The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, p.1Melanie Benjamin
The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a work of fiction. Any references to
historical events; to real people, living or dead; or to real locales are
intended only to give the fiction a setting in historical reality. Other names,
characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously, and their resemblance, if any, to real-life
counterparts is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Melanie Benjamin
“A Conversation with Melanie Benjamin” copyright © 2011
by Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of
The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.,
DELACORTE PRESS is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc., and the
colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb: a novel / Melanie Benjamin.
1. Magri, M. Lavinia (Mercy Lavinia), 1841–1919—Fiction.
2. Women circus performers—United States—Fiction.
3. Dwarfs—United States—Fiction. I. Title.
Frontispiece photograph of Lavinia Warren by Mathew Brady
from the Library of Congress collection
Jacket design: Gabrielle Bordwin
Jacket photograph: © Cathy Stancil/Arcangel Images
Chapter One - My Childhood, or the Early Life of a Tiny
Chapter Two - Leaving Home, or an Interlude of Heart-Tugging Music and Recitation
Chapter Three - Life on the Mississippi, or My Education Truly Begins
Chapter Four - In Which Our Heroine Nearly Comes to Ruin
Chapter Five - Another Brief Interlude of Music and Tender Reunion
Chapter Six - At Last I Meet the Great Man Himself
Chapter Seven - I Prepare to Make My Grand Entrance
Chapter Eight - Or, A Star is Born
Chapter Nine - Or, Another Player Makes His Long-Anticipated Entrance
Chapter Ten - Two Rivals for One Hand
Chapter Eleven - In Which Our Heroine Finds True Love at Last
Chapter Twelve - And So She is Married
Chapter Thirteen - And Baby Makes Three
Chapter Fourteen - Thrills and Chills Guaranteed to Tingle the Spine! (or, Trains, Indians, Runaway Wagons, and Mormons)
Chapter Fifteen - A Sister Act Breaks Up
Chapter Sixteen - The Curtain Falls, Between Acts
Chapter Seventeen - Ladies and Gentlemen, in the Center Ring …
Chapter Eighteen - A Terrible Conflagration
Chapter Nineteen - Finale, or—the Curtain Comes Down
Chapter Twenty - One Last Encore
A Conversation with Melanie Benjamin
Timeline: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
Other Books by This Author
About the Author
From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, July 2, 1850
We are not at all surprised at what in this country is most foolishly called the conceit and vanity of the Americans. What people in the world have so fine, so magnificent a country? … If ever these magnificent dreams of the American people are realized—and all that is wanted for their realization is that things should only go on as they have been going on for the last two centuries—there will be seated upon that vast continent a population greater than that of all Europe, all speaking the same language, all active-minded, intelligent, and well off.
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. Now is the time to set the record straight, to sort out the humbug from the truth, and vice versa.
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 preempted 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. President 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. My 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. I 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 counterpane, 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. With 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.
Humbug. I can still hear my mother’s gentle voice admonishing me all those years ago. “Oh, Vinnie, my little chick,” she said with a worried shake of her head. “If you go with this Barnum you will be just another one of his humbugs. You will be caught up in that man’s snare, and however will you escape without losing your soul?”
Looking back, I’m forced to admit that my mother was right; I did lose my soul, and so much more. But I’m not sure that I didn’t give it away freely. My mother did not know Mr. Barnum as I did; she did not understand him, nor did the world at large. My intimacy with him is a prize, one that I am not willing to share with anyone. Not even with my own husband, who knew him first.
Not even with Minnie, although she woul
This is but one more reason why I am eager to share my life’s experiences: because I will finally be able to provide a full account of my beloved sister’s all-too-brief time on this earth. My name may be on this volume’s cover, as it was on all the handbills, headlines, and invitations, but for once I will not allow Minnie to remain in my shadow, although she was happiest there. I consider it my duty and privilege—even more, my penance—to tell her story, too. She deserves to be remembered; her courage needs to be known—as does the identity of the person, or persons, who killed her.
