Queen Victoria's strange obsession with the "monsters"


When Charles Stratton, six years old and 63 cm tall, arrived at Buckingham Palace in March 1844, with his showman P.T. Barnum marked the beginning of Queen Victoria's obsession with the world of "circus fanatics".

Stratton, whose art name was General Tom Thumb, enchanted the queen, performing tricks and sketches; he also had a ceremonial battle with his royal spaniel.

The royal crowd, which included Prince Albert, thought it was funny. Apparently, the room was in hysterics.

Queen Victoria was so taken by Tom that he wrote about him in his diaries and invited him, along with other "freaks" of the circus, to many other meetings that year.

It was 175 years ago this week that Tom Thumb made his London stage debut, with hundreds of people thronging to see "the wonderful little man".

His legacy continues with new audiences and generations being introduced to Tom Thumb – along with other "curiosities" – in the 2017 movie The greatest showman played by Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum and Sam Humphrey as Stratton.

But his biggest fan was also his most famous fan: Queen Victoria's obsession with Tom and other bizarre artists ensured a life of celebrity, which saw many enjoy incredible riches. But there was also a dark side.

A historian believes that the circus fanatics were the original "reality TV shows" that ensured that those who were in the limelight were also subject to the downside of fame and intrusion into the privacy of blinding and blinding lights.

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It was no secret that Queen Victoria was known as the "fanatical player par excellence!" The historian dott. John Woolf, author of The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age told at news.com.au the queen actually popularized the UK show.

"Before the 40's of the last century, the fashion show was seen as a modest affair associated with traveling fairs. But it has become a respectable form of entertainment, appreciated by everyone of all ages, classes, genres and backgrounds" said Dr. Woolf.

"The support of Queen Victoria also opened the doors of European palaces – and Tom Thumb entered right inside.

"He did a European tour in 1845 and met King Louis Philippe of France, King Leopold and Queen Luisa-Maria of Belgium and the Queen of Spain. Years later he met President Lincoln. Meanwhile, Victoria continued to greet bizarre artists. "

According to Dr. Woolf, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle became a revolving door for freaks including dwarves, giants, Aztecs, terrestrials, Siamese twins and Zulu.

"The love of Queen Victoria for extravagant artists was well known at the time – although largely ignored by historians since then. Victoria wrote about many of the artists who visited her.

"I surfed through his journals finding his voices, which make some interesting readings," said Dr. Woolf.

"For example, in July 1853 he met" the Aztecs ": brothers born with microcephaly

who were paraded in bizarre shows and were then legally married in an advertising show. "


Many of the extravagant artists immediately became celebrities – the word first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1849, a few years after Tom Thumb became famous as one of the first international celebrities in the world.

He was only four years old when he was "discovered" and pushed onto the stage, but P.T. Barnum passed it for many years older.

As with modern celebrities, the private lives of bizarre artists were of intense interest to the public.

"When Tom Thumb married another person, Lavinia Warren, their private lives were exposed to satisfy the curiosity of the public. Barnum also organized a wedding ceremony for the couple to raise funds and even rented out a child to give as a child of the couple, "said Dr. Woolf.

In the end, Tom Thumb made a lot of money, traveled the world, owned his property, as well as a yacht he loved to sail; though he had spent most of his money when he died.

"Crazy artists like Tom have been discussed by scientists, ethnologists, anthropologists; they have been exhibited in all kinds of popular entertainment sites – from museums to music halls, from zoos to aquariums, from traveling fairs to world fairs. in literature, newspapers and photographs. They were omnipresent and many were celebrated, "said Dr. Woolf.

"P.T. Barnum had worked hard to ensure the meeting between Tom and the Queen, and he worked even harder publicizing Victoria's love for Tom. Barnum printed the reviews in the court circular, pronounced Tom Thumb as a dwarf with royal ties, patronized by His Majesty.

"The press declared it the pet of the building & # 39;. All this has tarnished Tom Thumb in the public conscience and with the support of the queen, people have poured into his shows".

It was not long before other dwarves capitalized on Tom's success, hoping to meet the Queen too and get their fair share of fame and fortune.

The so-called Highland Dwarves and German Dwarfs received an audience with Victoria and the press wrote of a "Deformito-mania" (an obsession for the deformed body) that gripped the nation.


While Queen Victoria is remembered as the stern-faced monarch, or Windsor's widow, she was known in her private life as a fun-loving queen who was attracted to strangers.

The dott. Woolf said it is worth remembering that Victoria was a German princess born in a foreign land who lived under the overwhelming Kensington System.

"She was, by birth, a stranger. Even as Regina she was marked as different because of her birth. And she had her bodily problems: she was known as" the little queen ", only 4 feet 11 inches high ( 150 cm), and used to complain that "everyone grows except me".

"She approached her servants, John Brown and Abdul Karim, two strangers whom she embraced. So, there is this interesting connection between Victoria and crazy artists," said Dr. Woolf.

"As a child, she found her escape from her difficult childhood in the circus. In 1839, a few weeks after her eighteenth birthday and shortly after becoming queen, she was fascinated by the lion tamer Isaac A Van Amburgh, pioneer of the combination of menagerie and circus .

"He saw him perform with lions seven times in six weeks; he used to imagine himself fighting with the lions. He was attracted and earned the reputation of preferring the spectacular to the graceful, the stranger to the English, the circus to the drama. his kingdom would visit – or be visited – by the circus ".


The cult of celebrity appreciated by the freaks did not mean that their lives were perfect. According to dr. Woolf, there were numerous cases of exploitation.

"C & # 39; is a tense relationship between empowerment and exploitation, choice and coercion in this story.

"There are numerous cases of exploitation: Julia Pastrana embalmed by her husband; Joseph Merrick The Elephant Man robbed and abandoned on the continent; the Aztec children, Maximo and Bartola, exhibited on stage despite their mental disabilities; Joice Heth – an elderly, senile slave and paralyzed dragged across the northeast by Barnum, "said Dr. Woolf.

But many of them made a lot of money. According to dr. Woolf, Tom Thumb has gained enormous amounts. His parents were poor in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but thanks to their son they could buy their servants' property, they could send other children to private school; and Tom could buy his villa.

"The family has become almost unbalanced by the amount of money that Tom Thumb has made – remember that he was only a child when he found the fame for which they got a lot of money. But Tom was also rich.

"Chang and Eng also became their masters in 1832 and, in 1839, they had saved $ US10,000 from their extravagant shows that made them the richest men in Wilkes County, North Carolina, where they decided to settle, opening a sale retail stock and purchase of the first piece of land ".


The Freak shows were very central to Victorian society and had a huge impact on how the Victorians saw the world. Yet there is a great belief that the Victorians were cautious.

According to dr. Woolf, the Victorians' idea as prudent was overstated by the fact that sex was a widely discussed topic and the private lives of bizarre artists were made public.

"In the strange show – marriages, strange and similar families were advertised in the monster show, or created for the monster show," he said.

"In fact, one of the points in my book is to change the way we see Victorians, to get away from the idea that this was an age of prick and prudes, industrialists and scientists, but rather a & # 39; era of the Freak: a time when wonders reigned supreme, when everyone, from Queen Victoria to the average man, woman and child, came to contemplate the great diversity of nature. "

In fact, Dr. Woolf sees the freaks as "the real TV stars" of the Victorian age.

"Popular culture has always thrived on the exposure of problematic and vulnerable individuals. Today we could despise the Victorian obsession with the" monsters ".

"But evidently we have ours. We continue to desire the difference; we continue to do shows of the unfortunate".

LJ Charleston is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @LJCharleston

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