The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
A Prosperous Exile
HIS SUCCESSFUL PUPIL--MAKING MANY FRIENDS IN
LONDON--ACQUAINTANCE WITH THACKERAY--A COMEDY OF ERRORS IN A GERMAN CUSTOM
HOUSE--ARISTOCRATIC PATRONAGE AT FASHIONABLE RESORTS--BARNUM'S IMPRESSIONS OF HOLLAND AND
Years ago Barnum had known Albert Smith in London as a
dentist, literary "hack," occasional writer for Punch and various magazines,
etc., not achieving notable success in any of these undertakings. He now found him the
most eminent and successful showman in the city, occupying Barnum's old quarters in
Egyptian Hall. The chief attraction of his show was a panorama of Mont Blanc, accompanying
which he gave a lecture, descriptive of the mountain and relating his own experiences in
climbing it. When Barnum called upon him he found him just as unassuming and cordial as
ever; he was forthwith entered on the free list at all of Smith's entertainments, and the
two often dined together at the Garrick Club.
The first time Barnum attended Smith's exhibition, the latter
gave him a sly wink from the stage at the moment of his describing a scene in the golden
chamber of St. Ursula's church in Cologne, where the old sexton narrating the story of the
ashes and bones to the eleven thousand innocent virgins, who, according to tradition, were
sacrificed on a certain occasion. One of the characters whom he pretended to have met
several times on his trip to Mont Blanc, was a Yankee, whom he named "Phineas
Cutecraft." The wink came at the time he introduced Phineas in the Cologne church,
and made him say at the end of the sexton's story about the virgins' bones:
"Old fellow, what will you take for that hull lot of
bones? I want them for my museum in America!"
When the question had been interpreted to the old German, he
exclaimed in horror, according to Albert Smith:
"Mine Gott! it is impossible! We will never sell the
"Never mind," replied Phineas Cutecraft, "I'll
send another lot of bones to my museum, swear mine are the real bones of the Virgins of
Cologne, and burst up your show!"
This always excited the heartiest laughter; but Mr. Smith
knew very well that Barnum would at once recognize it as a paraphrase of the scene wherein
they, too, had figured in 1844, at the porter's lodge of Warwick Castle. "In the
course of the entertainment," says Barnum, "I found he had woven in numerous
anecdotes I had told him at that time, and many incidents of our excursion were also
travestied and made to contribute to the interest of his description of the ascent of Mont
When they dined together at the club that day, Smith
introduced Barnum to several of his acquaintances as his teacher in the show business. He
also remarked to Barnum that he must have recognized as old friends many of the incidents
and jokes in the lecture. Barnum replied that he did. "Well," said Smith,
"of course you as a showman, know very well that, to win popular success. we have to
appropriate and adapt to our uses everything of the sort that we can get hold of."
By thus engrafting his various experiences upon this Mont
Blanc entertainment, Albert Smith succeeded in serving up a salmagundi feast which was
relished alike by royal and less distinguished palates.
When William Makepeace Thackeray first visited this country,
he brought a letter of introduction to Barnum, from Albert Smith, and called on the
showman at his New York museum. He spent an hour or more there, asking much advice of
Barnum in regard to the management of the course of lectures on "The English
Humorists of the Eighteenth Century," which he proposed to deliver, as he did
afterwards, with very great success, in the principal cities of the Union. Barnum gave him
the best advice he could as to management, and the cities he ought to visit, for which he
was very grateful, and he called on Barnum whenever he was in New York. Barnum also saw
him repeatedly when he came to America the second time with his lectures on "The Four
Georges," which, it will be remembered, he delivered in the United States in the
season of 1855-56, before he read them to audiences in Great Britain. Barnum's relations
with this great novelist were cordial and intimate; and now, when he called upon him, in
1857, at his own house, Thackeray grasped him heartily by the hand, and said:
"Mr. Barnum, I admire you more than ever I have read the
accounts in the papers of the examinations you underwent in New York courts; and the
positive pluck you exhibit under your pecuniary embarrassments is worthy of all praise.
You would never have received credit for the philosophy you manifest if these financial
misfortunes had not overtaken you."
