The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
PARTNERSHIP WITH TOM THUMB--VISIT TO CUBA--IRANISTAN, HIS
FAMOUS PALACE AT BRIDGEPORT--AGRICULTURAL EXPERIENCES--BARNUM'S GAME-KEEPER AND THE GREAT
GAME DINNER--FRANK LESLIE.
One of Barnum's principal objects in returning to America at
this time was to insure the permanence of his "American Museum." He had a lease
of the property, which had yet three years to run. But he wanted to make sure of it after
that term had expired. Mr. Olmsted, the former owner, was now dead, and It was not certain
that the new proprietor would renew the lease. If not, another home for the great show
must be secured, and Barnum decided that in that event he would buy land on Broadway and
erect a building to suit him. The new owner of the old property was persuaded, however, to
renew the lease for a term of twenty-five years. The building covered an area of fifty-six
by one hundred feet and was four stories high. Barnum agreed to pay for it a rental of
$10,000 a year in addition to the taxes and all assessments. Then, as the place was not
large enough for his purposes, he rented and connected with it the upper floors of several
adjacent buildings. The Museum was at this time enormously prosperous, and was thronged
with visitors from morning to late at night.
Tom Thumb's European reputation was of course a great
advertisement, and it was "worked for all it was worth." He appeared at the
Museum daily for four weeks, and drew such crowds of visitors as had never been seen there
before. He afterwards spent a month in Bridgeport with his kindred. To prevent being
annoyed by the curious, who would be sure to throng the houses of his relatives, he
exhibited two days at Bridgeport, and the receipts, amounting to several hundred dollars,
were presented to the Bridgeport Charitable Society.
Barnum's contract with Tom Thumb had expired on January 1,
1845, while they were in England, and they had then formed a partnership, dividing equally
between them the profits of their enterprise; excepting during the first four weeks of
their return to New York, during which time the General waived his partnership rights and
exhibited himself for a salary of $50 a week. Mr. Stratton, Tom Thumb's father, was now a
rich man, and he settled a handsome fortune upon his tiny son.
Soon a tour of America was arranged, the party consisting of
Mr. Barnum and Tom Thumb and his parents. They began at Washington, in April, 1847, where
they visited President and Mrs. Polk at the White House. Thence they went to Richmond, to
Baltimore, and to Philadelphia, where they took in $5,594.91 in twelve days. Next they
visited Boston and Lowell; Providence, where they received nearly $1,000 in a day; New
Bedford, Fall River, Salem, Worcester, Springfield, Albany, Troy, Niagara Falls, Buffalo
and various other places. During the whole year's tour their receipts averaged from $400
to $500 per day, and their expenses only from $25 to $30. On their way back to New York
they stopped at all large towns along the Hudson river, and then went to New Haven,
Hartford, Portland and some other New England cities.
Absence did not make them forgotten in New York, however, but
only increased public interest in them. When he returned to his Museum Mr. Barnum found
that he himself had come to be regarded as one of its chief curiosities. "If I showed
myself about the Museum, or wherever else I was known, I found eyes peering and fingers
pointing at me, and could frequently overhear the remark, 'There's Barnum.' On one
occasion, soon after my return, I was sitting in the ticket-office, reading a newspaper. A
man came and purchased a ticket of admission. 'Is Mr. Barnum in the Museum?' he asked. The
ticket-seller, pointing to me, answered, 'This is Mr. Barnum.' Supposing the gentleman had
business with me, I looked up from the paper. 'Is this Mr. Barnum?' he asked. 'It is,' I
replied. He stared at me for a moment, and then, throwing down his ticket, exclaimed,
'It's all right; I have got the worth of my money;' and away he went, without going into
the Museum at all."
In the fall of 1847 they went South, visiting and giving
exhibitions at Charleston, Columbia, Augusta, Savannah, Milledgeville, Macon, Columbus,
Montgomery, Mobile and New Orleans. At the last-named place they spent three weeks,
including the Christmas holidays. After New Year's they went to Cuba, and were received at
Havana by the Captain-General and the aristocracy of the city. For a month they gave
exhibitions in Havana and Matanzas with great success. The only serious drawback was the
hotels, which they did not find good; indeed, it was difficult for them to get enough to
eat. The Washington House, at Havana, where they lived for some time, was characterized by
Mr. Barnum as "first-rate bad!"
From Cuba they returned to New Orleans, and thence to New
York by way of the Mississippi river, St. Louis, Louisville, Cincinnati and Pittsburg. And
then, in May, 1848, it was agreed that Barnum should travel no more with the little
General. "I had," says Barnum, "competent agents who could exhibit him
without my personal assistance, and I preferred to relinquish a portion of the profits
rather than continue to be a travelling showman. I had now been a straggler from home most
of the time for thirteen years, and I cannot describe the feelings of gratitude with which
I reflected that, having by the most arduous toil and deprivations succeeded in securing a
satisfactory competence, I should henceforth spend my days in the bosom of my
Barnum had selected the city of Bridgeport, Conn., for his
home, and thither he now repaired. He wanted to be near New York, and he considered the
northern shore of Long Island Sound the most beautiful country he had ever seen.
Bridgeport was about the right distance from New York, and was well situated. It was also
an enterprising place, with the promise of a prosperous future. Some three or four years
before this time Barnum had purchased seventeen acres of land at the western side of the
city, and for two years had been building a palace upon it, the famous
"Iranistan," which was now nearly ready for him to occupy.
In telling how he came to erect this gorgeous and eccentric
home, Barnum once said that in visiting Brighton, England, he had been greatly pleased
with the pavilion built there by George IV. It was at that time the only specimen of
Oriental architecture in England, and the style had not been introduced into America.
