When Caroline and I discussed women in freak shows recently on Stuff Mom Never Told You, we left out one of the most notable personalities: Lavinia Warren. We mentioned her husband, Tom Thumb, the little person made famous by PT Barnum, but we failed to discuss Lavinia and their marriage, which captivated the American public.
Thumb (2′ 11″) and Warren (2′ 6″) were two of the most famous freaks of the Victorian era, and their 1863 wedding made national headlines. In fact, Abraham Lincoln hosted a wedding reception for the couple at the White House during their three-year newlywed tour that capitalized on their nuptial fame.
The New York Times also published a gushing wedding announcement and feature story on Warren and Thumb (headlined “The Loving Lilliputians”), describing the nicknamed “Queen of Beauty” this way:
She is, in a word, an accomplished lady — intelligent, pleasant, modest and agreeable. She is very lively in conversation, and speaks with all the confidence, and even wit, of an accomplished and talented woman. She is fond of poetry, music, eloquence, and the fine arts generally; indeed, she is quite as charming mentally as she is physically. Her eye is bright, her smile sweet, her hair dark, and her figure perfection itself.
Indeed, the Times’ detailing of Queen Lavinia’s wedding accoutrement is reminiscent of that devoted to Kate Middleton earlier this year:
White satin slippers with rosettes of white satin, trimmed with seed pearls and lace, and a point lace handkerchief, completed the bride’s petite and very tasteful costume…The veil was fastened with two diamond hair-pins, with three pendants to each. The bracelets correspond with the brooch, and are of star design. The necklace was superb, forming leaves of diamonds, each diamond and accompanying pendant resembling sparkling dew-drops.
Melanie Benjamin’s fictional autobiography of Lavinia was recently published, and in an interview with PRI she discusses how her legacy has gradually diminished, largely overshadowed by Tom Thumb’s. And although the notion of freak shows doesn’t sit well today, the performances provided Lavinia (whom Benjamin characterizes as a “spitfire”) with gainful employment and fame, both of which were rare for women in the Victorian era. “I think she was very smart to realize that her size gave her an entry into a world she would not be able to see otherwise,” Benjamin told PRI.