Commodore Nutt

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Not to be confused with United States Representative from New Hampshire, George W. Morrison (October 26, 1809 – December 21, 1888)
Commodore Nutt
Nutt and Warren 1865.jpg
Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren c. 1865
Born George Washington Morrison Nutt
(1848-04-01)April 1, 1848
Manchester, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, United States of America
Died May 25, 1881(1881-05-25) (aged 33)
Anthony House
New York City, New York,
United States of America
Cause of death
Bright's disease
Resting place
Uncertain, but probably Merrill Cemetery, Manchester, New Hampshire
Nationality American
Ethnicity Anglo-Saxon
Occupation Entertainer
Employer P. T. Barnum
Known for Rivaling General Tom Thumb for the hand of Lavinia Warren
Height 29–30 inches (at his 1862 debut)
42 inches (at his death)
Weight 70 pounds (at his death)
Religion Christianity
Spouse(s) Lilian Elston of Redwood City, California
Children None known
Parents Major Rodnia Nutt
Maria (Dodge) Nutt
Relatives James Dodge Nutt (brother)
Rodnia Nutt, Jr. (brother)
Mary Ann Nutt (sister)

George Washington Morrison Nutt (April 1, 1848 – May 25, 1881) was a 19th-century American entertainer. Born in Manchester, New Hampshire, Nutt was a midget. It is not known exactly why, how or when Nutt joined the entertainment industry, but he was touring New England with a circus when P. T. Barnum met and hired him in 1861 to appear as an attraction at the American Museum in New York City.

Barnum gave Nutt the stage name, Commodore Nutt, a lavish wardrobe that included miniature naval uniforms, and a tiny carriage in the shape of an English walnut. Commodore Nutt and General Tom Thumb (another of Barnum's little people) became rivals for the hand of miniature Museum attraction, Lavinia Warren. Thumb won Lavinia, and, Commodore Nutt, once he had resigned himself to the loss of Lavinia, stood Thumb's best man at the couple's 1863 wedding in Grace Episcopal Church, New York City. Although Nutt forswore women after his disappointment in love, he eventually married Lilian Elston of Redwood City, California.

Nutt toured the world between 1869 and 1872 with the Thumbs and Lavinia's miniature sister, Minnie Warren. The four returned to America rich beyond their dreams. Nutt had a dispute with Barnum after the tour, and struck out on his own. He managed a variety show on the West Coast, occasionally performed, and operated saloons in Oregon and California without success. He returned to New York City, and died there of Bright's disease in May 1881.

Birth and ancestry[edit]

George Washington Morrison Nutt was born in Manchester, New Hampshire to Major Rodnia Nutt (1810–1875), and his wife Maria (Dodge) Nutt (1807–1859) of Goffstown, New Hampshire.[1] Rodnia Nutt was a gentleman farmer,[2] and a Manchester city marshal and councilman.[3][4]

The Nutts had five children. The first, who apparently died unnamed in infancy, was followed by James Dodge on January 28, 1838, and Rodnia, Jr. on October 11, 1840. A daughter, Mary Ann, was born on September 22, 1844, and George Washington Morrison on April 1, 1848.[1]

Some confusion has existed about George's birth date. A souvenir pamphlet and newspaper accounts published at the time of George's 1862 New York debut indicate April 2, 1844 as his birth date, while 1881 obituary in the New York Times and other newspapers indicate April 1, 1844. A Nutt family Bible indicates April 1, 1848, and this date is now generally accepted.[5]

Nutt and his wife were "large, hearty folk, [Mr. Nutt] weighing upward of two hundred and fifty pounds."[4] Their sons Rodnia, Jr. and George Washington Morrison however were both little people. In 1861, Rodnia, Jr. stood about 49 inches tall; George stood about 29 inches and weighed about 25 pounds.[6]

George's ancestors include King Canute, and William Nutt (1698–1751), a weaver with English ancestry who emigrated from Londonderry, Ulster, Northern Ireland to North America in the early 18th century, and established his line in colonial New England. A part of what is now Manchester was called Nutfield in the early days of settlement while a pond and a road near the pond were named after early Nutt settlers.[1]

Barnum's American Museum[edit]

Barnum's American Museum in Gleason's Pictorial, January 29, 1853

It is not certain how, why or when George Nutt began his career in the American entertainment industry. He may have been exhibited as early as 1854 by William C. Walker, the manager of a small circus based in Manchester. Walker claimed not only to have discovered George, but to have been the first to exhibit him and his brother Rodnia.[7]

