The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
CONQUEST OF THE HABANEROS--THE ITALIAN AND HIS DOG--MAD
BENNETT--A SUCCESSFUL RUSE--RETURN TO NEW ORLEANS--A LUDICROUS INCIDENT--UP THE
Soon after arriving at Havana, Barnum made a discovery. The
Habaneros, not accustomed to the high prices which opera tickets command in the States,
had determined that they would force Barnum to lower the admission fee. This the manager
refused to do, and it soon became evident that although they attended the concerts, they
were not disposed to show the singer the least favor. It was, therefore, with much inward
trepidation that Barnum watched the curtain rise on the first concert. The following
account of that concert is taken from the New York Tribune:
"Jenny Lind soon appeared, led on by Signor Belletti.
Some three or four hundred persons clapped their hands at her appearance, but this token
of approbation was instantly silenced by at least two thousand five hundred decided
hisses. Thus having settled the matter that there should be no forestalling of public
opinion, and that it applause was given to Jenny Lind in that house it should first be
incontestably earned, the most solemn silence prevailed. I have heard the Swedish
Nightingale often in Europe as well as in America, and have ever noticed a distinct
tremulousness attending her first appearance in any city. Indeed this feeling was plainly
manifested in her countenance as she neared the foot-lights; but when she witnessed the
kind of reception in store for her--so different from anything she had reason to
expect--her countenance changed in an instant to a haughty self-possession, her eyes
flashed defiance, and, becoming immovable as a statue, she stood there perfectly calm and
beautiful. She was satisfied that she now had an ordeal to pass and a victory to gain
worthy of her powers. In a moment her eye scanned the immense audience, the music began
and then followed--how can I describe it?--such heavenly strains as I verily believe
mortal never breathed except Jenny Lind, and mortal never heard except from her lips. Some
of the oldest Castilians kept a frown upon their brow and a curling sneer upon their lips;
their ladies, however, and most of the audience began to look surprised. The gushing
melody flowed on, increasing in beauty and glory. The caballeros, the senoras and
senoritas began to look at each other; nearly all, however, kept their teeth clenched and
their lips closed, evidently determined to resist to the last. The torrent flowed deeper
and faster, the lark flew higher and higher, the melody grew richer and grander; still
every lip was compressed. By and by, as the rich notes came dashing in rivers upon our
enraptured ears, one poor critic involuntarily whispered a 'brava.' This outbursting of
the soul was instantly hissed down. The stream of harmony rolled on till, at the close, it
made a clean sweep of every obstacle, and carried all before it. Not a vestige of
opposition remained, but such a tremendous shout of applause as went up I never before
"The triumph was most complete. And how was Jenny Lind
affected? She who stood a few moments previous like adamant, now trembled like a reed in
the wind before the storm of enthusiasm which her own simple notes had produced.
Tremblingly, slowly, and almost bowing her face to the ground, she withdrew. The roar and
applause of victory increased. 'Encore! encore! encore!' came from every lip. She again
appeared, and courtesying low, again withdrew; but again, again and again did they call
her out and at every appearance the thunders of applause rang louder and louder. Thus five
times was Jenny Lind called out to receive their unanimous and deafening plaudits."
With tears of joy rolling down his cheeks, Barnum rushed
behind the scenes, and met her as she was withdrawing after the fifth encore.
"God bless you, Jenny," he cried, "you've
"Are you satisfied?" said the singer, throwing her
arms around his neck and weeping for joy. This was the first she had known of the
opposition, all hint of it having been kept from her by Mr. Barnum, but she fully
sympathized with him in his determination not to lower the prices.
The papers continued to cry out for a reduction, and this
caused many people to stay away from the concerts, expecting Barnum to yield. But when,
after three concerts, it was announced that the next one, devoted to charity, was also to
be Miss Lind's farewell, they became very much excited. Committees waited on them to
request more concerts, which resulted only in refusals: some of the leading Dons offered
to guarantee them $25,000, for three concerts, but Barnum assured them that there was not
money enough in the Island of Cuba to induce him to consent.
