Date Thesis Awarded

4-2017

Document Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)

Department

American Studies

Advisor

Kara Thompson

Committee Member

Charles McGovern

Committee Member

Julie Hugonny

Abstract

This essay seeks to explore bodily difference’s cultural significance at a time when the freak show took center stage in the theater of American amusement, while modern American capitalism took shape from the Antebellum era to the Gilded Age. Why did the wedding of two freak show performers enrapture the nation? In seeing and talking about dwarf freak show performer General Tom Thumb (born Charles Stratton), Americans interrogated disability’s entanglement with American cultural identity, national unity, and the evolving relationship between individual body and capitalist economy. Thumb’s wedding operates as a pivotal moment in which American celebrity acts as a public performance engineered to advance capitalism’s mechanisms of profit, power, and advertisement. Alongside engravings of the married couple, newspapers depicted and credited businesses’ wedding gifts to the newlyweds; these associated their social status with their wares—ultimately acts of self-promotion that predate modern celebrity product endorsement. In this paper, I examine the narratives of souvenirs intending to bolster General Tom Thumb’s celebrity, culminating in the intense coverage of his wedding in 1863. Analyzing the discourse that mysticized and uplifted his persona, and the ways Americans saw his celebrity as an opportunity to advance their own commercial interests, I argue that their language and purpose were to establish and reinforce Thumb’s celebrity by interacting with a multitude of American ideals concerning the body, gender and sexuality, social class, prosperity, and identity construction. The fame, social status, and wealth of Charles S. Stratton—and his inseparable public persona General Tom Thumb—stand as exceptional in the context of the American disability experience, yet simultaneously a byproduct of American conceptions of national identity, leisure culture, capitalism, and the body’s role in these aforementioned spheres. The heights that Thumb reached, with the wedding as his pinnacle, would be the loftiest for freaks in American history. After the medicalization and criminalization of deviance, the rise of the eugenics movement controlled the disabled and deviant. The extraordinary body’s place in history thereafter would be warning signs of social disorder, and the unions of notoriety and commodification of the human body portrayed the disabled as burdens to productivity and therefore the health of the national body.

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