Home > The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
Melanie Benjamin

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 would never have asked this of me; she never asked anything at all of me, except to keep her safe. And in that, I let her down.

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.

OVERTURE

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

NATURAL CURIOSITY

Can be seen at Shaw’s (museum) Hotel, a double pig, having one head, eight legs, four ears, and two bodies.

[ ONE ]

My Childhood,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.

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