The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
A Few Side Issues
THE EXPEDITION TO CEYLON--HARNESSING AN ELEPHANT TO A
PLOW--BARNUM AND VANDERBILT--THE TALKING MACHINE--A FIRE AT IRANISTAN--MOUNTAIN GROVE
The great showman did not allow even so great an enterprise
as the Jenny Lind concerts to monopolize his attention. In 1849 he planned the formation
of a great travelling show, combining the features of a museum, a menagerie and a circus.
In this he associated with himself Mr. Seth B. Howes, who was already a noted and
successful showman, and also Mr. Stratton, the father of Tom Thumb. In order to procure a
supply of novelties for this show they chartered the ship "Regatta," and sent it
from New York in May, 1850, to Ceylon. The object of this voyage, was to procure, either
by purchase or by capture, a number of living elephants and other wild animals. To make
sure of a sufficient supply of fodder for them, nearly a thousand tons of hay were
purchased in New York and taken out aboard the ship. Five hundred tons of it were left at
the Island of St. Helena, to be taken up on the return trip, and a great supply of staves
and hoops were also left there for the construction of water casks.
This extraordinary mission was successful. In almost exactly
a year from the day of sailing the ship returned to New York. Its novel cargo was
unloaded, the ten elephants which had been secured were harnessed in pairs to a gigantic
chariot, and the whole show paraded up Broadway past the Irving House. It was reviewed
from the window of that hotel by Jenny Lind, who was stopping there on her second visit to
New York. An elaborate outfit of horses, wagons, tents, etc., was added, the whole costing
over $100,000, and then the show went on the road under the nominal leadership of Tom
Thumb. It was called, "Barnum's Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum and Menagerie;" it
travelled about the country for four years, and yielded to its proprietors enormous
At the end of this tour Barnum sold out the entire
establishment, including animals, cages, chariots and everything else, excepting one
elephant. This huge brute he took to his farm at Bridgeport, for advertising purposes. It
occurred to him that if he should keep the animal there for a time and put him to some
novel use, such as working on the farm, it would set people to talking and greatly add to
public curiosity and interest in his American Museum.
He accordingly took the elephant to Bridgeport and put him in
charge of a competent keeper, who was dressed in a striking Oriental costume. A six acre
field close by the New York and New Haven railroad track was set apart for their use.
Barnum gave the keeper a time-table of the road and directed him to make a point, whenever
trains were passing, always to be busily engaged with the elephant at plowing or other
agricultural work as close to the track as possible. Of course the passengers noticed the
strange spectacle, items concerning it appeared in the newspapers, extending even to the
press of foreign lands, and thousands of people came from all parts of the country to
witness the strange sight. Every mail brought numerous letters inquiring about it. Many of
these were from the officers of agricultural societies in all parts of the United States,
making serious and earnest inquiry as to the utility of the elephant as an agricultural
animal. These letters were greatly diversified in tone, but the substance of their
inquires was about as follows:
1. "Is the elephant a profitable agricultural
2. "How much can an elephant plow in a day?"
3. "How much can he draw?"
4. "How much does he eat?"--this question was
invariably asked, and was a very important one.
5. "Will elephants make themselves generally useful on a
6. "What is the price of an elephant?"
7. "Where can elephants be purchased?"
Then would follow a score of other inquiries, such as,
whether elephants were easily managed; if they would quarrel with cattle; if it was
possible to breed them; how old calf elephants must be before they would earn their own
living; and so on indefinitely.
Barnum presently began to be alarmed lest some one should buy
an elephant and thus share the fate of the man who drew one in a lottery and did not know
what to do with him. "Accordingly," he says, "I had a general letter
printed, which I mailed to all my anxious inquirers. It was headed 'strictly
confidential,' and I then stated, begging my correspondents 'not to mention it,' that to
me the elephant was a valuable agricultural animal, because he was an excellent
advertisement to my museum; but that to other farmers he would prove very unprofitable for
many reasons. In the first place, such an animal would cost from $3,000 to $10,000; in
cold weather he could not work at all; in any weather he could not earn half his living;
he would eat up the value of his own head, trunk and body every year; and I begged my
correspondents not to do so foolish a thing as to undertake elephant farming."
The result of this experiment in advertising was highly
successful. Newspaper correspondents sent highly colored accounts of it all over the
world, and numerous pictures of the elephant harnessed to a plow appeared in the
illustrated papers and magazines. After the field had been plowed over fifty or sixty
times, Barnum concluded that the elephant had been "worked for all he was
worth," and sold him to Van Amburgh's menagerie.