Barnum thanked him for his compliment, and he continued:
"But tell me, Barnum, are you really in need of present
assistance? For if you are you must be helped."
"Not in the least," the showman replied, laughing
"I need more money in order to get out of bankruptcy, and I intend to earn it; but so
far as daily bread is concerned, I am quite at ease, for my wife is worth L30,000 or
"Is it possible!??" he exclaimed, with evident
delight; "well, now, you have lost all my sympathy; why, that is more than I ever
expect to be worth; I shall be sorry for you no more."
During his stay in London, Barnum met Thackeray several
times, and on one occasion dined with him. He repeatedly expressed his obligations to
Barnum for the advice and assistance he had given him on the occasion of his first
lecturing visit to the United States.
Soon after Barnum arrived in London he was visited by Mr.
Otto Goldschmidt, who had married Jenny Lind. They were then living in Dresden, but Madame
Goldschmidt had insisted on his hurrying over to England to see her old manager, and
ascertain whether he really was in want. Barnum assured him that he was getting on
comfortably, though he had to exercise economy, and that his family would presently come
over and live with him in London. Goldschmidt urged him to come to Dresden to live.
"It is much cheaper living there," he said, "and my wife will be so glad to
find a suitable house for you." But Barnum declined the offer. His business prospects
would be better in London than in Dresden.
Barnum's old friends, Julius Benedict and Signor Belletti,
also called on him frequently, and made him feel much at home. Among others whom he met in
London, some of them quite frequently at dinners, were Mr. George Augustus Sala, Mr.
Edmund Yates, Mr. Horace Mayhew, Mr. Alfred Bunn, Mr Lumley, of Her Majesty's Theatre; Mr.
Buckstone; of the Haymarket; Mr. Charles Kean, our princely countryman; Mr. George
Peabody, Mr. J. M. Morris, the manager, Mr. Bates, of Baring Brothers & Co.; Mr.
Oxenford, dramatic critic of the London Times, Dr. Ballard, the American dentist, and many
other eminent persons.
He had numerous offers from professional friends on both
sides of the Atlantic, who supposed him to be in need of employment. Mr. Barney Williams,
who had not then acted in England, proposed, in the kindest manner, to make him his agent
for a tour through Great Britain, and to give him one-third of the profits which he and
Mrs. Williams might make by their acting. Mr. Pettengill, of New York, the newspaper
advertising agent, offered him the fine salary of $10,000 a year to transact business for
him in Great Britain. He wrote: "When you failed in consequence of the Jerome clock
notes, I felt that your creditors were dealing hard with you; that they should have let
you up and give you a chance, and they would have fared better, and I wish I was a
creditor, so as to show what I would do." These offers, both from Mr. Williams and
Mr. Pettengill, Barnum felt obliged to decline.
Mr. Lumley, manager of Her Majesty's Theatre, used to send
him an order for a private box for every opera night, and Barnum frequently availed
himself of his courtesy.
Meanwhile the showman was by no means idle. Cordelia Howard
as "Little Eva," with her mother as the inimitable "Topsy," were
highly successful in London and other large cities, while General Tom Thumb, returning
after so long an absence, drew crowded houses wherever he went. These were strong spokes
in the wheel that was moving slowly but surely in the effort to get Barnum out of debt,
and, if possible, to save some portion of his real estate. Of course, it was not generally
known that he had any interest whatever in either of these exhibitions; if it had been,
possibly some of the clock creditors would have annoyed him; but he busied himself in
these and in other ways, working industriously and making much money, which he constantly
remitted to his trusty agent at home.
Barnum spent some weeks in London and then went to Germany.
He was accompanied by Tom Thumb, and they went by the way of Paris, Strasburg, and
Baden-Baden. At the frontier they had a terrible time with the thick-headed
customs-inspector. This was at Kehl, near Strasburg. "I knew," said Barnum in
telling the story, "that I had no baggage which was rightfully subject to duty, as I
had nothing but my necessary clothing, and the package of placards and lithographs,
illustrating the General's exhibitions. As the official was examining my trunks, I assured
him in French, that I had nothing subject to duty; but he made no reply and deliberately
handled every article in my luggage. He then cut the strings to the large packages of
show-bills. I asked him in French, whether he understood that language. He gave a grunt,
which was the only audible sound I could get out of him, and then laid my show-bills and
lithographs on his scales as if to weigh them. I was much excited. An English gentleman,
who spoke German, kindly offered to act as my interpreter.