The proceeds of the fourth concert were distributed between
two hospitals and a convent, besides giving $500 to Barnum's old protege Vivalla, the
little Italian plate-dancer, whom they had met in Havana. The poor fellow's fortunes were
at a very low ebb, having lost the use of his left side from paralysis. He supported
himself by exhibiting a performing dog, which turned a spinning wheel and did several
other tricks. Miss Lind had heard of his case and was very anxious that part of the
benefit money should be given him.
The morning after the concert the bell rang and Barnum found,
on going to the door, a procession of children from the convent which had received a large
sum of money from Miss Lind. The children were attended by ten or twelve priests in rich
vestments. They had come to see the songstress and to thank her in person. But Jenny
shrank from appearing before such a stately deputation: "Tell them I cannot see
them," she exclaimed. "They have nothing to thank me for. If I have done good it
was no more than my duty." And the grand procession with its wreaths and banners,
were obliged to depart.
The same day, Vivalla called and brought her a basket of
fruit. With tears of joy, he called down every blessing on the head of the benevolent
lady. "I shall go back to Italy! I shall see my brothers and sisters again!" he
cried. Miss Lind had gone for a drive, but Barnum promised to give her the fruit and the
message. As he was passing out the door he hesitated end said: "Mr. Barnum, I should
like so much to have the good lady see my dog turn a wheel. It is very nice; he can spin
very good; shall I bring the dog and the wheel for her? She is such a good lady, I wish to
please her very much." Mr. Barnum told the grateful fellow that Miss Lind had refused
to see the priests from the convent that morning, because she never received thanks for
favors, and that he was quite welcome to the money.
When Miss Lind returned and heard the story, she exclaimed:
"Poor man, poor man, do let him come; its all the good creature can do for me;"
then with tears rolling down her face--"I like that, I like that; do let him come and
bring his dog. It will make him so happy."
"God bless you, it WILL make him happy," said
Barnum. "He shall come to-morrow." And he went himself to tell Vivalla that
Jenny Lind would see his dog perform, the next day at four precisely.
"I will be punctual," said Vivalla, quite overcome
with emotion, "but I was SURE she would like to see my dog perform."
For full half an hour before the time appointed did Jenny
Lind sit in her window on the second floor and watch for Vivalla and his dog. A few
minutes before the appointed hour, she saw him coming. "Ah, here he comes! here he
comes!" she exclaimed in delight, as she ran down stairs and opened the door to admit
him. A negro boy was bringing the small spinning-wheel, while Vivalla led the dog. Handing
the boy a silver coin, she motioned him away, and taking the wheel in her arms, she said,
"This is very kind of you to come with your dog. Follow me. I will carry the wheel up
stairs." Her servant offered to take the wheel, but no, she would let no one carry it
but herself. She called the whole party to her parlor, and for one full hour did she
devote herself to the happy Italian. She went down on her knees to pet the dog and to ask
Vivalla all sorts of questions about his performances, his former course of life, his
friends in Italy, and his present hopes and determinations. Then she sang and played for
him, gave him some refreshments, finally insisted on carrying his wheel to the door, and
her servant accompanied Vivalla to his boarding-house.
Poor Vivalla! He was probably never so happy before, but his
enjoyment did not exceed that of Miss Lind. A few months later, however, the Havana
correspondent of the New York Herald announced the death of Vivalla, and stated that the
poor Italian's last words were about Jenny Lind and Mr. Barnum.
In the party which accompanied Barnum to Havana was a man who
had formerly kept the Peale Museum in New York, afterwards managing the establishment for
Mr. Barnum. At present he was acting as ticket-taker.