Nutt had been touring the New England countryside with a manager named Lillie when he met P. T. Barnum in his offices at the American Museum in 1861. To Barnum's disgust, Lillie had paid scant attention to Nutt's education, and was charging as little as a nickel to see the boy. Lillie knew nothing about presenting the boy "in the proper style", as Barnum put it.[8][9]

Barnum recognized Nutt's potential as a museum attraction at once. In his autobiography, he described Nutt as "a most remarkable dwarf, who was a sharp, intelligent little fellow, with a deal of drollery and wit. He had a splendid head, was perfectly formed, and was very attractive, and, in short, for a "showman" was a perfect treasure."[10]

Photograph of Barnum's American Museum, 1858

Barnum became very anxious to acquire the "extraordinary pygmy" (as he termed Nutt) for the Museum, and quietly hired a lawyer to lure Nutt away from his manager. "Nail him!" Barnum ordered the lawyer in a letter later leaked to the press.

The lawyer offered Nutt's parents a large sum of money to secure their son for a three to five year engagement, promising them the boy would be educated and trained to be "a genteel, accomplished attractive little man". Barnum wanted his name kept out of the negotiations with the Nutts until they had accepted the lawyer's terms. He had learned from experience that if his name was known, prices would skyrocket.[11]

Negotiations dragged on through the summer and autumn of 1861. An agreement was finally reached, and a contract signed on December 12, 1861. Barnum hired not only Nutt, but his 49 inch, 21 year old brother, Rodnia, Jr. The contract required Barnum to provide both young men with room and board, clothing, and travel and medical expenses.

The showman was also required to supervise the moral and academic education of the brothers. Salaries would begin at $12 per week with annual increases. In the fifth and final year of the contract, the Nutt brothers would each receive $30 per week. They would also receive a yearly percentage from the sales of their souvenir photographs and pamphlets.[12]

Publicity campaign[edit]

Sheet music cover for "The Commodore Nutt Polka" by Thomas Baker, ca. 1862

Once the contract was signed, Barnum set in motion a publicity campaign to prepare the public for Nutt's debut. Although he had already signed Nutt, he let it be rumored about that he was trying to secure Nutt for the American Museum.[13]

Other showmen were provoked by this lie to offer incredible sums to Nutt's parents for the chance to sign their son. Barnum leaked a letter to the press in which he hinted that he was forced to outbid the competition, and finally paid $30,000 to engage the midget. The boy became known informally among showmen and journalists as "The $30,000 Nutt".[13]

Barnum gave the midget the stage name, Commodore Nutt, and provided him with a lavish and neatly-tailored wardrobe that included miniature naval uniforms. For the Commodore's jaunts about town, the showman had a little carriage built for him that resembled an English walnut. The top of the vehicle was hinged in such a way that, when lifted, the little Commodore would be revealed sitting inside.[13]

Nutt's carriage was drawn by Shetland ponies and driven about New York by his brother Rodnia dressed as a liveried coachman. Barnum thought these little trips about New York City the very best form of advertisement.[14] Nutt's carriage is now in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.[13][15]


P. T. Barnum and George Washington Morrison Nutt, ca. 1862

Dwarfs and midgets have always been popular entertainers, but were often regarded with disgust and revulsion. In the early 19th century however, little people were romanticized by the middle class and regarded with the same affectionate condescension extended to children. Little people, like children, were regarded in the 19th century as creatures of innocence.[16]

Barnum was nothing if not a keen businessman. He wooed the middle class and turned their sentiments about children to his advantage. He held baby contests attended by hundreds, and promised parents that their children would find nothing in the American Museum "calculated to corrupt the mind or taint the juvenile imagination." Thus assured, the middle class filled his strong boxes with their dollars.[16]

Commodore Nutt made his debut at Barnum's American Museum in February 1862, and, in the process, became an overnight sensation.[13] Some museum-goers believed they were being "humbugged" by Barnum, and that Nutt was actually General Tom Thumb in disguise.[17]

Although Nutt somewhat resembled the Tom Thumb of the past, Thumb had aged and put on weight over the years—a fact museum-goers blithely refused to take into account.[18] Nutt was a mischievous scamp; he took delight in the confusion, and encouraged the public in their error.[17]

To silence the doubters, Barnum asked Thumb (who was touring the American South and the West at the time of Nutt's debut) to cut his tour short and come to New York City for a four-week engagement with Nutt. He wanted the two little men to appear on the same platform at the American Museum. Thumb returned to New York, and took the stage with Nutt.[17]

