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The P.T. Barnum of the Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton


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JOLLY VOYAGE--MOCK TRIALS ON SHIPBOARD--BARNUM ON TRIAL FOR HIS LIFE--DISCOMFITED WITNESSES AND A TRIUMPHANT PRISONER--FAIR WEATHER FRIENDS--THE BURNING OF IRANISTAN

Barnum made in his life many voyages across the Atlantic, but none, perhaps, pleasanter than this. On every such trip he got under rest and relief from his multitudinous business cares and arduous labors; and he always contrived to organize plenty of merry-making among his fellow-passengers. On this occasion he felt in uncommonly good spirits because he was so rapidly retrieving his well-nigh fallen fortunes. The feature of the voyage was a series of mock trials, in which a judge was selected, jurymen drawn, prisoners arraigned, counsel employed, and all the formalities of a court established. "I have the vanity to think," said he, afterwards, in telling in his own inimitable way the story of this voyage, "that if my good fortune had directed me to that profession, I should have made a very fair lawyer for I have always had a great fondness for debate and especially for the cross-examination of witnesses, unless that witness was P. T. Barnum in examination under supplementary proceedings at the instance of some note shaver, who had bought a clock note at a discount of thirty-six per cent. In this mock court, I was unanimously chosen as prosecuting attorney, and, as the court was established expressly to convict, I had no difficulty in carrying the jury and securing the punishment of the prisoner. A small fine was generally imposed, and the fund thus collected was given to a poor sailor boy who had fallen from the mast and broken his leg."

"After several of these trials had been held, a dozen or more of the passengers secretly put their heads together and resolved to place the 'showman' on trial for his life. An indictment, covering twenty pages, was drawn up by several legal gentlemen among the passengers, charging him with being the Prince of Humbugs, and enumerating a dozen special counts, containing charges of the most absurd and ridiculous description. Witnesses were then brought together, and privately instructed what to say and do. Two or three days were devoted to arranging this mighty prosecution, 'When everything was ready, I was arrested, and the formidable indictment read to me. I saw at a glance that time and talent had been brought into requisition, and that my trial was to be more elaborate than any that had preceded it. I asked for half an hour to prepare for my defense, which was granted. Meanwhile, seats were arranged to accommodate the court and spectators, and extra settees were placed for the ladies on the upper deck, where they could look down, see and hear all that transpired. Curiosity was on tip-toe, for it was evident that this was to be a long, exciting and laughable trial. At the end of half an hour the judge was on the bench the jury had taken their places; the witnesses were ready; the counsel for the prosecution, four in number, with pens, ink, and paper in profusion, were seated, and everything seemed ready. I was brought in by a special constable, the indictment read, and I was asked to plead guilty, or not guilty. I rose and In a most solemn manner, stated that I could not conscientiously plead guilty or not guilty; that I had, in fact, committed many of the acts charged in the indictment, but these acts, I was ready to show, were not criminal, but on the contrary, worthy of praise. My plea was received and the first witness called.

"He testified to having visited the prisoner's museum, and of being humbugged by the Feejee mermaid; the nurse of Washington; and by other curiosities, natural and unnatural. The questions and answers having been all arranged in advance, everything worked smoothly. Acting as my own counsel, I cross-examined the witness by simply asking whether he saw anything else in the museum besides what he had mentioned.

" 'Oh! yes, I saw thousands of other things.'

" 'Were they curious?'

" 'Certainly; many of them very astonishing.'

" 'Did you ever witness a dramatic representation in the museum?'

" 'Yes, sir, a very good one.'

" 'What did you pay for all this?'

" 'Twenty-five cents.'

" 'That will do, sir; you can step down.'

"A second, third and fourth witness were called, and the examination was similar to the foregoing. Another witness then appeared to testify in regard to another count in the indictment. He stated that for several weeks he was the guest of the prisoner, at his country residence Iranistan and he gave a most amusing description of the various schemes and contrivances which were there originated for the purpose of being carried out at some future day in the museum.

" 'How did you live there?' asked one of the counsel for the prosecution.

" 'Very well, indeed, in the daytime,' was the reply; 'plenty of the best to eat and drink except liquors. In bed, however, it was impossible to sleep. I rose the first night, struck a light, and on examination found myself covered with myriads of tattle bugs, so small as to be almost imperceptible. By using my microscope I discovered them to be infantile bedbugs. After the first night I was obliged to sleep in the coach-house in order to escape this annoyance.'

"Of course this elicited much mirth. The first question put on the cross-examination was this:

" 'Are you a naturalist, sir?'

"The witness hesitated. In all the drilling that had taken place before the trial, neither the counsel nor witnesses had thought of what questions might come up in the cross-examination, and now, not seeing the drift of the question, the witness seemed a little bewildered, and the counsel for the prosecution looked puzzled.

"The question was repeated with some emphasis.

" 'No, sir,' replied the witness, hesitatingly, 'I am not a naturalist.'

" 'Then, sir, not being a naturalist, dare you affirm that those microscopic insects were not humbugs instead of bedbugs'--(here the prisoner was interrupted by a universal shout of laughter, in which the solemn judge himself joined)--land if they were humbugs, I suppose that even the learned counsel opposed to me will not claim that they were out of place.

" 'They may have been humbugs,' replied the witness.

" 'That will do, sir; you may go,' said I; and at the same time, turning to the array of counsel, I remarked, with a smile, 'You had better have a naturalist for your next witness, gentlemen.'

" 'Don't be alarmed, sir, we have got one, and we will now introduce him,' replied the counsel.

