The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
Giants and Dwarfs
SCIENCE FOR THE PUBLIC--MESMERISM EXTRAORDINARY--KILLING OF A
RIVAL--THE TWO GIANTS--DISCOVERY OF "TOM THUMB"--SEEKING OTHER WORLDS TO
CONQUER--FIRST VISIT TO ENGLAND.
Barnum would never submit to being outdone by a rival. In
"poker" parlance, he would "see him and go one better." His chief
competitor now was Peale, who was running Peale's Museum, and proudly proclaiming it to be
a more scientific institution than Barnum's. Thus, he said, he was catering to a higher
class of patrons.
"Science, indeed!" said Barnum. "I'll give him
science to his heart's content!"
Mesmerism was then a great novelty, and Peale was given
exhibitions of it. He had one subject on whom he operated daily, with most surprising
results; though at times she was unimpressionable, and the people who had paid to come in
and see her performances complained loudly that they were being swindled. Barnum saw here
a great opportunity to squelch a rival and increase his own fame at a single stroke. He
engaged a bright little girl who was exceedingly susceptible to such mesmeric influences
as he could induce. That is, she learned her lesson thoroughly, and when he had apparently
put her to sleep with a few passes and stood behind her, she seemed to be duly
"impressed," as he desired; raised her hands as he willed, fell from her chair
to the floor; and if he put candy or tobacco into his own mouth, she was duly delighted or
disgusted. She never failed in these routine performances. Strange to say, believers in
mesmerism used to witness her performances with the greatest pleasure, and adduce them as
positive proofs that there was something in mesmerism, and they applauded tremendously--up
to a certain point.
That point was reached when, leaving the girl
"asleep," Barnum called up some one in the audience, promising to put him
"in the same state" within five minutes, or forfeit fifty dollars. Of course,
all his "passes" would not put a man in the mesmeric state; at the end of three
minutes he was as wide awake as ever.
"Never mind," Barnum would say, "looking at
his watch; "I have two minutes more, and meantime, to show that a person in this
state is utterly insensible to pain, I propose to cut off one of the fingers of the little
girl who is still asleep." He would then take out a knife and feel of the edge, and
when he turned around to the girl whom he left on the chair, she had fled behind the
scenes, to the intense amusement of the greater part of the audience, and to the amazement
of the mesmerists who were present.
"Why! where's my little girl?" he asked, with
"Oh! she ran away when you began to talk about cutting
"Then she was wide awake, was she?"
"Of course she was, all the time."
"I suppose so; and, my dear sir, I promised that you
should be 'in the same state' at the end of five minutes, and as I believe you are so, I
do not forfeit fifty dollars."
Barnum kept up this performance for several weeks, till he
quite killed Peale's "genuine" mesmerism in the rival establishment. At the end
of six months he bought Peale's Museum, and the whole, including the splendid gallery of
American portraits, was removed to the American Museum, and he immediately advertised the
great card of a "Double Attraction," and "Two Museums in One," without
Barnum was now devoting all his attention and energy to this
enterprise, and was achieving great success. He made everything contribute to its
popularity. When a politician asked him for what candidate he was going to vote, he would
answer, "For the American Museum;" and this was an index of his whole demeanor.
Among the genuine and literally "great" features of
his show were several giants. They often gave both the showman and his patrons food for
much amusement as well as wonder. The Quaker giant, Hales, was quite a wag in his way. He
went once to see the new house of an acquaintance who had suddenly become rich, but who
was a very ignorant man. When he came back he described the wonders of the mansion, and
said that the proud proprietor showed him everything from basement to attic; parlors,
bed-rooms, dining-room, and, said Hales, "what he calls his 'study'--meaning, I
suppose, the place where he intends to study his spelling-book!"
He had at one time two famous men, the French giant, M.
Bihin, a very slim man, and the Arabian giant, Colonel Goshen. These men generally got on
together very well, though, of course, each was jealous of the other, and of the attention
the rival received, or the notice he attracted. One day they quarreled, and a lively
interchange of compliments ensued, the Arabian calling the Frenchman a
"Shanghai," and receiving in return the epithet of "Nigger." From
words both were eager to proceed to blows, and both ran to the collection of arms, one
seizing the club with which Captain Cook, or any other man, might have been killed, if it
were judiciously wielded, and the other laying hands on a sword of the terrific size which
is supposed to have been conventional in the days of the Crusades.
