which was kind of an obstacle when I was a child, but it's come into great use as a novelist, so I mean, I just somehow -- and it's hard for me to describe, but I become this person in a way. So while I physically did not get down on my hands and knees, I certainly just spent a great deal of time trying to see the world through eyes that weren't even three feet off the ground.
REHMThe photograph or the daguerreotype that's in the book, is that an accurate one of Lavinia?
BENJAMINYes. She probably was one of the most photographed woman of her time. And that photograph and most of their photographs were actually taken by Mathew Brady, obviously, of Civil War fame. But Mathew Brady's -- his studios were located across the street from Barnum's museum, so he was almost the official photographer of Barnum and all the acts. So almost all the photographs we have of Vinnie and Charles were taken by Mathew Brady or his partner. So...
REHMAll right. Now, how did Vinnie first get into show business? And much of that you have fictionalized, I gather.
BENJAMINRight. Well, we do know that opportunity literally came knocking on her door one day in the form of a man named Colonel Wood who claimed to be a cousin of theirs. Now...
REHMEven though their mother had no knowledge of him.
BENJAMINRight. But also New England, at the time, you know, you could claim to be a cousin and that you'd probably have a pretty good probability that you were somehow related. And that really was the only calling card you needed was to claim relation and he did. And he...
REHMPresented himself very quietly, pleasantly, politely.
BENJAMINYes. He just said he had heard of his extraordinary little cousin and wanted to come meet her. Kind of insinuated himself in the household, but said he had a floating palace of curiosities, which was a very fancy word for a showboat, and kind of a seedy showboat at that. And he had come to ask if Vinnie wanted to come perform on this floating palace of curiosity.
REHMBecause she could sing.
BENJAMINBecause she could sing, she somehow convinced herself that those were the reasons why. I do think at this point in her life anyway, and maybe not so much later, she understood that she was of interest only because of her size and I do think she saw it as her passport out. I think later on in her life perhaps she forgot that...
BENJAMIN...and maybe believed the press, that she had a lovely singing voice and all that.
REHMHer parents really did not want her to go, her mother especially.
BENJAMINOh, oh, certainly. I mean again, her mother was descended from the Mayflower, something Vinnie was always happy to tell people. And they were just simple God fearing Massachusetts farmers. Show business was not -- you know, not an option. After a very stormy night of tears and anguish and even one of her brothers threatened to leave the house and never return if she insisted on displaying herself in such a public manner.
REHMDo we know that?
BENJAMINYes, she wrote of that, that -- her brother Benjamin. She wrote of that and she once more had her way. So the next morning, 17-year-old, 32" tall Vinnie left home for the first time ever in the company of a total stranger to travel west to the Mississippi River, which was kind of a wild place in those days, and start her show business career.
REHMAnd even to get onto a train.
BENJAMINRight. I mean, trains...
REHMWhat a challenge.
BENJAMINWell, for anyone...
BENJAMIN...let alone anyone 32" tall.
BENJAMINAnd this is 1857, 1858. Train travel's still pretty rough. This was before the Vanderbilts bought up all the trains. And so you would have individual train lines from village to village, meaning you would have to get out at every stop almost and change trains. There were no porters. You -- someone had to carry the trunks and the luggage. If -- there were no lavatories. There were buckets in the corner. There was no food service. And Vinnie had to literally be picked up and down, not only probably from the train to the platform, but into the seats as well. And then Colonel Wood had to deal with all their luggage on all these various stops West.
REHMThe sad -- most sad part of Vinnie's leaving home was Minnie.
REHMShe had really been her support, her -- almost her substitute mother.
BENJAMINYeah, I came to think that, you know, Minnie was the only person in Vinnie's life who literally could look up to her. And I really explored that relationship. It does seem to me Minnie was the one person that Vinnie allowed herself to love. Vinnie -- Minnie -- it does get confusing with Vinnie and Minnie (laugh). Minnie was -- actually her name was Huldah, but they called her Minnie was seven years younger than Vinnie. And unlike her older sister, Minnie did want to stay home. She was content to stay home. She didn't go to school. Vinnie was her whole world, you know. The one person in her life, they saw things from a similar perspective.
REHMSo once Vinnie got onto this showboat, what was life like?