He was a curious fellow, at times full of fun and gayety and
at other times melancholy to the verge of insanity. Madness ran in his family, and one of
his brothers, in a moment of frenzy had blown his brains out. Barnum knew of Bennett's
tendency to melancholy and watched him constantly. When they were on board the steamer
"Falcon" on their way back to New Orleans, a thrilling incident occurred which
Barnum afterwards related in this way:
Mr. James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, and
his wife, were also passengers. After permitting one favorable notice in his paper,
Bennett had turned around, as usual, and had abused Jenny Lind and bitterly attacked me. I
was always glad to get such notices, for they served as inexpensive advertisements to my
"Ticket-taker Bennett, however, took much to heart the
attacks of Editor Bennett upon Jenny Lind. When Editor Bennett came on board the 'Falcon,'
his violent name-sake said to a by-stander:
" 'I would willingly be drowned if I could see that old
scoundrel go to the bottom of the sea.'
"Several of our party overheard the remark and I turned
laughingly to Bennett and said: Nonsense; he can't harm any one, and there is an old
proverb about the impossibility of drowning those who are born for another fate.'
"That very night, however, as I stood near the cabin
door, conversing with my treasurer and other members of my company, Henry Bennett came up
to me with a wild air, and hoarsely whispered:
" 'Old Bennett has gone forward alone in the dark--and I
am going to throw him overboard!'
"We were all startled, for we knew the man, and he
seemed terribly in earnest. Knowing how most effectively to address him at such times, I
" 'Ridiculous! you would not do such a thing.'
" 'I swear I will,' was his savage reply. I expostulated
with him, and several of our party joined me.
" 'Nobody will know it,' muttered the maniac, 'and I
shall be doing the world a favor.'
"I endeavored to awaken him to a sense of the crime he
contemplated, assuring him that it could not possibly benefit any one, and that from the
fact of the relations existing between the editor and myself, I should be the first to be
accused of his murder. I implored him to go to his stateroom, and he finally did so,
accompanied by some of the gentlemen of our party. I took pains to see that he was
carefully watched that night, and, indeed, for several days, till he became calm again. He
was a large, athletic man, quite able to pick up his name-sake and drop him overboard. The
matter was too serious for a joke, and we made little mention of it; but more than one of
our party said then, and has said since, what I really believe to be true, that 'James
Gordon Bennett would have been drowned that night had it not been for P. T. Barnum.'
Bennett's end was tragic, as might be expected. Sometime
after the Havana journey Barnum sent him to London. He conducted the business
successfully, wrote up the accounts to a penny, then handing the papers to a mutual friend
with directions to give them to Barnum when he should arrive, he went to his lodgings and
"In New Orleans the wharf was crowded by a great
concourse of persons, as the steamer "Falcon" approached. Jenny Lind had enjoyed
a month of quiet, and dreaded the excitement which she must now again encounter.
"Mr Barnum, I am sure I can never get through that
crowd," she said in despair.
"Leave that to me. Remain quiet for ten minutes, and
there shall be no crowd here," replied Barnum.
Taking his daughter on his arm, she drew her vail over her
face and they descended the gangway.
"That's Barnum, I know him," called out several
persons at the top of their voices.
"Open the way, if you please for Mr. Barnum and Miss
Lind!" cried Le Grand Smith over the railing of the ship, the deck of which he had
just reached from the wharf.
"Don't crowd her, if you please, gentlemen," said
Barnum, and so pushing and squeezing they reached the carriage and drove to Miss Lind's
apartments. A few minutes later Jenny and her companion came quietly in a carriage and
were in the house before the ruse was discovered. In answer to the calls of the crowd she
appeared on the balcony, and bowed to the throng, which gave her three cheers and
A very funny incident occurred in New Orleans. Next to the
theatre where the concerts were given, was an exhibition in the large open lots of mammoth
hogs, grizzly bears and other animals.
A gentleman had a son about twelve years old, who had a
wonderful ear for music. He could whistle or sing any tune after hearing it once. His
father did not know nor care for a single note, but so anxious was he to please his son,
that he paid thirty dollars for two tickets to the concert.
"I liked the music better than I expected," said he
the next day, "but my son was in raptures. He was so perfectly enchanted that he
scarcely spoke the whole evening, and I would on no account disturb his delightful
reveries. When the concert was finished we came out of the theatre. Not a word was spoken.