"I concluded to adopt it, and engaged a London architect to furnish me a set of
drawings after the general plan of the pavilion, differing sufficiently to be adapted to
the spot of ground selected for my homestead. On my second return visit to the United
States, I brought these drawings with me and engaged a competent architect and builder,
giving him instructions to proceed with the work, not 'by the job' but 'by the day,' and
to spare neither time nor expense in erecting a comfortable, convenient, and tasteful
residence. The work was thus begun and continued while I was still abroad, and during the
time when I was making my tour with General Tom Thumb through the United States and Cuba.
Elegant and appropriate furniture was made expressly for every room in the house. I
erected expensive water-works to supply the premises. The stables, conservatories and
out-buildings were perfect in their kind. There was a profusion of trees set out on the
grounds. The whole was built and established literally 'regardless of expense,' for I had
no desire even to ascertain the entire cost."
Into this splendid place he moved on November 14, 1848,
nearly a thousand fellow-citizens of Bridgeport, rich and poor alike, participating in the
"housewarming" as his guests. The estate was called, in reference to its
Oriental appearance, Iranistan, which being interpreted means "a Persian home."
This name was the subject of many a joke, as the place itself was of much wonderment and
The next two years were spent by Mr. Barnum chiefly at home
with his family, though he paid frequent visits to his various places of business and
amusement; business for him, amusement for the world. He had for several years a fine
Museum in Baltimore, which was afterward the property of John E. Owens, the actor. In 1849
he also opened a Museum in Philadelphia, at the corner of Chestnut and Seventh streets. He
spent some time in Philadelphia, until the Museum was profitably established, and then
turned it over to a manager. Two years later he sold it for a good price. While he was
running it, however, his old rival, Peale, conducted a strong opposition show in Masonic
Hall, near by. The competition between them proved disastrous to Peale, who failed and was
sold out by the sheriff. Barnum and his friend, Moses Kimball, purchased most of his
effects and divided them between Barnum's American Museum in New York and Kimball's Museum
Barnum took an active interest in the affairs of Bridgeport
and of the State of Connecticut. In 1848, soon after settling in Iranistan, he was elected
President of the Fairfield County Agricultural Society. He was not much of a practical
farmer, although he had bought a hundred or more acres of farm land near his residence and
felt a deep interest in agricultural affairs. He had imported a lot of choice livestock,
which he had at Iranistan, and had gone pretty deeply into fancy poultry raising. So he
was considered eligible to the office of President of the Agricultural Society.
In 1849 the Society insisted that he should deliver the
annual address. "I begged to be excused on the ground of incompetency," he said,
"but my excuses were of no avail, and as I could not instruct my auditors in farming,
I gave them the benefit of several mistakes which I had committed. Among other things, I
told them that in the fall of 1848 my head-gardener reported that I had fifty bushels of
potatoes to spare. I thereupon directed him to barrel them up and ship them to New York
for sale. He did so, and received two dollars per barrel, or about sixty-seven cents per
bushel. But, unfortunately, after the potatoes had been shipped, I found that my gardener
had selected all the largest for market, and left my family nothing but 'small potatoes'
to live on during the winter. But the worst was still to come. My potatoes were all gone
before March, and I was obliged to buy, during the spring, over fifty bushels of potatoes,
at $1.25 per bushel! I also related my first experiment in the arboricultural line, when I
cut from two thrifty rows of young cherry-trees any quantity of what I supposed to be
'suckers,' or 'sprouts,' and was thereafter informed by my gardener that I had cut off all
A friend of Barnum's, Mr. J. D. Johnson, had a fine place
near Iranistan; and Barnum owned a couple of acres just beyond and adjoining his property.
This plot Barnum presently converted into a deer park, stocking it with fine animals from
the Rocky Mountains. From its location, however, everybody supposed it to be a part of
Johnson's estate, and to confirm this notion--in a waggish spirit--a member of Johnson's
family put up in the park a conspicuous sign, which every passer-by on the street could
"All persons are forbid trespassing on these grounds, or
disturbing the deer.
--J. D. JOHNSON."
Barnum "acknowledged the corn," and was much
pleased with the joke. Johnson was delighted, and bragged considerably of having got ahead
of Barnum, and the sign remained undisturbed for several days. It happened, at length,
that a party of friends came to visit him from New York, arriving in the evening. Johnson
told them that he had got a capital joke on Barnum; he would not explain, but said they
should see it for themselves the next morning. Bright and early he led them into the
street, and, after conducting them a proper distance, wheeled them around in front of the
sign. To his dismay he discovered that I had added directly under his name the words
"Game-keeper to P. T. Barnum."
Thereafter Mr. Johnson was known among his friends and
acquaintances as "Barnum's gamekeeper."
Johnson had his revenge, however. Some time afterward Barnum
became president of the Pequonnock Bank, and gave each year a grand dinner at Iranistan to
the directors. In preparing for these banquets he would send to the West for some boxes of
prairie chickens and other choice game. So, one day, Johnson saw a big case at the
railroad station, addressed to Barnum, and marked "Game."
"See here," said he to the station-master, "I
am Mr. Barnum's game-keeper, and I'll take charge of that!"
And he did so, taking it to his house, and then notifying
Barnum that it could only be redeemed at cost of a new hat. He knew very well that Barnum
would rather give him a dozen hats than lose the box; and he added that unless he got the
hat very soon he would give a game dinner on his own account! Barnum sent an order for the
hat in a hurry, and recovered his game, enjoying the whole joke as much as Johnson did.
In 1848, Mr. Frank Leslie, afterward famous as a publisher,
came to America, bringing letters of introduction to Barnum from friends in England, and
Barnum gave him a start in business by employing him to prepare an elaborate illustrated
catalogue of the American Museum. This he did in an admirable manner, and hundreds of
thousands of copies of it were distributed throughout the country.
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