BENJAMINOh, goodness, those river towns on the Mississippi River, they were rough. For starters, genteel people would not set food aboard a showboat, so Vinnie often had private audiences with more genteel people, like a man named Ulysses S. Grant whom she met in 1858, off the boat in hotels. But when they would pull into the port cities, you could expect people spitting tobacco and throwing tomatoes at the stage and they were just, you know, really rough and tumble river towns. And in fact, on more than one occasion, as the boat pulled away, they were shot at from the shore.
REHMOh, my. Oh, my.
BENJAMINJust as sport. Just as sport. I guess Stillwater, Minn. was a particularly rough lumber town and they had a couple of harrowing experiences getting away. Also the travel was dangerous. Steamboats blew up almost all the time on the river. There -- you know, there were accidents on the river, things submerged, so it was a very -- not to her liking, but she learned a lot.
REHMNow, there's one scene in the book where the hotel in which she's staying catches fire.
BENJAMINYes. And that did happen. This is later in her life. This is when -- in 1883 when she and Charles Stratton by this time were performing alone near the end of Charles' life. They stayed at the Newhall House in Milwaukee, Wis. And that night -- it was a wooden structure and it was one of the worst hotel fires in history and 90 people perished, including the wife of their manager, but they were rescued, but it...
REHMBy a fireman.
BENJAMINBy a fireman, but the interesting thing is -- I found that out by looking at an actual newspaper article in Milwaukee and it said they were rescued by a fireman. But in all the other accounts and even on, you know, some of the historical websites, it says that their manager rescued them.
BENJAMINAnd I can only think that that must have been an -- you know, Mr. Barnum must have put that out, but no, in fact, they were rescued by a fireman.
REHMWell, let's talk about how she and P.T. Barnum actually finally met because according to your novel, at least, she had longed to meet him. She felt he would be the pinnacle for her.
BENJAMINRight. Again, I have to think that as intelligent as she was, and she certainly was aware of Tom Thumb and Barnum when she left home, the river again was so rough and just, you know, not -- she was from such a genteel background and it just was not to her liking, so I think -- I truly came to think that Barnum was the light she was always seeking. So they got out of Mississippi barely before the Civil War starts, her and her troupe, and she...
REHMOn the showboat.
BENJAMINOn the river boat and they got back to Middleboro and the Civil War came along. And I have to imagine her parents said, whew, you got that out of your system, now you're home for good.
REHMNow you can stay home.
BENJAMINBut no, no, no, no. So somehow Barnum heard of her and that's one of those things we're not entirely sure of.
REHMAnd you imagine...
BENJAMINI imagine that he heard of her because Vinnie wanted him to hear of her and she perhaps sent him some of her clippings. And so he did send for her in late 1862 and her parents were very against this one as well. They really had grave misgivings. P.T. Barnum was known for his humbugs. You know, he never let the truth get in the way of, you know, a good time. And they, once again, put their foot down. And once again, Vinnie had her way. And, in fact, Barnum knew of their reservations. He had first sent one of his agents out to meet Vinnie, but her parents would not let her sign a contract.
BENJAMINAnd then -- and so the agent apparently went back to Barnum and said, you know, the parents are very reluctant, so Barnum sent for all of them to come visit him in Bridgeport, Conn. where he charmed the heck out of them. And so Vinnie signed a contract with P.T. Barnum and in early 1863, appeared onstage at the American Museum.
REHMAnd was it he, P.T. Barnum, who introduced her to General Stratton?
BENJAMINYes, yes, definitely. She was appearing on stage. Another little person named Commodore Nutt was also appearing on stage. One of the stories that went around about how they met was that Commodore Nutt fell in love with Vinnie. And then Charles Stratton met her, too, and so these two little people were -- actually came to blows over the hand of Miss Stratton (sic). I kinda have to think part of that is again part of Barnum's version of the truth. He put it in his autobiography, but it made a good story.
BENJAMINBut Charles Stratton did meet Vinnie during this time and they were engaged just a few weeks after she first appeared on stage.
BENJAMINThey were married in February, 1863.
REHMShe, at least from what you've written, never really loved him.
