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Series Feature #9 – Life in The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – General Tom Thumb and Admiral Dot

Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit.  The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.

In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue our journey to the 20th century parade in addition to our profile on Lobster Boy Grady Stiles. I have found so many incredible aspects to the circus with the parade being on of those aspects. With the introduction of the parade which I would have loved to see in those days , the excitement especially seeing the big Tent built. 

This being one important part of the show, the next I would like to touch on is the Equestrian Sets. Divided into three main groups: Voltige, in which a rider vaults onto and off a horses back; trick riding, in which the standing rider performs somersaults and pirouettes or forms human pyramids with other riders on one or more horses; a spectacular form of dressage in which horse executes complex maneuvers in response to imperceptible commands communicated through slight shifting in the riders weight, pressure exerted by the knees and legs or the handling of the reins.

Previous Profiles and Stories

Ohio Bigfoot Lady

Grady Stiles (Lobster Boy)

The Pinheads Pip/Flip and Schlitizie-

Myrtle Corbin (The Four Legged Girl)

Koo-Koo the Bird Girl

Bearded Women

Camel Girl

The Siamese Twins

In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue our journey into the 20th century with Equestrian sets and the magic of horses. Horses have always been a main attraction in the world of performing and the circus dating back centuries before the modern circus even took place.

It is my guess that the equestrian shows were one the reason the circus no longer exist as they were primarily used as props of performers doing tricks on their backs instead of traditional riding. There is so much more the circus then animals but I understand it is an important part of the show as it should be, but as they say the show must go on to other acts that deserve the attention as well, while this week we focus on the next stage acts with acts of skill.  You may be asking yourself what is that, well Acts of skill are the human skills such as the flying trapeze and tightrope among other skills.

The Human Skills Acts

Acts of human skills experienced a resurgence in the 19th century as a part of the circus. The flying trapeze was invented by the French acrobat Jules Leotard in 1859. The same year another Frenchman, Jean-Francois Gravelet (Stage name “Blondin”) crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. These events exited public interest in the works of aerial gymnast and acrobat. By the turn of the 20th century, acrobatic acts had grown in popularity, although they never usurped the extreme positions of the horse.

In the 20th century the Wallendas, a family of high-wire artist originally from Germany who debuted with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1928 helped set the standards of the show in the acts of skill. The Wallenda family was renowned for balancing three-high on bicycles on the high wire and later for their seven-person pyramid. Other inspiring performers included Lillian Leitzel, born in Bohemia of German circus family, who could pivot 100 times on her shoulder socket, spinning from a rope like a pinwheel in a maneuver called the “plange”. (A stunt that led to her death at the peak of her career in 1931, when her apparatus broke).

Other performers such as Australian-born Con Colleano, “Toreador of the Tight Wire,” whose dance on the wire to the Spanish cadence thrilled American audiences from 1925 until his retirement in 1959; Antoinette Concello, who became the first woman to perform the triple somersault on the trapeze in 1937; and Dolly Jacobs, who began her career in 1976, performing on the Roman rings for the Ringling brothers and Big Apple circuses, who was also the daughter of the famous Auguste clown Lou Jacobs.

Circus acts have always crossed the national borders and, traditionally, certain nationalities tend to dominate specific areas of circus performance. Eastern Europeans became known for acrobatics and tumbling over the course of the 20th century.  Acts that continued to test the bounds of gravity in ways such as the Russian Voljansky troupe, the Koch sisters just to name a few.

But there were not the only diverse performers Chinese acrobats also became renowned for unique acts emphasizing balance and coordination.  In addition Mexican acrobats became known for their skill at the flying trapeze. Trapeze artist Tito Gaona first performed in 1964 at age 15 and even blindfolded. In 1982 Miguel Vasquez became the first person to do a quadruple somersault from bar to catcher in a public performance.

For many who have been to the circus and even seeing these skilled artists on the tightrope you can see the incredible skill these performers have at the same time how dangerous it can be. It’s quite sad that although these artist still exist today we may not see as many, but there are still shows that exist today.  

We will continue to dive deeper into these performers and overs in the modern circus, but we must continue with our weekly profile of those other artist that bring a great uniqueness to the stage , many which are gawked at but nonetheless still important. This week we will be exploring the life of Admiral Dot. Once again art imitated real life individuals such as in the film the greatest showman.

