In chapter 5 of The Clown King, I explore the relationship between American and British entertainment in this period. Artistes like Arthur Nelson could travel between London and New York in a few days with the advent of steam. The Great Western, one of the first cross-Atlantic steamships crossed in 15.5 days in 1838. The average time taken to cross the atlantic between 1845 and 1850 dropped from 14 to 9.5 days. In addition the size of liners increased substantially with capacities of up to 1,500 passengers.
One of the entertainers to emigrate and make a name for himself was William B. Harrison, a Lambeth born comic singer. He had come to New York in 1841 and was employed at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Harrison and Arthur Nelson were to team up in 1846 providing musical and comic song entertainment in New York, Boston and the surrounding industrial towns. Harrison was to manage one of P.T. Barnum’s most successful acts, General Tom Thumb (Charles S. Stratton) and his ‘party’, comprising Commodore Nutt, Lavinia Warren and Minnie Warren, her sister. Their professional relationship ended in when in 1863, Charles and Lavinia were to marry. In 1866, The ‘party’ commenced their tour of Britain with an addition, an infant child who they claimed was the offspring of the couple. Lavinia, in her autobiography written in the late 1870s, confirmed the fact that Barnum obtained babies to play the role at the places they visited. As the child grew, she was replaced by another.
In September 1866, the hoax came to an abrupt end when the child touring with them throughout East Anglia was taken ill and died. We do not know how attached Charles and Lavinia were to these surrogates, but the pretence was kept up. Minnie Warren Stratton was buried under that name in Earlham Cemetery, Norwich. Newspaper reports state that Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren had to perform on their own for some weeks after due to the sadness of the grieving parents. The Norfolk News reported:
“The funeral took place on Wednesday forenoon in the Norwich cemetery, being attended by the General and his wife, and although every effort was made to keep the obsequies strictly private, about a thousand people had congregated in the cemetery the time of the interment. It is said to be the intention the General to apply for an order to have the corpse removed to America, his native land, when he himself returns.” (Norfolk News 29 September 1866 p.5.)
The child was never re-interred and her grave remains there until this day.