BENJAMINI don't know if she could have loved anyone, really, except perhaps Minnie. You know, everyone says their marriage appeared to be happy. He was a genial little -- he was a genial person. He was very sunny, you know, good natured and so he -- there was no tension between them, but it's still kind of up for, you know, grabs whether or not it was a love match. I have to think that Vinnie knew the box office potential of a marriage to someone as famous as he was because at that point, he was more famous than she and that one little person on her own was interesting, but two together could be a phenomenon and that is what happened.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're talking about a new book "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb" by Melanie Benjamin. You use a pseudonym and I'm wondering why.
BENJAMINWell, it was just a business decision (laugh). Like Vinnie, I have a very practical streak to my nature. I had been published a few years ago writing more contemporary fiction under a different name. And when I made the change to historical fiction and a few years had gone by, it seemed a practical business decision to use a pseudonym to change names for that.
REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Antrim, N.H. and to Chauncy (sp?). Good morning, you're on the air.
CHAUNCEYGood morning, Diane.
REHMYes, Chauncey. Go right ahead, please.
CHAUNCEYI just wish to make a comment that Vinnie got her ticket out by participating in human oddities for amusement and profit. And that today, the American Disabilities Act prevents such displays of individuals for attaining their ticket out.
BENJAMINAnd that's true. Yes, times have definitely changed. Vinnie came of age though in an era of America that was just waking up to itself that was suddenly being linked by the railroad and people had a thirst for the different and the novel and it is true that that included people today with disabilities. At the time, they were called curiosities.
BENJAMINJust a few years prior to this -- and America was very puritan and it was thought that those born differently were the sign of the devil's handiwork. In Vinnie's era, that attitude changed and now it was -- you know, the science -- science was kind of, you know, coming into a more modern time and so people were aware that it was just -- these were oddities of science or natural selection and there was just a great curiosity for them.
REHMThanks for calling, Chauncey. And to Conway, Ark. Good morning, Jonathan.
JONATHANHello, how are you doing?
JONATHANGood. I have two questions. I just heard you mention that it was historical fiction and I was first curious about, you know, how much -- if it is completely factual or how much you just filled in the blanks. But I was really calling, I was curious about the health problems that were incurred because of her size and, you know, how that affected her life, any health issues.
BENJAMINRight. Well, to answer your first question, I can't give you an absolute percentage (laugh) of what is real and what is imagined. I will say that facts formed the backbone of my story as far as, you know, we know when she was born, when she married, where she traveled, the things she saw.
REHMAnd newspaper clippings.
BENJAMINThe newspaper clippings.
BENJAMINDefinitely those are factual, but it's what goes on between those events, her feelings, her thoughts, her motivations and those around her, that's the fiction part. So it's just kind of a blending and it's a mystical process and I wish I could tell you how I do it and it's different with every book.
BENJAMINFor the second question, Vinnie had enjoyed actually very good health and she wrote (laugh) of that, talking about her normally strong constitution. But certainly for anyone her size, there were a lot of joint aches and pains. I'm sure she had arthritis towards the end of her life, just from a lifetime of looking up and climbing up and down steps not made for her. Of course, there weren't elevators around until, you know, towards the middle part of her life, so she definitely had, I think, joint issues.
BENJAMINNow, Charles had some other health issues, probably brought on by a lifetime of smoking and drinking from a very young age because...
BENJAMIN...P.T. Barnum, yeah...
JONATHANYeah, and I'm...
JONATHANOh, I'm sure that that went along with the, you know, lifestyle on the riverboats and whatnot.
JONATHANHow long was her life?
BENJAMINShe lived -- she was born in 1841, she died in 1919, so what is that, 70 -- I'm very bad at math, 79 --
REHMI will get it.
BENJAMINSeventy-eight -- 78 years? Yeah.
JONATHANWell, certainly great by those time standards.
BENJAMINDefinitely. Yeah, she had a very long life, yeah.
JONATHANAll right. Well, thank you very much.
REHMJonathan, thanks for calling. And we're going to take a short break here. One thing, either fictional or historical, that we'll talk about when we come back is pregnancy. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. Melanie Benjamin is with me. She's taken the life of Mrs. Tom Thumb, whose actual name was Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump until she married General Stratton, who was Tom Thumb and became Mrs. Tom Thumb.