" 'Please to tell him,' said I, 'that those bills and
lithographs are not articles of commerce; that they are simply advertisements.'
"My English friend did as I requested; but it was of no
use; the custom-house officer kept piling them upon his scales. I grew more excited.
" 'Please tell him I give them away,' I said. The
translation of my assertion into German did not help me; a double grunt from the
functionary, was the only response. Tom Thumb, meanwhile, jumped about like a little
monkey, for he was fairly delighted at my worry and perplexity. Finally, I said to my new
found English friend: 'Be good enough to tell the officer to keep the bills if he wants
them, and that I will not pay duty on them, any how.'
"He was duly informed of my determination, but he was
immovable. He lighted his huge Dutch pipe, got the exact weight, and, marking it down,
handed it to a clerk, who copied it on his book, and solemnly passed it over to another
clerk, who copied it on still another book; a third clerk then took it, and copied it on
to a printed bill, the size of a half letter sheet, which was duly stamped in red ink with
several official devices. By this time I was in a profuse perspiration; and, as the
document passed from clerk to clerk, I told them they need not trouble themselves to make
out a bill, for I would not pay it; they would get no duty and they might keep the
"To be sure, I could not spare the placards for any
length of time, for they were exceedingly valuable to me as advertisements, and I could
not easily have duplicated them in Germany; but I was determined that I would not pay
duties on articles which were not merchandise. Every transfer, therefore, of the bill to a
new clerk, gave me a fresh twinge, for I imagined that every clerk added more charges, and
that every charge was a tighter turn to the vise which held my fingers. Finally, the last
clerk defiantly thrust in my face the terrible official document, on which were scrawled
certain cabalistic characters, signifying the amount of money I should be forced to pay to
the German government before I could have my property. I would not touch it but resolved I
would really leave my packages until I could communicate with one of our consuls in
Germany, and I said as much to the English gentleman who had kindly interpreted for me.
"He took the bill, and, examining it, burst into a loud
laugh, 'Why, it is but fifteen kreutzers!' he said.
" 'How much is that?' I asked, feeling for the golden
sovereigns in my pocket.
" 'Sixpence!' was the reply.
"I was astonished and delighted, and, as I handed out
the money, I begged him to tell the officials that the custom-house charge would not pay
the cost of the paper on which it was written. But this was a very fair illustration of
sundry red-tape dealings in other countries as well as in Germany."
Baden-Baden was found to be an uncommonly pleasant place, the
neatest and cleanest little city he had ever seen, Barnum thought. As soon as they were
fairly settled there, Tom Thumb began driving out on the streets in his tiny carriage,
with his ponies and liveried coachmen and footmen. Public curiosity was greatly excited.
The place was thronged with visitors, it being one of the most popular resorts in Europe.
There were kings and queens, and minor royalties and members of the nobility without
number. All these soon forgot their other amusements and entertainments in their interest
in the little General. They crowded his rooms at his reception every day, and Barnum,
seeing the quality of his patrons, put the entrance fee higher than it ever was at any
other place. Their stay at this resort was exceedingly profitable.
Thence they proceeded to the other German watering places,
such as Ems, Weisbaden and Hamburg. They saw that it paid to strike for high game. No
matter how high their fee, the crowned, titled, rich, aristocratic throng came to their
show by thousands. Among them was the King of Holland, who was particularly interested in
Tom Thumb. So profitable was the tour, that Barnum was able to send many thousands of
dollars to his agents in America, to buy back his real estate and settle up the remains of
the disastrous clock business.