In 1851 Mr. Barnum became a part owner of the steamship
"North America," which he proposed to run between America and Ireland as a
passenger and freight vessel. This idea was presently abandoned, and the ship was sent
around Cape Horn to San Francisco and put into service on the Pacific Mail Line, Commodore
Cornelius Vanderbilt having purchased a one-half interest in it and Mr. Barnum retaining
one-third interest in the remaining half. After she had made several trips Barnum called
upon Mr. Vanderbilt at his office and introduced himself. It was their first meeting, and
this is Barnum's own account of the interview:
" 'Is it possible you are Barnum?' exclaimed the
Commodore, in surprise, 'why, I expected to see a monster, part lion, part elephant, and a
mixture of rhinoceros and tiger! Is it possible,' he continued, 'that you are the showman
who has made so much noise in the world?'
"I laughingly replied that I was, and added that if I
too had been governed in my anticipation of his personal appearance by the fame he had
achieved in his line, I should have expected to have been saluted by a steam whistle, and
to have seen him dressed in a pea jacket, blowing off steam, and crying out 'all aboard
" 'Instead of which,' replied Mr. Vanderbilt, 'I suppose
you have come to ask me to walk up to the Captain's office and settle.'
"After this interchange of civilities, we talked about
the success of the 'North America' in having got safely around the Horn, and of the
acceptable manner in which she was doing her duty on the Pacific side.
" 'We have received no statement of her earnings yet,'
said the Commodore, 'but if you want money, give your receipt to our treasurer, and take
"A few months subsequent to this, I sold out my share in
the steamship to Mr. Daniel Drew."
Numerous smaller enterprises also marked this stage of Mr.
Barnum's career. Some of these were connected with his museum, while others were entirely
independent of it. Thus in 1844, in Paris, besides purchasing Robt. Houdin's ingenius
automatic writer and other costly curiosities for the museum, he had made at great
expense, a huge panorama of the funeral of Napoleon Bonaparte. This gigantic picture
showed every event of that pageant, beginning with the embarkation of the body at St.
Helena and ending with its final entombment at the Hotel des Invalides. This exhibition,
after having had its day at the American Museum, was sold, and extensively and profitably
exhibited elsewhere. While Barnum was in London, during the same year, he engaged a
company of "Campanalogians, or Lancashire Bell Ringers," then performing in
Ireland, to make an American tour. They were really admirable performers, and by means of
their numerous bells of various sizes, they produced the most delightful music. They
attracted much attention in various parts of the United States, in Canada, and in Cuba.
After the loss of the bell ringers to the English public
Barnum secured and sent thither a party of sixteen North American Indians, who were widely
exhibited. On his return to America after his first visit to Europe he engaged an
ingenious workman to construct an automatic orator. This was a life-size and remarkably
life-like figure, and when worked from a key-board similar to that of a piano it actually
uttered words and sentences with surprising distinctness. It was exhibited for several
months in London and elsewhere in England, but though it was really a wonderful machine
and attracted the earnest attention of some people, it was not a popular success. The Duke
of Wellington visited it several times, and at first he thought that the "voice"
proceeded from the exhibiter, whom he assumed to be a skilful ventriloquist. He was asked
to touch the keys with his own fingers, and, after some instruction in the method of
operating, he was able to make the machine speak, not only in English but also in German,
with which language the Duke seemed familiar. Thereafter, he entered his name on the
exhibiter's autograph book, and certified that the "Automaton Speaker" was an
extraordinary production of mechanical genius.
Barnum also secured duplicates of the models of machinery
exhibited at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London and a great many interesting
panoramas and pictures. These were all exhibited at his museum in New York and afterwards
sold to other travelling showmen who exhibited them throughout the country. In the summer
of 1850 he added to the museum his famous Chinese collection, including a Chinese family
of two men, two "small footed" women, and two children.
Few of his curiosities attracted more attention than the
performances of the "Scotch Boys." One of these was securely blindfolded, and
then, in answer to questions put by the other, accurately described any objects presented
by persons who attended the surprising exhibition. The mystery, which was merely the
result of patient practice, consisted wholly in the manner in which the question was
propounded; in fact, the question invariably carried its own answer; for instance:
"What is this?" meant gold; "Now what is
this?" silver; "Say, what is this?" copper; "Tell me what this
is?" iron; "What is the shape?" long; "Now, what shape?" round;
"Say what shape?" square; "Please say what this is," a watch;
"Can you tell what is in this lady's hand?" a purse; "Now, please say what
this is?" a key; "Come now, what is this?" money; "How much?" a
penny; "Now, how much?" sixpence; "Say how much," a quarter of a
dollar; "What color is this?" black; "Now, what color is this?" red;
"Say what color?" green; and so on, ad infinitum. To such perfection was this
brought that it was almost impossible to present any object that could not be quite
closely described by the blindfolded boy.