I knew that my musical prodigy was happy among the clouds, and I said nothing. I could not
help envying him his love of music, and considered my thirty dollars as nothing, compared
to the bliss which it secured to him. Indeed, I was seriously thinking of taking him to
the next concert, when he spoke. We were just passing the numerous shows upon the vacant
lots. One of the signs attracted him, and he said, 'Father, let us go in and see the big
hog!' The little scamp! I could have horse-whipped him!' said the father, who loving a
joke, could not help laughing at the ludicrous incident.
The party took passage to Cairo, Illinois, in the beautiful
river steamer "Magnolia." They had made arrangements with the captain to delay
in Natchez and in Memphis where concerts were given.
The time on board the steamer was pleasantly spent in reading
and watching the scenery. One day they had a musicale in the ladies' cabin for the
gratification of the passengers, at which Miss Lind volunteered to sing. Barnum amused the
passengers with his inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and stories, and the tricks of
legerdemain, which he had learned and used in the South under rather different
circumstances. Among other tricks, he made a silver piece disappear so mysteriously that
the negro barber who witnessed the feat, came to the conclusion that the great man must be
in league with the devil. "The next morning," says Mr. Barnum, "I seated
myself in the barber's chair and the darkey began to talk:
" 'Beg pardon, Mr. Barnum, but I have heard a great deal
about you, and I saw more than I wanted to see last night. Is it true that you have sold
yourself to the devil, so that you can do what you've a mind to?'
" 'Oh, yes," was my reply, 'that is the bargain
" 'How long did you agree for?' was the question next in
" 'Only nine years,' said I. 'I have had three of them
already. Before the other six are out, I shall find a way to nonplus the old gentleman,
and I have told him so to his face.'
"At this avowal, a larger space of white than usual was
seen in the darkey's eyes, and he inquired, 'Is it by this bargain that you get so much
" 'Certainly. No matter who has money, nor where he
keeps it, in his box or till, or anywhere about him, I have only to speak the words and it
"The shaving was completed in silence, but thought had
been busy in the barber's mind, and he embraced the speediest opportunity to transfer his
bag of coin to the iron safe in charge of the clerk.
The movement did not escape me, and immediately a joke was
afoot. I had barely time to make two or three details of arrangement with the clerk, and
resume my seat in the cabin, ere the barber sought a second interview, bent on testing the
alleged powers of Beelzebub's colleague.
" 'Beg pardon, Mr. Barnum, but where is my money? Can
you get it?'
" 'I do not want your money,' was the quiet answer. 'It
" 'Yes, I know it is safe--ha! ha!--it is in the iron
safe in the clerk's office--safe enough from you?'
" 'It is not in the iron safe!' said I. This was said so
quietly, yet positively, that the colored gentleman ran to the office, and inquired if all
was safe. 'All right,' said the clerk. 'Open, and let me see,' replied the barber. The
safe was unlocked and lo! the money was gone!
"In mystified terror the loser applied to me for relief.
'You will find the bag in your drawer,' said I, and there it was found!
"His curiosity was still great. 'Please do another
trick,' said he.
" 'Very well,' I replied, 'stand perfectly still.'
"He did so, and I commenced muttering some mysterious
words, as if performing an incantation.
" 'What are you doing?' said the barber.
" 'I am changing you into a black cat,' I replied, 'but
don't be afraid; I will change you back again, if I don't forget the words to do it with.'
"This was too much for the terrified darkey; with an
awful screech he rushed to the side of the boat resolved to drown rather than undergo such
"He was captured and brought back to me, when I
dispelled his fright by explaining the way in which I had tricked him. Relieved and
reassured, he clapped his hands and executed an impromtu jig, exclaiming, 'Ha! ha! when I
get back to New Orleans won't I come de Barnum ober dem niggers!' "
This comment system requires
you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an
account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or
Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these
companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All
comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator
has approved your comment.