Other German cities visited were Frankfort-on-the-Main,
Mayence and Cologne. At the latter place, they remained for some time, seeing as well as
giving shows. Then they went on to Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
The shrewd and enterprising Yankee was much impressed by the
thrift and industry of Holland. "It gave me," he afterwards said, "more
genuine satisfaction than any other foreign country I have ever visited, if I except Great
Britain. Redeemed as a large portion of the whole surface of the land has been from the
bottom of the sea, by the wonderful dykes, which are monuments of the industry of whole
generations of human beavers, Holland seems to me the most curious, as well as interesting
country in the world. The people, too, with their quaint costumes, their extraordinary
cleanliness, their thrift, industry and frugality, pleased me very much. It is the
universal testimony of all travellers, that the Hollanders are the neatest and most
economical people among all nations. So far as cleanliness is concerned, in Holland it is
evidently not next to, but far ahead of godliness. It is rare, indeed, to meet a ragged,
dirty, or drunken person. The people are very temperate and economical in their habits;
and even the very rich--and there is a vast amount of wealth in the country--live with
great frugality, though all of the people live well.
"As for the scenery, I cannot say much for it, since it
is only diversified by thousands of windmills, which are made to do all kinds of work,
from grinding grain to pumping water from the inside of the dykes back to the sea again.
As I exhibited the General only in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and to no great profit in
either city, we spent most of our time in rambling about to see what was to be seen. In
the country villages it seemed as if every house was scrubbed twice and whitewashed once
every day in the week, excepting Sunday. Some places were almost painfully pure, and I was
in one village where horses and cattle were not allowed to go through the streets and no
one was permitted to wear their boots or shoes in the houses. There is a general and
constant exercise of brooms, pails, floor-brushes and mops all over Holland, and in some
places, even, this kind of thing is carried so far, I am told, that the only trees set out
Barnum thought that the reason why his exhibitions were not
better patronized here was that the people were too frugal to spend much money for mere
amusements. "But they and their habits and ways afforded us so much amusement, that
we were quite willing they should give our entertainment the 'go by,' as they generally
did. We were in Amsterdam at the season of 'Kremis,' or the annual fair, which is held in
all the principal towns, and where shows of all descriptions are open, at prices for
admission ranging from one to five pennies, and are attended by nearly the whole
population. For the people generally, this one great holiday seems all-sufficient for the
whole year. I went through scores of booths, where curiosities and monstrosities of all
kinds were exhibited, and was able to make some purchases and engagements for the American
Museum. Among these was the Albino family, consisting of a man, his wife, and son, who
were by far the most interesting and attractive specimens of their class I had ever seen.
"We visited the Hague, the capital and the finest city
in Holland. It is handsomely and regularly laid out, and contains a beautiful theatre, a
public picture gallery, which contains some of the best works of Vandyke, Paul Potter, and
other Dutch masters, while the museum is especially rich in rarities from China and Japan.
When we arrived at the Hague, Mr. August Belmont, who had been the United States Minister
at that court, had just gone home, but I heard many encomiums passed upon him and his
family, and I was told some pretty good stories of his familiarity with the king, and of
the 'jolly times' these two personages frequently enjoyed together. I did not miss
visiting the great government museum, as I wished particularly to see the rich collection
of Japan ware and arms, made during the many years when the Dutch carried on almost
exclusively the entire foreign trade with the Japanese. I spent several days in minutely
examining these curious manufactures of a people who were then almost as little known to
nations generally as are the inhabitants of the planet Jupiter."
On the first day of his visits to this museum, Barnum stood
for an hour before a large case containing a most unique and extraordinary collection of
fabulous animals, made from paper and other materials, and looking as natural and genuine
as the stuffed skins of any animals in the American Museum. There were serpents two yards
long, with a head and a pair of feet at each end; frogs as large as a man, with human
hands and feet; turtles with three heads; monkeys with two heads and six legs; scores of
equally curious monstrosities; and at least two dozen mermaids, of all sorts and sizes.
Looking at these "sirens" he easily divined from whence the Feejee mermaid
After a delightful visit in Holland, he went back to England;
and proceeding to Manchester, opened his exhibition. For several days the hall was crowded
to overflowing at each of the three, and sometimes four, entertainments they gave every
day. By this time, his wife and two youngest daughters had come over to London, and he
hired furnished lodgings in the suburbs where they could live within the strictest limits
of economy. It was necessary now for him to return for a few weeks to America, to assist
personally in forwarding a settlement of the clock difficulties. So leaving the little
General in the hands of trusty and competent agents to carry on the exhibitions in his
absence, he set his face once more towards home and the west, and took steamer at
Liverpool for New York.
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.