The preparations for a deadly encounter, and the high words
of the contending parties, brought a dozen of the Museum attaches to the spot, and these
men threw themselves between the gigantic combatants. Hearing the disturbance, Barnum ran
from his private office to the dueling ground, and said:
"Look here! This is all right; if you want to fight each
other, maiming and perhaps killing one or both of you, that is your affair; but my
interest lies here: you are both under engagement to me, and if this duel is to come off,
I and the public have a right to participate. It must be duly advertised, and must take
place on the stage of the Lecture Room. No performance of yours would be a greater
attraction, and if you kill each other, our engagement can end with your duel."
This proposition, made in apparent earnest, so delighted the
giants that they at once burst into a laugh, shook hands, and quarreled no more.
From giants to dwarfs. None of Barnum's attractions has been
more famous than "Tom Thumb." The story of his discovery and engagement is dated
in November, 1842. Barnum was then at Bridgeport, Conn. One day he heard that there
belonged in one of the families of the place a phenomenally small child, and he got his
brother, Philo F. Barnum, to bring the little fellow to his hotel. "He was,"
Barnum afterward said, "not two feet high; he weighed less than sixteen pounds, and
was the smallest child I ever saw that could walk alone; he was a perfectly formed
bright-eyed little fellow, with light hair and ruddy cheeks, and he enjoyed the best of
health. He was exceedingly bashful, but after some coaxing, he was induced to talk with
me, and he told me that he was the son of Sherwood E. Stratton, and that his own name was
Charles S. Stratton. After seeing him and talking with him, I at once determined to secure
his services from his parents and to exhibit him in public. I engaged him for four weeks,
at three dollars a week, with all traveling and boarding charges for himself and his
mother at my expense. They came to New York Thanksgiving day, December 8th, 1842, and I
announced the dwarf on my Museum bills as 'General Tom Thumb.' "
Barnum took the greatest pains to educate and train the
diminutive prodigy, devoting many hours to the task by day and by night, and he was very
successful, for the boy was an apt pupil, with a great deal of native talent, and a keen
sense of the ludicrous. Barnum afterward re-engaged him for one year, at seven dollars a
week with a gratuity of fifty dollars at the end of the engagement, and the privilege of
exhibiting him anywhere in the United States, in which event his parents were to accompany
him and Barnum was to pay all traveling expenses. He speedily became a public favorite,
and long before the year was out, Barnum voluntarily increased his weekly salary to
twenty-five dollars, and he fairly earned it.
For two years Barnum had been the owner of the Museum. He had
enjoyed great prosperity. Long ago he had paid every dollar of the purchase-money out of
the profits of the place. All rivals had been driven from the field. He was out of debt,
and had a handsome balance in the bank. The experimental stage was passed, and the
enterprise was an established success. It was, indeed, in such perfect order that Barnum
felt safe in leaving it to his lieutenants, while he went forth to seek new realms of
conquest. Accordingly he made an agreement for General Tom Thumb's services for another
year, at fifty dollars a week and all expenses, with the privilege of exhibiting him in
Europe. He proposed to test the curiosity of men and women on the other side of the
After arranging his business affairs for a long absence, and
making every preparation for an extended foreign tour, on Thursday, January 18th, 1844, he
went on board the new and fine sailing ship "Yorkshire," Captain D. G. Bailey,
bound for Liverpool. The party included General Tom Thumb, his parents, his tutor, and
Professor Guillaudeu, a French naturalist. They were accompanied by several personal
friends, and the City Brass Band kindly volunteered to escort them to Sandy Hook.
They were met at Liverpool by a large crowd of sight-seers,
who had been attracted thither by the fame of "Tom Thumb." The curiosity of the
populace was not gratified, however, for Barnum had the child smuggled ashore unseen,
under his mother's shawl.
"My letters of introduction," said the showman,
many excellent families, and I was induced to hire a hall and present the General to the
public, for a short season in Liverpool. I had intended to proceed directly to London, and
begin operations at 'headquarters,' that is, in Buckingham Palace, if possible; but I had
been advised that the royal family was in mourning for the death of Prince Albert's
father, and would not permit the approach of any entertainments. Meanwhile, confidential
letters from London informed me that Mr. Maddox, Manager of Princess's Theatre, was coming
down to witness my exhibition, with a view to making an engagement. He came privately, but
I was fully informed as to his presence and object. A friend pointed him out to me in the
hall, and when I stepped up to him, and called him by name, he was 'taken all aback,' and
avowed his purpose in visiting Liverpool. An interview resulted in an engagement of the
General for three nights at Princess's Theatre. I was unwilling to contract for a longer
period, and even this short engagement, though on liberal terms, was acceded to only as a
means of advertisement. So soon, therefore, as I could bring my short, but highly
successful, season in Liverpool to a close, we went to London."
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