I have spent the last ten years trying to decide who was most responsible for her death, Mr. Barnum or me. Perhaps by the time I’m finished with this story, I will have figured it out.
Perhaps I won’t, for I’m not sure I want to know.
Listen to me! I am putting the exclamation point before the salutation, as Mr. Barnum used to say; I had best dim the lights and commence my story before the audience grows restless. And there is no better way to begin this tale than by revealing, once and for all, my real name.
It is not, in fact—despite the manner in which I have been introduced to Queens, Presidents, and even Mormons—Mrs. Tom Thumb. It is not even Lavinia Warren, which is how I was first introduced to the public.
No, God saw fit to bestow upon me the lamentable name of Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump.
And of the many obstacles He handed me at birth, Reader, I have always believed this to be the biggest.
From the Republican Compiler,
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, December 13, 1842
RIDING ON AIR
Our readers (says the New York Express) may not be generally aware that Railroad Cars are now being constructed to rest on air springs, or in other words, on iron pistons, moving in air-tight cylinders. The effect is wonderful. The cars ride smoothly and comfortably, and one may read or write in them very easily. But this is not all. It has been found a great waste to carry flour in barrels on railroads, in consequence of the jar. This invention is a complete remedy, and flour may now be transported on railways as well as canals.
From the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 18, 1842
Can be seen at Shaw’s (museum) Hotel, a double pig, having one head, eight legs, four ears, and two bodies.
[ ONE ]
or the Early Life of a Tiny
I WILL BEGIN MY STORY IN THE CONVENTIONAL WAY, WITH my ancestry.
About the unfortunately named Bumps, I have little to say other than they were hardworking people of French descent who somehow felt that shortening “Bonpasse” to “Bump” was an improvement.
With some pride, however, I can trace my pedigree on my mother’s side back through Richard Warren of the Mayflower Company, to William, Earl of Warren, who married Gundreda, daughter of William the Conqueror. This is as far back as I have followed my lineage, but I trust it will suffice. Certainly Mr. Barnum, when he first heard it, was quite astonished, and never failed to mention it to the Press!
I was born on 31 October, 1841, on the family farm in Middleborough, Massachusetts, to James and Huldah Bump. Most people cannot contain their surprise when I tell them that I was, in fact, the usual size and weight. Indeed, when the ceremonial weighing of the newborn was completed, I tipped the scales at precisely six pounds!
My entrance into the family was preceded by three siblings, two male and one female, and was followed by another three, two male and one female. All were of ordinary stature except my younger sister, Minnie, born in 1849.
I am told that I grew normally during the first year of my life, then suddenly stopped. My parents didn’t notice it at first, but I cannot fault them for that. Who, when having been already blessed with three children, still has the time or interest to pay much attention to the fourth? My dear mother told me that it wasn’t until I was nearly two years old that they realized I was still wearing the same clothes—clothes that should already have been outgrown, cleaned and pressed, and laid in the trunk for the next baby. It was only then that my parents grew somewhat alarmed; studying me carefully, they saw that I was maturing in the way of most children—standing, talking, displaying an increased interest in my surroundings. The only thing I was not doing was growing.
They took me to a physician, who appraised me, measured me, poked me. “I cannot offer any physical explanation for this,” he informed my worried parents. “The child seems to be perfectly normal, except for her size. Keep an eye on her, and come back in a year’s time. But be prepared for the possibility that she might be just one example of God’s unexplainable whims, or fancies. She may be the only one I’ve seen, but I’ve certainly heard of others like her. In fact, there’s one over in Rochester I’ve been meaning to go see. Heard he can play the violin, even. Astounding.”
My parents did not share his enthusiasm for the violin-playing, unexplainable Divine whim. They carried me to another physician in the next town over, who, being a less pious man than the previous expert, explained that I represented “an excellent example of Nature’s Occasional Mistakes.” He assured my increasingly distressed parents that this was not a bad thing, for it made the world a much more interesting place, just as the occasional two-headed toad and one-eyed kitten did.
