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
"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
" '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
" '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
" '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
"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
" '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
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
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.