REHMOne of the issues about which Vinnie was particularly concerned was pregnancy. She had lived on a farm. She feared that should she, Vinnie, become pregnant -- she might become pregnant with a full-size baby, as she was a full-size six pound baby, and that she could not hold that child. It would destroy not only her life, but the child's life as well. How much do we know about that for her and for her sister, Minnie?
BENJAMINWe know that Vinnie and Charles did not have children. We don't know the reason why, if it was a medical reason or it was a choice. An interesting and kind of odd thing, a year after they were married, it was expected that General Tom Thumb and Mrs. Tom Thumb would have a child.
BENJAMINWhen they didn't, Barnum kind of coerced Vinnie into -- they had what they called the baby hoax. They pretended to have a child on stage. It was announced in the papers that Mrs. Tom Thumb was a mother and basically, they took babies from orphanages, posed with them, paraded them about on stage and when they would go to another town, they would get another baby.
REHMSo you did not make this up?
BENJAMINThat's true, that is true and she only spoke about it once in her life. It was, as she called it, you know, German babies in Germany, French babies in France. They kept this up for a couple of years until probably finally someone even realized, I mean, they would always choose the smallest child, but at some point -- and the public bought it and at some point, they had to realize that the child would have to grow up.
BENJAMINSo what they did was they killed the baby. I always think of Virginia -- I was afraid of Virginia Woolf when I say that, but Barnum put out a press release that the infant Thumb, the infant daughter of Tom Thumb had died of brain fever and that was the end of the baby hoax. I really think it's sad they never gave her name even in the newspapers. So Vinnie and Charles did not have children of their own, but Vinnie's sister, Minnie, did become pregnant.
REHMShe married whom?
BENJAMINShe married Edmund Newell, who -- I -- apparently was not as small as Charles and Vinnie. He actually had a roller-skating act, I think, and he performed Barnum and then performed with part of their troupe later on and he was a smaller man and they married and apparently had a very happy marriage.
REHMAnd it was, once again, P.T. Barnum, who had seen Minnie, realized that she would be absolutely of interest to the public.
BENJAMINRight. Vinnie -- when Vinnie married, Minnie was her bridesmaid and Charles' groom -- or best man was another little person, Commodore Nutt, so they made this perfect quartet of miniature people and it was too good an opportunity.
BENJAMINYou know, they were front page during the wedding, so then they decided to form their own performing troupe with Barnum's help and so it was the General Tom Company and it was the four of them who traveled and became world famous and went on this very famous three-year tour of the world in 1869 and then after they came back, that's when Minnie married.
REHMAnd became pregnant?
BENJAMINShe did become pregnant.
BENJAMINWith tragic results. She -- there is one school of thought that two small people would have a small child, but then there were others, including Barnum and his doctors, who knew that this was not the case and really -- and wanted Minnie to have an abortion for health reasons and she would not and she died in childbirth.
REHMShe really wanted a child.
BENJAMINShe did and I have to think it was, you know, having to give away all these children while they were performing where Vinnie didn't, you know, seem very motherly and -- but Minnie got attached to the children and so did Charles.
BENJAMINAnd again, that's how I imagined it and so, you know, when I look at these facts, the baby hoax, the fact that Vinnie didn't children and the fact that Minnie did and died childbirth, that's how I construct the novel and I look at it all and see how they possibly could've influenced, you know, their choices that they made and I have to think the whole baby hoax had some effect on that choice of Minnie's.
REHMLet's go to Converse, Texas. Good morning, Tom. Tom, are you there? Tom?
TOMConverse, Texas. This is Converse, Texas. Hi, Diane. Thank you very much for taking my call.
TOMOkay. Your book -- your author there, any mention of compensation to Tom Thumb and Vinnie?
BENJAMINCertainly. They got -- they blew through a few fortunes in their life (laugh). Actually, Charles Stratton became so wealthy early in his life, he retired in his 20s and he came out of retirement when Barnum went through a bankruptcy and he went back on tour simply to help his old friend Barnum out.
BENJAMINSo yes, they were compensated. They overspent lavishly, though, and...
REHMHe built a huge house.
BENJAMINThey -- he had a huge house in Bridgeport, Charles did, when Winnie (sic) met him -- when Vinnie met him, then they built a very large house in Middleboro, which was kind of custom made to their size. It was a big mansion, but they -- like, they had the windows lower...