They were billed as "The Two Dromios" and "The Two Smallest Men, and Greatest Curiosities Living." The exhibit opened on August 11, 1862.[18] Despite what they witnessed, some museum-goers still insisted that Nutt was Tom Thumb in disguise. Barnum wrote, "It is very amusing to see how people will sometimes deceive themselves by being too incredulous."[17][19]

New York City Police Commissioners[edit]

New York City Police Commissioners sometime between 1855 and 1865

On 18 April 1862, Nutt met with New York City Police Commissioners in an effort to get an officer assigned to the American Museum. Nutt himself applied to become a New York police officer, was given favorable consideration, and ordered a uniform himself.

In a telegram to the Ninth Precinct (he stood on the arm of a chair to reach the telegraph instrument), Nutt sent his compliments to the precinct officers and wrote that he was to receive an appointment on the Broadway Squad with "extraordinary powers to arrest" and "take upstairs" passersby outside the Museum.

During his tour of the police facilities, someone said that the Commodore had been seen to kiss a girl on the mouth during his stage act. "Well, that was the right place, wasn't it?" he quipped. Nutt offered more witticisms to the roars of the officers, denied that he had a romantic interest in the Museum's Albino, and made it understood that he knew how to "handle" the giant.[20]

President Lincoln[edit]

During the darkest days of the American Civil War in November 1862, President Abraham Lincoln invited Barnum and Nutt to the White House. Entering the Washington, D.C. dwelling, the showman was told the President was in a special cabinet meeting, but had left word to have Barnum and his little companion announced when they arrived. Barnum realized his visit may have been something of an imposition upon the busy President, and made a mental note to keep his visit brief.[21]

The visitors were announced, and Lincoln interrupted his cabinet session to greet Barnum and Nutt. Pleasantries were passed about, and Nutt asked Secretary Chase of the Treasury if he was the man who was spending so much of Uncle Sam's money. Stanton, Secretary of War, interrupted to declare that he was the man. "Well," said Nutt to everyone's amusement, "It is in a good cause, anyhow, and I guess it will come out all right."[22]

As Barnum and Nutt prepared to leave, President Lincoln bowed at the waist and took Nutt's hand in his own. He suggested to the Commodore that he "wade ashore" should his "fleet" ever be in danger. Nutt looked up and down Lincoln's long legs and joked, "I guess, Mr. President, you could do that better than I could."[13][22]

Lilliputian love triangle[edit]

Wedding of General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren (Nutt, far left; Minnie Warren, far right)

In 1862, Barnum hired the midget Lavinia Warren of Marlboro, Massachusetts, to exhibit herself at the American Museum. She was several years older than Nutt, but he fell in love with her at once. She fanned the flames of his passion by giving him a diamond and emerald friendship ring, once the gift of Barnum to the miniature lady.[18]

When Thumb visited the Museum in the autumn of 1862, he met Warren and fell in love. He told Barnum it was "love at first sight."[18] In order to win her away from Nutt, Thumb quietly promised Barnum he would marry her in a public ceremony.[14] Realizing at once the fortune to be made with such a spectacle, Barnum called Warren aside and urged Thumb's suit, emphasizing his gentle breeding and his large fortune.[23]

Nutt was aware that Thumb was his rival for Lavinia's love. He beat up Thumb in a dressing room at the Museum.[6] When Lavinia planned a weekend visit to Barnum's Bridgeport home, Nutt casually but firmly invited himself along. Little did he know that Thumb would be there as well.[18]

Nutt left New York City on a late Saturday train, arriving at Barnum's home at 11 pm. He found Thumb and Warren alone in the downstairs parlor. Unbeknownst to Nutt, Thumb had proposed and Warren had accepted. Barnum and Warren gently broke the news to Nutt a week later.[18]

Barnum thought Lavinia's younger sister Minnie (also a midget and much smaller than Lavinia) a better match for Nutt and urged him to consider her as a wife. Nutt told Barnum he had little faith in women, and that he would not marry "the best woman living".[18]

Barnum wanted Minnie and Nutt to attend Lavinia and Thumb as bridesmaid and best man, but Nutt refused. Later, Thumb asked Nutt to be his best man. Nutt accepted, telling Barnum, "It was not your business to ask me. When the proper person invited me, I consented."[18]