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Admiral Dot (1859 or 1863 – October 28, 1918)

Born in San Francisco to Gabriel Kahn and wife Caroline. His mother had given birth to ten children, of which three survived. His two dwarf brothers were known as Major Atom and General Pin. Their mother declared insane and jailed after trying to drown General Pin when he was two years old.

Both parents of Admiral Dot were normal size but had a history of dwarfism in the family including an uncle and nephew who performed under the name Major Atom.

P.T. Barnum discovered the child while on vacation to the west coast; a trip he took after his American Museum was destroyed by fire. Reminding him so much of General Tom Thumb, inspired to create a traveling show which he called P.T. Barnum Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus. At one time he was billed as the smallest character actor in the world.

In 1892 he married another pituitary dwarf, Charlotte Naomi Swartwood in a traditional jewish ceremony. They settled in White Plains, New York, investing his hard-earned money in the Admiral Dot Hotel. Also becoming a deputy Sheriff, a member of the Elks and volunteer firefighter. In 1911 he helped fight the fire that destroyed his hotel. Sadly the influenza pandemic also known as the Spanish Flu took him and his daughters life in 1918.

Dwarfism in the circus was nothing new but it was unfortunate that these individuals were thought of as side shows due to their height. As mentioned,

General Tom Thumb (B. January 4, 1838 – July 15, 1883)  

Also known as Charles Sherwood Stratton son of a carpenter named Sherwood Edward Stratton, son of Seth Sherwood Stratton and Amy Sharpe. Sherwood married his first cousin Cynthia Thompson, daughter of Joseph Thompson and Mary Ann Sharpe.

Charles was born a rather large child weighing 9 pounds, 8 ounces at birth. He developed and grew normally for the first six months of his life, at which point he was 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds, then suddenly stopped growing.  By late 1842 (4 years old), Stratton had grown only one inch from when he was six months old. Apart from this, he was completely normal, healthy child with several siblings who were of average size.

P.T. Barnum, a distant relative heard about Stratton and after contacting his parents, taught the boy how to sing, dance, mime, and impersonate famous people. Barnum went into business with Stratton’s father, who died in 1855. Stratton made his first tour of America at the age of five.  The next year Barnum went on tour of Europe, making him an international celebrity, evening appearing twice before Queen Victoria. Meeting also the three-year-old future King Edward VII.

Stratton’s first performance in New York marked the turning point in the history of freak shows as before his debut, human curiosities for entertainment were deemed dishonorable and seen as unpleasing attraction. Stratton soon changed that perception towards freak shows with his lively and entertaining performances.

Surprisingly Stratton became a talented actor, singer, dancer and comedian and as a result certain dramatic critic did not compare his skills to those of the freakshow community.  In 1846 he started to grow since the first few months of his life, but extremely slowly. Standing at 2 feet 5 inches tall. On his 18th birthday, he was measured at 2 fee 8.5 inches tall. On his 21st birthday he was 86 Cm tall. Stratton became a Freemason on October 3, 1862.

Like many so-called freaks Stratton married in 1863 to Lavinia Warren, also a little person, becoming front page news. The wedding taking place at Grace Episcopal Church and a wedding reception held at New York’s City Metropolitan Hotel with 10,000 reception guests.  Under Barnum’s management, Stratton became a wealthy man, owning a house in the fashionable part of New York and a steam yacht with his wardrobe of fine clothes.  

Stratton died at the age of 45 due to stroke. Over 20,000 people attended the funeral. P.T. Barnum purchased a life size status of Tom Thumb, placing it as a gravestone at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Again what an impact both these performers made in the world of the circus and how much of an impact they played in those individuals who represent then in film, TV and in life. I think we should never forget those contributed to the life of the circus and their importance, they are NOT freaks but human beings , even if they are smaller and we should respect them as such and this goes for all those who are different , whether it’s the way they look and sound like.

Hopefully you enjoyed this weeks profile into the world of General Tom Thumb and Admiral Dot, two pioneers in the circus world.

13 thoughts on “Series Feature #9 – Life in The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – General Tom Thumb and Admiral Dot”

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