The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
An Enterprising Englishman
A NEW FRIEND--DINNER TO TOM THUMB AND COMMODORE
NUTT--MEASURING THE GIANT--THE TWO ENGINES.
The morning after the lecture in Manchester a gentleman named
John Fish called at the hotel where Barnum was staying. He said that he had attended the
lecture the evening before, and added that he was pretty well acquainted with the
lecturer, having read his autobiography. He went on to say that he was joint proprietor
with another gentleman in a cotton-mill near Manchester, "although," he said,
"a few years ago I was working as a journeyman, and probably should have been at this
time had I not read your book."
Observing Mr. Barnum's surprise, he continued:
"The fact is, Mr. Barnum, upon reading your
autobiography, I thought I perceived you tried to make yourself out worse than you really
were; for I discovered a pleasant spirit and a good heart under the rougher exterior in
which you chose to present yourself to the public; but," he added, "after
reading your life, I found myself in possession of renewed strength, and awakened energies
and aspirations, and I said to myself, 'Why can't I go ahead and make money, as Barnum
did? He commenced without money and succeeded; why may not I?' In this train of
thought," he continued, "I went to a newspaper office and advertised for a
partner with money to join me in establishing a cotton-mill. I had no applications, and,
remembering your experiences when you had money and wanted a partner, I spent half a crown
in a similar experiment. I advertised for a partner to join a man who had plenty of
capital. Then I had lots of applicants ready to introduce me into all sorts of
occupations, from that of a banker to that of a horsejockey or gambler, if I would only
furnish the money to start with. After a while, I advertised again for a partner, and
obtained one with money. We have a good mill. I devote myself closely to business, and
have been very successful. I know every line in your book; so, indeed, do several members
of my family; and I have conducted my business on the principles laid down in your
published 'Rules for Money-making.' I find them correct principles; and, sir, I have
sought this interview in order to thank you for publishing your autobiography, and to tell
you that to that act of yours I attribute my present position in life."
"Your statement is certainly flattering," said Mr.
Barnum, "and I am glad if I have been able in any manner, through my experiences, to
aid you in starting in life. But I presume your genius would have found vent in time if I
had not written the book."
"No, indeed, it would not," he replied, in an
earnest tone; "I am sure I should have worked as a mill-hand all my life if it had
not been for you. Oh, I have made no secret of it," he continued; "the
commercial men with whom I deal know all about it; indeed, they call me 'Barnum' on
'change here in Manchester."
On one occasion, when General Tom Thumb exhibited in Bury,
Mr. Fish closed his mill, and gave each of his employees a ticket to the exhibition; out
of respect, as he said, to Barnum. On a subsequent occasion, when the little General
visited England the last time, Mr. Fish invited him, his wife, Commodore Nutt, Minnie
Warren, and the managers of "the show," to a splendid and sumptuous dinner at
his house, which the distinguished little party enjoyed exceedingly.
Soon after his return to America, Barnum read an account of a
French giant then exhibiting in Paris, and said to be over eight feet in height. As this
was considerably taller than anything that the showman had ever beheld, he wrote to his
friend Fish, who had expressed a wish to do him any service in his power, and requested
him to go to Paris, and, by actual measurement, find out the exact height of the giant. He
inclosed an offer, arranging the prices on a sliding scale, commencing at eight feet, and
descending to seven feet two inches, for if he were not taller than that he was not to be
Mr. Fish put a two-foot rule in his pocket, and started for
Paris, where, after several days' delay and much trouble beside, he finally succeeded in
gaining an interview. The giant was shown Barnum's letter, and read the tempting offers
made for his services, provided he measured eight feet, or within six inches of that
"Oh, I measure over eight feet," said he.
"Very likely," responded Mr. Fish, "but you
see my orders are to measure you."
"There's no need of that; you can see for
yourself," stretching himself up a few inches by aid of a peculiar knack which giants
and dwarfs possess to increase or diminish their apparent stature.
"No doubt you are right," persisted Mr. Fish,
"but you see I must obey orders, and if I am not permitted to measure you I shall not
"Well," said the giant, "if you can't take my
word for it, look at that door. You see my head is more than two feet above the top
(giving his neck a severe stretch); just measure the door."
But Mr. Fish refused. The giant was now desperate, and,
stretching himself up to his full height, exclaimed: "Well, be quick! Put your rule
to my feet and measure me; but hurry up, please!"
Mr. Fish regarded him coolly. "Look here!" said he,
"this sort of thing won't do, you know. I don't understand this contrivance around
the soles of your boots, but it seems to me you've got a set of springs there which aids
your height when you desire it. Now I will not stand any more nonsense. If I engage you at
all, you must first take off your boots, and lie flat upon your back in the middle of the
The giant protested, but Mr. Fish was firm, and at last he
slowly took off his coat and lay down on the floor. Mr. Fish applied his rule, and to his
own astonishment and the giant's indignation the latter proved to be barely seven feet one
and one-half inches. So he was not engaged at all.
Some time afterwards Barnum wrote to his friend and asked his
permission to put him into a new book then in course of preparation. He wrote in return
the following characteristic letter:
Had I made a fortune of L100,000 I should have been proud of
a place in your Autobiography; but as I have only been able to make (here he named a sum
which in this country would be considered almost a fortune), I feel I should be out of
place in your pages; at all events, if you mention me at all, draw it mildly, if you
The American war has made sad havoc in our trade, and it is
only by close attention to business that I have lately been at all successful. I have
built a place for one thousand looms, and have, as you know, put in a pair of engines,
which I have named "Barnum" and "Charity." Each engine has its name
engraved on two large brass plates at either end of the cylinder, which has often caused
much mirth when I have explained the circumstances to visitors. I started and christened
"Charity" on the 14th of January last, and she has saved me L12 per month in
coals ever since. The steam from the boiler goes first to "Charity" (she is high
pressure), and "Barnum" only gets the steam after she has done with it. He has
to work at low pressure (a condensing engine), and the result is a saving. Barnum was
extravagant when he took steam direct, but since I fixed Charity betwixt him and the
boiler, he can only get what she gives him. This reminds me that you state in your
"Life" you could always make money, but formerly did not save it. Perhaps you
never took care of it till Charity became Chancellor of Exchequer. When I visited you at
the Bull Hotel, in Blackburn, you pointed to General Tom Thumb, and said: "That is my
piece of goods; I have sold it hundreds of thousands of times, and have never yet
delivered it!" That was ten years ago, in 1858. If I had been doing the same with my
pieces of calico, I must have been wealthy by this time; but I have been hammering at one
(cotton) nail several months, and, as it did not offer to clinch, I was almost tempted to
doubt one of your "rules," and thought I would drive at some other nail; but, on
reflection, I knew I understood cotton better than anything else, and so I back up your
rule and stick to cotton, not doubting it will be all right and successful.
Mr. Fish was one of the large class of English manufacturers
who suffered seriously from the effects of the rebellion in the United States. As an
Englishman, he could not have a patriot's interest in the progress of that terrible
struggle; but he made a practical exhibition of sympathy for the suffering soldiers, in a
pleasant and characteristic manner.
At the great Sanitary Fair in New York, during the war, Mr.
Fish sent two monster "Simuel cakes," covered with miniature forts, cannon,
armies, and all the panoply of war, which attracted great attention from every one
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