Grace Church, the site of the "Fairy Wedding", photographed in 1900

Nutt and Minnie did indeed serve as best man and bridesmaid at the "Fairy Wedding" of General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in Grace Episcopal Church, New York City on Tuesday 10 February 1863. Traffic had been brought to a halt and crowds had gathered to catch a glimpse of the celebrated couple. Scheduled for high noon, the ceremony did not start until the bride arrived at 12:30 pm.[24]

The wedding was by invitation only, and attended by 2,000 guests, most being the A-list celebrities of the day that included Mrs. John Jacob Aster, Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt, and General Ambrose Burnside.[18][25] Members of the church complained about the "marriage of mountebanks", and were angered because they were refused seating in their own pews. Much of the public curiosity about the marriage of Thumb and Warren was based on prurient interest in the sexual mechanics of the couple, which Barnum did nothing to either encourage or discourage.[25]

The reception was held in the Metropolitan Hotel at 3 pm, with gifts on display in the bride's room. Barnum gave the newlyweds a tortoiseshell basket concealing a mechanical bird that sang when a spring was touched. The gift was said to cost $1,000.[26] While President and Mrs. Lincoln could not attend, they sent the couple a set of Chinese fire screens embellished with gold, silver, and pearl. Nutt gave Lavinia a diamond ring.[24]

At a much later date, Barnum asked Nutt why he had not married. Nutt told him that his "fruit was plucked", and he had no intention of marrying until he was 30. He said he did not care about his bride's height, but preferred a "good, green country girl to anyone else."[18]

World tour[edit]

Colonel Routh Goshen appeared with Commodore Nutt in the "musical extravaganza", Jack, the Giant Killer

The wedding attracted widespread attention. Barnum seized the moment, and sent the wedding party on a profitable tour of America and Europe. Following the tour, the four little people were again sent off, this time on a grand tour of the world as The Tom Thumb Company.

The quartet left the United States on 21 June 1869,[27] travelled 60,000 miles around the world, visited 587 cities and towns, and gave 1,471 performances of songs, orations, and military drills. They returned to America in 1872, rich beyond their dreams.[6][28][23]

On his own[edit]

Nutt had a dispute with Barnum after the tour and struck out on his own. He joined Harry Deakin's Lilliputian Comic Opera Company, and shared the stage with Colonel Routh Goshen (the Middlebush Giant), and Miss Jennie Quigley, "the smallest lady in the world". The Company toured extensively in a production of the operetta, Jack, the Giant Killer.[29][30]

Nutt and his brother Rodnia organized their own variety show. The show played in Portland, Oregon, but was not a success. Nutt went to San Francisco, organized another show, but tired of the life within a year and quit. Another theatrical venture was equally unsuccessful.[30] Nutt operated saloons in Oregon and San Francisco with little success.[23]


It was reported at least four times in the press during the 1860s that Nutt and Minnie Warren were husband and wife. Warren never married Nutt, but became the wife of another little person in 1877 named Major Edward Newell (aka General Grant, Jr.), a song and dance man who performed on roller skates.[18][31] Warren died of childbirth complications in 1878.[31]

In 1879, Nutt married Miss Lilian Elston of Redwood City, California whom he had met while touring the American West. She was slightly smaller than the average woman, and, at her husband's 1881 funeral, sobbed over Nutt's coffin and called him her "dear little boy" who was "so good". The couple had no children.[14]

Return to New York City[edit]

Nutt returned to New York City and bought a saloon. The New York City courts put an end to this saloon-keeping venture when Nutt was caught operating without a liquor license.[23] The former star of the American Museum became Deputy-Superintendent of Rockaway Pier, a beach front amusement-centered board walk, and later returned to the life of a showman with an act called "Tally-Ho".[30]


Early in 1881, Nutt suffered a severe attack of Bright's disease. He endured the pain for more than two months before dying on 25 May 1881 at the Anthony House in New York City.[14] Nutt's resting place is not known with certainty, but he is believed to be buried in an unmarked grave near his parents in Merrill Cemetery at Manchester, New Hampshire. City and historical society records report that Nutt was buried between his father, Rodnia, and his mother, Maria, but that no stone ever marked his grave.[32][33]

Several years before Nutt's death, a description of his funeral was published in newspapers around the world. Mourners were said to include the seven foot giant Chang, an American known as "The Skeleton", a woman with three arms, and four trained dogs. Police were said to be concerned about the crowd gathered outside the cemetery and ordered cabbies to carry mourners singly and quietly to their homes.[34] Nutt had grown from his original 29 inches to 43 inches, and weighed a little less than 70 pounds at his death.[14]