Though she led an extraordinary and highly public life, few people today are familiar with the main character of Melanie Benjamin's The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.
In 1841, Mercy Lavinia "Vinnie" Warren Bump was born in Middleboro, Massachusetts to a long-time well-respected New England family whose lineage can, in part, be traced back to five Mayflower passengers. The descendants of John Billington, Francis Cooke, Edward Doty, Stephen Hopkins, and Richard Warren intermarried many times over the decades - a fact that may have been the source of Vinnie's genetic disorder.
The woman who would become Mrs. Tom Thumb grew to be 32 inches tall and weighed 29 pounds, while her sister Minnie was even smaller at 27 inches (though the rest of their siblings were of typical size). Both Vinnie and Minnie had a genetic disorder known as pituitary dwarfism, or proportionate dwarfism, which usually occurs when the pituitary gland does not produce enough growth hormone and results in a regularly proportioned but miniature form.
From a young age, Vinnie made it clear that she would be a worldly, career-oriented woman despite her petite size. She became a schoolteacher at the age of 16, and held the post for some time before a cousin alerted her to her potential for celebrity. She left home in 1858 to work on a Mississippi showboat and then sought her fortune performing for sideshows, circuses, and museums, leaving behind the quiet, pastoral life she had in New England.
This article was originally published in September 2011, and has been updated for the
April 2012 paperback release.
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