In despair, my parents whisked me back home, where they prayed and prayed over my tiny body. Yet no plea to the Almighty would induce me to grow; by my tenth birthday I reached only twenty-four inches and weighed twenty pounds. By this time my parents had welcomed my sister Minnie into the world; when she displayed the same reluctance to grow as I had, they did not take her to any physicians. They simply loved her, as they had always loved me.
“Vinnie,” my mother was fond of telling me (Lavinia being the name by which I was called, shortened within the family to Vinnie), “it’s not that you’re too small, my little chick, but rather that the world is too big.”
My poor, tenderhearted mother! She thought that she was reassuring me. She was a lovely, pious creature, tall and thin, a clean, starched apron constantly about her waist. She had shining brown hair that I inherited, slightly worried brown eyes, and an ever-patient smile upon her lips. She only wanted me to be happy, to be safe; she wanted to keep me home, where she was certain less harm could come to me. She was trying, in her simple way, to reconcile me to that future, the only future that she—or anyone else—could envision for one my size.
What she didn’t understand was that she was only inciting my curiosity about that big world. Everything was bigger than me; if the world was so much larger that she had to constantly warn me of it, what wonders did it contain? What marvels? I could not understand why anyone would not want to see them.
My father never tried to fool me in this way. He was not a demonstrative man, but around me, and then around Minnie, who was even smaller, he was extremely reticent. I believe he was terrified he might crush us with his big, work-worn hands, so he did not touch us at all, not a pat or a hug. He never seemed able to understand why God had made Minnie and me so small, and I believe he was slightly ashamed of us. Whenever we were out together as a family, he always kept his head bent; this way, he did not have to look anyone in the eye. I’m not sure he completely understood why he did this, or what he was afraid to encounter in the gaze of his fellow man; perhaps he simply didn’t want to see pity for us there—or for himself.
Yet he loved us. And in the way of most men, he reacted by trying to solve us, as if we were the one wagon wheel that stubbornly refused to match up with the others, causing the whole contraption to wobble. This took the form of practicality, which, in the end, was much more useful than Mama’s clucking and soothing. My first memory was of my father presenting me with a set of wooden steps, lovingly made by his own hands, which were too clumsy for caresses. They had crafted a beautiful set of steps, however, sanded to a
Later, after the fire, Mr. Barnum gave me a gorgeous set of steps covered in crushed red velvet with my initials embroidered upon them. But they have never been able to take the place of my father’s simple gift.
My brothers and sister swooped and ran and carried on like all children, happily including Minnie and me in their play, not worrying very much about whether or not we could keep up. And we could—or rather, I could. Unlike me, Minnie was content with her small corner of the world; she knew she could not easily keep up with the others, so she didn’t even try. She found happiness, instead, in what was easily within her reach; no stair steps for her! She spent hours playing with her dolls, sitting on her little stool by the hearth, sewing handkerchiefs or helping Mama prepare meals. She was very shy around others and felt their stares keenly, even though she was as beautiful as a china figurine. Minnie was blessed with impish dark eyes that were such a contrast to her bashful demeanor, black curls, and a smile that revealed one perfect dimple in her left cheek. Only with me, closest to her in size but still larger, able to protect her, did she ever sometimes show curiosity or boldness; once she surprised me by suggesting we creep outside in the middle of the night, to see if there really were fairies living beneath the flowers.
Amused, I took her outside, where we tiptoed, hand in hand, peeking under the forget-me-nots and ferns. While she lifted leaves and petals with dogged optimism, stifling an occasional squeal whenever she happened upon a frog or a startled rabbit, I found my gaze pulled upward. The moon was low and luminous in the night sky; cocking my head, I was just about to make out the face of the man in the moon when Minnie excitedly exclaimed, “Oh, look, Sister! I found one, with green wings!”
She tugged at my sleeve, and I bent down. “It’s just a dragonfly,” I told her.
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