The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
Early Years At Bethel
DEATH OF HIS GRANDMOTHER AND FATHER--LEFT PENNILESS AND
BAREFOOTED--WORK IN A STORE--HIS FIRST LOVE--TRYING TO BUY RUSSIA--UNCLE BIBBIN'S DUEL.
In August, 1825, the aged grandmother met with an accident in
stepping on the point of a rusty nail, which shortly afterwards resulted in her death. She
was a woman of great piety, and before she died sent for each of her grandchildren--to
whom she was devoted--and besought them to lead a Christian life. Barnum was so deeply
impressed by that death-bed scene that through his whole life neither the recollection of
it, nor of the dying woman's words, ever left him.
The elder Barnum was a man of many enterprises and few
successes. Besides being the proprietor of a hotel he owned a livery-stable, ran a sort of
an express, and kept a country store. Phineas was his confidential clerk, and, if he did
not reap much financial benefit from his position, he at least obtained a good business
On the 7th of September, 1825, the father, after a six
months' illness, died at the age of forty-eight, leaving a wife and five children and an
insolvent estate. There was literally nothing left for the family; the creditors seized
everything; even the small sum which Phineas had loaned his father was held to be the
property of a minor, and therefore belonging to the estate. The boy was obliged to borrow
money to buy the shoes he wore to the funeral. At fifteen he began the world not only
penniless but barefooted.
He went at once to Grassy Plain, a few miles northwest of
Bethel, where he managed to obtain a clerkship in the store of James S. Keeler and Lewis
Whitlock, at the magnificent salary of six dollars a month and his board. He had chosen
his uncle, Alanson Taylor, as his guardian, but made his home with Mrs. Jerusha Wheeler
and her two daughters; Mary and Jerusha. He worked hard and faithfully, and so gained the
esteem of his employers that they afforded him many opportunities for making money on his
own account. His small speculations proved so successful that before long he found himself
in possession of quite a little sum.
"I made," says Barnum, "a very remarkable
trade at one time for my employers by purchasing, in their absence, a whole wagon-load of
green glass bottles of various sizes, for which I paid in unsalable goods at very
profitable prices. How to dispose of the bottles was then the problem, and as it was also
desirable to get rid of a large quantity of tin-ware which had been in the shop for years
and was con-siderably 'shop worn,' I conceived the idea of a lottery, in which the highest
prize should be twenty-five dollars, payable in any goods the winner desired, while there
were to be fifty prizes of five dollars each, payable in goods, to be designated in the
scheme. Then there were one hundred prizes of one dollar each, one hundred prizes of fifty
cents each, and three hundred prizes of twenty-five cents each. It is unnecessary to state
that the minor prizes consisted mainly of glass and tin-ware; the tickets sold like
wildfire, and the worn tin and glass bottles were speedily turned into cash."
Mrs Barnum still continued to keep the village hotel at
Bethel, and Phineas went home every Saturday night, going to church with his mother on
Sunday, and returning to his work Monday morning. One Saturday evening Miss Mary Wheeler,
at whose house the young man boarded, sent him word that she had a young lady from Bethel
whom she desired him to escort home, as it was raining violently, and the maiden was
afraid to go alone. He assented readily enough, and went over to "Aunt
Rushia's," where he was introduced to Miss Charity ("Chairy," for short)
Hallett. She was a very pretty girl and a bright talker, and the way home seemed only too
short to her escort. She was a tailoress in the village, and went to church regularly,
but, although Phineas saw her every Sunday for many weeks, he had no opportunity of the
acquaintance that season.
Mrs. Jerusha Wheeler and her daughter Jerusha were familiarly
known, the one as "Aunt Rushia," and the other as "Rushia." Many of
the store customers were hatters, and among the many kinds of furs sold for the nap of
hats was one known to the trade as "Russia." One day a hatter, Walter Dibble,
called to buy some furs. Barnum sold him several kinds, including "beaver" and
"cony," and he then asked for some "Russia." They had none, and as
Barnum wanted to play a joke upon him, he told him that Mrs. Wheeler had several hundred
pounds of "Rushia."
"What on earth is a woman doing with 'Russia?' "
Barnum could not answer, but assured him that there were one
hundred and thirty pounds of old Rushia and one hundred and fifty pounds of young Rushia
in Mrs. Wheeler's house, and under her charge, but whether or not it was for sale he could
not say. Off he started to make the purchase and knocked at the door. Mrs. Wheeler, the
elder, made her appearance.
"I want to get your Russia," said the hatter.
Mrs. Wheeler asked him to walk in and be seated. She, of
course, supposed that he had come for her daughter "Rushia."
"What do you want of Rushia?" asked the old lady.
"To make hats," was the reply.
"To trim hats, I suppose you mean?" responded Mrs.
"No, for the outside of hats," replied the hatter.
"Well, I don't know much about hats," said the old
lady, "but I will call my daughter."
Passing into another room where "Rushia" the
younger was at work, she informed her that a man wanted her to make hats.
"Oh, he means sister Mary, probably. I suppose he wants
some ladies' hats," replied Rushia, as she went into the parlor.
"This is my daughter," said the old lady.