"The next witness testified that he was a planter from Georgia, that some years since the prisoner visited his plantation with a show, and that while there he discovered an old worthless donkey belonging to the planter, and bought him for five dollars. The next year the witness visited Iranistan, the country seat of the prisoner, and, while walking about the grounds, his old donkey, recognizing his former master, brayed; 'whereupon,' continued the witness, 'I walked up to the animal and found that two men were engaged in sticking wool upon him, and this animal was afterwards exhibited by the prisoner as the woolly horse.'

"The whole court--spectators, and even the 'prisoner' himself--were convulsed with laughter at the gravity with which the planter gave his very ludicrous testimony.

" 'What evidence have you,' I inquired, 'that this was the same donkey which you sold to me?'

" 'The fact that the animal recognized me, as was evident from his braying as soon as he saw me.'

" 'Are you a naturalist, sir?'

" 'Yes, I am,' replied the planter, with firm emphasis, as much as to say, you can't catch me as you did the other witness.

" 'Oh! you are a naturalist, are you? Then, sir, I ask you, as a naturalist, do you not know it to be a fact in natural history that one jackass always brays as soon as he sees another?'

"This question was received with shouts of laughter, in the midst of which the nonplussed witness backed out of court, and all the efforts of special constables, and even the high sheriff himself, were unavailing in getting him again on the witness stand.

"This trial lasted two days, to the great delight of all on board. After my success with the 'naturalist,' not one-half of the witnesses would appear against me. In my final argument I sifted the testimony, analyzed its bearings, ruffled the learned counsel, disconcerted the witnesses, flattered the judge and jury, and when the judge had delivered his charge, the jury acquitted me without leaving their seats. The judge received the verdict, and then announced that he should fine the naturalist for the mistake he made, as to the cause of the donkey's braying, and he should also fine the several witnesses, who, through fear of the cross-fire, had refused to testify."

The trial afforded a pleasant topic of conversation for the rest of the voyage; and the morning before arriving in port, a vote of thanks was passed to Barnum, in consideration of the amusement he had intentionally and unintentionally furnished to the passengers during the voyage.

The treatment to which Barnum was subjected on his arrival in New York, was in strange and discreditable contrast to that which he had enjoyed abroad. He sometimes spoke of it in later life, though without any bitterness. He was too much of a philosopher to take it to heart. "After my arrival," he would say, "often, in passing up and down Broadway, I saw old and prosperous friends coming, but before I came anywhere near them, if they espied me, they would dodge into a store, or across the street, or opportunely meet some one with whom they had pressing business, or they would be very much interested in something that was going on over the way, or on top of the City Hall. I was delighted at this, for it gave me at once a new sensation and a new experience. 'Ah, ha!' I said to myself, 'my butterfly friends, I know you now; and, what is more to the point, if ever I get out of this bewilderment of broken clock-wheels, I shall not forget you;' and I heartily thanked the old clock concern for giving me the opportunity to learn this sad but most needful lesson. I had a very few of the same sort of experiences in Bridgeport, and they proved valuable to me."

One of Barnum's assignees was his neighbor and quondam "gamekeeper," Mr. Johnson, and he it was who had written to Barnum to return to America, to facilitate the settlement of his affairs. He now told him that there was no probability of disposing of Iranistan at present, and that therefore he might as well move back into his old home. That was August. In September, Barnum's family followed him to America, and they decided to take Mr. Johnson's advice and re-occupy Iranistan. They went to Bridgeport, to superintend arrangements, and there Barnum's second daughter, Helen, was married to Mr. S. W. Hurd, on October 20, 1857.

"Meanwhile, Iranistan, which had been closed and unoccupied for more than two years, was once more opened to the carpenters and painters whom Mr. Johnson sent there to put the house in order. He agreed with Barnum that it was best to keep the property as long as possible, and in the interval, till a purchaser for the estate appeared, or till it was forced to auction, to take up the clock notes, whenever they were offered. The workmen who were employed in the house were specially instructed not to smoke there, but nevertheless, it was subsequently discovered that some of the men were in the habit occasionally of going into the main dome to eat their dinners which they brought with them, and that they stayed there awhile after dinner to smoke their pipes. In all probability, one of these lighted pipes was left on the cushion which covered the circular seat in the dome and ignited the tow with which the cushion was stuffed. It may have been days and even weeks before this smouldering tow fire burst into flame.

Barnum was staying at the Astor House, in New York, when, on the morning of December 18, 1857, he received a telegram from his brother, Philo F. Barnum, dated at Bridgeport, and informing him that Iranistan was burned to the ground that morning. The alarm was given at eleven o'clock on the night of the 17th, and the fire burned till one o'clock on the morning of the 18th.

This was, of course, a considerable loss to Barnum's estate, for the house had cost about $150,000. It was also generally regarded as a public calamity. This house had been the only building in its peculiar style of architecture of any pretension in America, and many persons had visited Bridgeport every year expressly to see it. The insurance on the mansion had usually been about $62,000, but Barnum had let some of the policies expire without renewing them, so that at the time of the fire there was only $28,000 insurance on the property. Most of the furniture and pictures were saved, generally in a damaged state.

Subsequently, the assignees sold the grounds and outhouses of Iranistan to Elias Howe, Jr., the inventor of the sewing-machine. The property brought $50,000, which, with the $28,000 insurance went into Barnum's assets to satisfy clock creditors. It was Mr. Howe's intention to erect a splendid mansion on the estate, but his untimely and lamented death prevented the fulfilment of the plan.


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