In 1850, the celebrated Bateman children acted for several
weeks at the American Museum, and in June of that year Barnum sent them to London with
their father and Mr. Le Grand Smith, where they played in the St. James Theatre, and
afterwards in the principal provincial theatres. The elder of these children, Miss Kate
Bateman, subsequently attained the highest histrionic distinction in America and abroad,
and reached the head of her profession.
Miss Catharine Hayes and Herr Begnis were engaged by Barnum
in the fall of 1852 to give a series of sixty concerts in California, and the enterprise
proved highly profitable, although Mr. Barnum intrusted its execution to his agents, not
caring himself to travel so far. Before she set out for California Miss Hayes, with her
mother and sister, spent several days at Iranistan to attend the marriage of Barnum's
eldest daughter, Caroline, to Mr. David W. Thompson.
The wedding was to take place in the evening, and on the
afternoon of that day Mr. Barnum went to Bridgeport to get shaved for the occasion. While
he was lying in the barber's chair, half of his face shaved and the other half covered
with lather, his prospective son-in-law, Mr. Thompson, drove up to the door of the shop
and rushed in, exclaiming excitedly, "Mr. Barnum, Iranistan is in flames!"
Barnum jumped up from the chair and, half shaved and with the lather still on his face,
jumped into the wagon and started for home with the horse on a run. "I was greatly
alarmed," he afterward said, "for the house was full of visitors who had come
from a distance to attend the wedding, and all the costly presents, dresses, refreshments,
and everything prepared for a marriage celebration to which nearly a thousand guests had
been invited, were already in my house. Mr. Thompson told me he had seen the flames
bursting from the roof, and it seemed to me that there was little hope of saving the
"My mind was distressed, not so much at the great
pecuniary loss which the destruction of Iranistan would involve, as at the possibility
that some of my family or visitors would be killed or seriously injured in attempting to
save something from the fire. Then I thought of the sore disappointment this calamity
would cause to the young couple, as well as to those who were invited to the wedding. I
saw that Mr. Thompson looked pale and anxious.
" 'Never mind!' said I; 'we can't help these things; the
house will probably be burned; but if no one is killed or injured, you shall be married
to-night, if we are obliged to perform the ceremony in the coach-house.'
"On our way, we overtook a fire company, and I implored
them to 'hurry up their machine.' Arriving in sight of Iranistan, we saw huge volumes of
smoke rolling out from the roof and many men on the top of the house were passing buckets
of water to pour upon the fire. Fortunately, several men had been engaged during the day
in repairing the roof, and their ladders were against the house. By these means and with
the assistance of the men employed upon my grounds, water was passed very rapidly, and the
flames were soon subdued without serious damage. The inmates of Iranistan were thoroughly
frightened; Catherine Hayes and other visitors, packed their trunks and had them carried
out on the lawn; and the house came as near destruction as it well could and escape."
While Miss Hayes was at Bridgeport she gave, at Barnum's
request, a concert for the benefit of "Mountain Grove Cemetery," and the large
proceeds were devoted to the erection of the stone tower and gateway that now adorn the
entrance to that beautiful resting place of the dead. Barnum had bought the eighty acres
of land for this cemetery a few years before from several farmers. He had been in the
habit of tramping over it, gunning, and while thus engaged, had observed its admirable
fitness for the purposes of a cemetery. After the title deeds for the property were
secured, it was offered for a cemetery, and at a meeting of citizens, several lots were
subscribed for. enough. indeed, to cover the amount of the purchase money. Thus was begun
the "Mountain Grove Cemetery," which is now beautifully laid out and adorned
with many tasteful and costly monuments. Among these are Barnum's own substantial granite
monument, the family monuments of Harral, Bishop, Hubbell, Lyon, Wood, Loomis, Wordin,
Hyde, and others, and General Tom Thumb erected a tall marble shaft which is surmounted by
a life-size statue of himself. There is no more charming burial-ground in the whole
country; yet when the project was suggested, many persons preferred an intermural cemetery
to this rural resting-place for their departed friends; though now all concur in
considering it fortunate that this adjunct was secured to Bridgeport before the land could
be permanently devoted to other purposes.
Mr. Dion Boucicault also lectured at Bridgeport for the
benefit of this cemetery and Tom Thumb gave an entertainment for the same object. At
Barnum's request and under his management, Tom Thumb and his wife, and Commodore Nutt and
his wife, gave several exhibitions and entertainments for the benefit of the Bridgeport
Charitable Society, the Bridgeport Library, and other local institutions.
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