BENJAMINDown low so they could see out. Apparently there was a kitchen built to scale for Vinnie, but they also then had to have regular sized rooms and furniture because they entertained a lot, but -- yes, they hobnobbed with the Astors and the Vanderbilts. They were part of that gilded age and they were quite well compensated.
REHMToward the end, that changed somewhat.
BENJAMINYou know, when they -- they started out, they were curiosities. They were beloved, they were respected, but by the 1880s -- and they did one season with Barnum's circus in 1881 and it was kind of a -- it was a -- well, Vinnie said, it was not to our taste. And this is a time and the words freak and freak show, unfortunately, are entering the language of America. They didn't start out that way, but maybe perhaps America was growing more or less sophisticated, I'm not sure which.
BENJAMINSo they were relegated to the sideshow at that point and, in fact, Vinnie kept performing to the end of her life and she spent a few seasons on Coney Island in an exhibit called Dream Land, which was basically a city built to scale for proportionate dwarfs and they inhabited it. There was a small schoolroom and a firehouse and homes and they basically lived there on exhibition.
REHMCourse, she hated to be called a dwarf.
BENJAMINYou know, I think she was resigned to it, you know. Little person was probably -- she just hated to be reminded of it. She very much hated to be brought down in any way or put down in any way because of her size and have it mentioned in that way. She does write of that very much.
REHMAnd let me remind our listeners, you can go to our website, drshow.org, and see photographs of Vinnie and her husband, Tom Thumb, and others as well. Let's now go to Chapel Hill, N.C. Good morning, Billy, you're on the air.
BILLYI agree with the previous person you had about -- had some question about handicapped people. It seems to me the book, which is a novel, kind of takes advantage of a particular type of handicapped person and that these people were and still are abused by the public, abused by the movies, abused by sideshow people for their own benefit -- financial benefit.
BILLYI'm sorry there isn't a person with this physical handicap on your program to discuss those issues that still happen. The book sounds like a romp through life that was fun and engaging and made a lot of money, which I'm sure is quite different than much of their lives and much of the lives people now with similar disabilities.
BENJAMINWell, no, I totally understand what you're saying. This is historical fiction. I'm not writing about today, when we know that that is not -- I mean, definitely that is not a lifestyle that anyone would have. This is historical fiction and you're right, but I think what I do is take a woman who is primarily known as part of the sideshow era and I hope I treat her with respect and make her a real person...
BENJAMIN...and that is the point of the book, is to show her life, that wasn't all about being on stage. But it is true, she made that choice. No one took her from her home. She made the decision to live the life she did and she paid for it in a lot of ways, but it also gave her a life she might not have had in an era where, unfortunately, someone her size would most likely have otherwise just been hidden away and that can't be a better life, either.
REHMShe traveled the world.
BENJAMINShe met queens and kings and presidents and the book is not a romp. I mean, again, I think I treat her with respect and I show the hardships she encountered and the price she paid for choosing -- again, she chose to live this life.
REHMAll right. To Lunenburg, Mass. Good morning, Lorie-Ann, you're on the air.
LORIE-ANNHi, Diane. I love your show.
LORIE-ANNAnd I'm very interested in this topic and the author just made the point I was about to make. I'm a person with a disability and I used to get a magazine called New Mobility, which was a progressive magazine for people with disabilities. And they made that exact point that people who are disabled who into the circus made an independent life for themselves and became -- or made money and that they basically were saying that these people were the first progressives who were disabled who came out of the closet to live their own lives...
LORIE-ANN...and they kind of spun it on their head and said that these people were the ones who were exploiting the public by getting money from them versus the other way around. Thank you.
BENJAMINWell, that's true. Thank you. And that's true. Vinnie quite happily took people's money (laugh) who wanted to come see her, but yes, again, it was her choice and no -- none of the people who performed with Barnum were forced to do this. It really, unfortunately, was probably only the avenue available to them other than, again, living a life hidden away.
REHMWhat did the doctors say to Vinnie's mother about the fact that this child did not grow beyond 32 inches?
BENJAMINShe was just kind of passed off as one of nature's curiosities (laugh), one of those things that make the world more interesting, in a way. Again, in that time, you -- people come from miles away to see a three-headed pig. I mean, and again, I'm not likening that to Vinnie, but the curious anomalies of nature were of great interest to people and that's how they -- you know, that's how the doctors probably reacted to Vinnie, she was just one more example of nature's curiosities.