"I want to get your Russia," said he, addressing
the young lady.
"I suppose you wish to see my sister Mary; she is our
milliner," said young Rushia.
"I wish to see whoever owns the property," said the
Sister Mary was sent for, and, as she was introduced, the
hatter informed her that he wished to buy her "Russia."
"Buy Rushia!" exclaimed Mary, in surprise; I don't
"Your name is Miss Wheeler, I believe," said the
hatter, who was annoyed by the difficulty he met with in being understood.
"It is, sir."
"Ah! very well. Is there old and young Russia in the
"I believe there is," said Mary, surprised at the
familiar manner in which he spoke of her mother and sister, who were present.
"What is the price of old Russia per pound?" asked
"I believe, sir, that old Rushia is not for sale,"
replied Mary, indignantly.
"Well, what do you ask for young Russia?" pursued
"Sir," said Miss Rushia the younger, springing to
her feet, "do you come here to insult defenceless females? If you do, sir, our
brother, who is in the garden, will punish you as you deserve."
"Ladies!" exclaimed the hatter, in astonishment,
"what on earth have I done to offend you? I came here on a business matter. I want to
buy some Russia. I was told you had old and young Russia in the house. Indeed, this young
lady just stated such to be the fact, but she says the old Russia is not for sale. Now, if
I can buy the young Russia I want to do so--but if that can't be done, please to say so,
and I will trouble you no further."
"Mother, open the door and let this man go out; he is
undoubtedly crazy," said Miss Mary.
"By thunder! I believe I shall be if I remain here
long," exclaimed the hatter, considerably excited. "I wonder if folks never do
business in these parts, that you think a man is crazy if he attempts such a thing?"
"Business! poor man!" said Mary soothingly,
approaching the door.
"I am not a poor man, madam," replied the hatter.
"My name is Walter Dibble; I carry on hatting extensively in Danbury; I came to
Grassy Plain to buy fur, and have purchased some 'beaver' and 'cony,' and now it seems I
am to be called 'crazy' and a 'poor man,' because I want to buy a little 'Russia' to make
up my assortment."
The ladies began to open their eyes; they saw that Mr. Dibble
was quite in earnest, and his explanation threw considerable light upon the subject.
"Who sent you here?" asked sister Mary.
"The clerk at the opposite store," was the reply.
"He is a wicked young fellow for making all this
trouble," said the old lady; "he has been doing this for a joke."
"A joke!" exclaimed Dibble, in surprise, "have
you no Russia, then?"
"My name is Jerusha, and so is my daughter's," said
Mrs. Wheeler, "and that, I suppose, is what he meant by telling you of old and young
Mr. Dibble, without more words, left the house and made for
the store. "You young villain!" he cried, as he entered, "what did you mean
by sending me over there to buy Russia?"
"I didn't," answered the young villain, with a
perfectly solemn face, "I thought you were a widower or a bachelor who wanted to
"You lie," said the discomfited Dibble, laughing in
spite of himself; "but never mind, I'll pay you off some day." And gathering up
his furs he departed.
On another occasion this sense of humor and love of joking
was turned to very practical account. Among the customers at the store were a half a dozen
old Revolutionary pensioners, who were permitted to buy on credit, leaving their pension
papers as security. One of these pensioners was a romancing old fellow named Bevans--more
commonly known as "Uncle Bibbins." He was very fond of his glass, and fonder
still of relating anecdotes of the Revolution, in which his own prowess and daring were
always the conspicuous features. His pension papers were in the possession of Keeler &
Whitlock, but it was three months before the money was due, and they grew very weary of
having him for a customer. They tried delicately suggesting a visit to his relatives in
Guilford, but Uncle Bibbins steadily refused to take the hint. Finally young Barnum
enlisted the services of a journeyman hatter named Benton, and together they hit on a
plan. The hatter was inspired to call Uncle Bibbins a coward, and to declare his belief
that if the old gentleman was wounded anywhere it must have been in the back. Barnum
pretended to sympathize with the veteran's just indignation, and finally fired him up to
the pitch of challenging the hatter to mortal combat. The challenge was promptly accepted,
and the weapons chosen were muskets and ball, at a distance of twenty feet. Uncle Bibbins
took his second (Barnum, of course) aside, and begged him to see that the guns were loaded
only with blank cartridges. He was assured that it would be so, and that no one would be
injured in the encounter.
The ground was measured back of the store, the principals and
seconds took their places, and the word of command was given. They fired, Uncle Bibbins,
of course, being unhurt, but the hatter, with a fearful yell, fell to the ground as if
dead. Barnum rushed up to the frightened Bevans and begged him to fly, promising to let
him know when it was safe for him to return. The old fellow started out of town on a run,
and for the next three months remained very quietly at Guilford. At the end of that time
his faithful second sent for him, with the assurance that his late adversary had not only
recovered from his wound but had freely forgiven all. Uncle Bibbins then returned and paid
up his debts. Meeting Benton on the street some days later, the two foes shook hands,
Benton apologizing for his insult. Uncle Bibbins accepted the apology, "but," he
added, "you must be careful after this how you insult a dead-shot."
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