REHMLet's go to Bradley, here in Washington, D.C. Good morning, you're on the air.
REHMYes, you're on the air, sir. Go right ahead.
BRADLEYHello, my name's Bradley and I was curious as to whether or not you really address where the strengths of Tom Thumb and Vinnie really come in because I'm a short man myself. I'm only 42 inches tall and it's from all the different words in my entire life, we all seem to come up with something very specific and oddly enough, stories of Tom Thumb, when I was growing up, really, really, really helped me get a good understanding of where you can get strength and take enjoyment and where what you are is an (word?) and no one else can use it against you.
REHMSounds as though you've got a great attitude. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Melanie?
BENJAMINWell, I think the whole book points to the fact that Vinnie never saw her size as an obstacle and I think that's the important lesson, she never saw her size as an obstacle.
REHMWas Tom Thumb her intellectual equal?
BENJAMINProbably not. Most accounts of Charles Stratton, you know, his personality was basically imprinted on him at the age of five when Barnum found him and basically took him from his parents and -- that case, I could say there is some exploitation there. Charles didn't a choice in his life, his parents did. But again, he grew wealthy and he and Barnum were very close friends. And Charles did not seem to have a lot of personality on his own.
BENJAMINHe had been taught to mimic and he had been trained at such an early age, most accounts call him very sunny, very genial, but he didn't go to school, you know, unlike Vinnie, who actually taught school.
REHMWhereas she did, yeah.
BENJAMINSo I cannot see them as intellectual equals.
REHMDid you imagine the close relationship between Barnum and Vinnie or do you know that?
BENJAMINWe don't know that. I do know that Vinnie always wrote about him with great affection and even in the one time when she wrote -- when she spoke publicly about the baby hoax, she was sure to end her interview by saying, but Mr. Barnum was a great man. So as I was writing this, it just seemed to me that these -- there was no else in her life whose dreams and imagination were as big as her own, except for P.T. Barnum.
REHMDo you -- looking at the various photographs I know you have in your slideshow, was she a pretty young woman?
BENJAMINShe really was. She was very pretty and they made sure to say that in all the newspaper accounts, that she was very pleasing to the eye. That...
REHMShe was very prim and beautiful clothing.
BENJAMINVery -- yes, with shining brown hair and beautifully gowned and jeweled and of course, everything, even her jewelry had to be custom made.
REHMYou have to tell us about her wedding dress before we close.
BENJAMINWell, it was made by one of the leading dressmakers of the age, Madame de Forest -- or Demorest, I think, was her name. It was an exquisite confection of white lace and rosebuds and veils and just as we just went through the whole William and Kate marriage, where everyone wanted to know who was making the dress, that was exactly the kind of press that Vinnie had.
BENJAMINThe details of her dress and her gown were just to be savored and they appeared on the front page of Harper's Weekly, which was probably the most widely read weekly of that time and every other week during the Civil War the headline was -- the front page was all about the Civil War, but in February of 1863, an illustration of Vinnie in her wedding dress and Charles in his wedding attire, that was the front page.
REHMAnd Minnie wore in the wedding?
BENJAMINAn exquisite little bridesmaid's dress, I think, white as the same. I think that was kind of the custom then.
REHMIsn't it remarkable that all these years later, we can imagine what this young woman's life was like.
BENJAMINI think that's just the power of fiction (laugh) and the power of imagination and what she left behind.
REHMExactly. Melanie Benjamin, the book is titled "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb." Thanks for being here.
BENJAMINThank you so much for having me.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Sarah Ashworth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Tobey Shriner. A.C. Valdez answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
Most Recent Shows
Verizon has unveiled a new cable TV package that lets customers choose the channels they want. We explore consumer demand for choice, high speed internet availability and the shake-up in cable TV.
In the novel "Some Luck," Jane Smiley introduced readers to the Langdons, a Depression-era Iowa farm family. Now, the Pulitzer Prize-winner follows their story through the Cold War, Vietnam and the turbulent 1960s and '70s. Smiley joins us to talk about her new novel, "Early Warning."
Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against political candidates. How will they change campaign strategies and election results?