The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
Beginning As a Showman
FINDING HIS TRUE VOCATION--THE PURCHASE OF JOICE
HETH--EVIDENCE AS TO HER AGE--HER DEATH--SIGNOR VIVALLA--A VISIT TO WASHINGTON--JOINING A
TRAVELLING CIRCUS--CONTROVERSIES WITH MINISTERS--THE VICTIM OF A PRACTICAL JOKE.
Barnum was now satisfied that he had not yet found his proper
level. He had not yet entered the business for which nature had designed him. There was
only a prospect of his going on from this to that, as his father had done before him,
trying many callings but succeeding in none. He had not yet discovered that love of
amusement is one of the strongest passions of the human heart. This, however, was a lesson
that he was soon to learn; and he was to achieve both fame and fortune as a caterer to the
public desire for entertainment.
Philosophizing on this theme in later years, Mr. Barnum once
said: "The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of
a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which entrances
empires and secures for the gifted artist a worldwide fame which princes well might envy.
Men, women and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their
gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business
established by the Author of our nature. If he worthily fulfils his mission, and amuses
without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain."
In the summer of 1835, Mr. Barnum was visited by Mr. Coley
Bartram, of Reading, Connecticut, who told him that he had owned an interest in a
remarkable negro woman, who was confidently believed to be one hundred and sixty-one years
old and to have been the nurse of Washington. Mr. Bartram showed him a copy of an
advertisement in The Pennsylvania Inquirer for July 15, 1835, as follows:
"CURIOSITY.--The citizens of Philadelphia and its
vicinity have an opportunity of witnessing at the Masonic Hall one of the greatest natural
curiosities ever witnessed, viz.: JOICE HETH, a negress, aged 161 years, who formerly
belonged to the father of General Washington. She has been a member of the Baptist Church
one hundred and sixteen years, and can rehearse many hymns, and sing them according to
former custom. She was born near the old Potomac River in Virginia, and has for ninety or
one hundred years lived in Paris, Kentucky, with the Bowling family.
"All who have seen this extraordinary woman are
satisfied of the truth of the account of her age. The evidence of the Bowling family,
which is respectable, is strong, but the original bill of sale of Augustine Washington, in
his own handwriting, and other evidences which the proprietor has in his possession, will
satisfy even the most incredulous.
"A lady will attend at the hall during the afternoon and
evening for the accommodation of those ladies who may call."
Mr. Bartram told him, moreover, that he had sold out his
interest in the woman to R. W. Lindsay, of Jefferson county, Kentucky, who was then
exhibiting her as a curiosity, but was anxious to sell her. Mr. Barnum had seen in some of
the New York papers an account of Joice Heth, and was so much interested in her that he at
once proceeded to Philadelphia to see her and Mr. Lindsay. How he was impressed by her he
has himself told. "Joice Heth," he says, "was certainly a remarkable
curiosity, and she looked as if she might have been far older than her age as advertised.
She was apparently in good health and spirits, but from age or disease, or both, was
unable to change her position; she could move one arm at will, but her lower limbs could
not be straightened; her left arm lay across her breast and she could not remove it; the
fingers of her left hand were drawn down so as nearly to close it, and were fixed; the
nails on that hand were almost four inches long and extended above her wrist; the nails on
her large toes had grown to the thickness of a quarter of an inch; her head was covered
with a thick bush of grey hair; but she was toothless and totally blind, and her eyes had
sunk so deeply in the sockets as to have disappeared altogether.
"Nevertheless she was pert and sociable, and would talk
as long as people would converse with her. She was quite garrulous about her protege,
'dear little George,' at whose birth she declared she was present, having been at the time
a slave of Elizabeth Atwood, a half-sister of Augustine Washington, the father of George
Washington. As nurse she put the first clothes on the infant, and she claimed to have
'raised him.' She professed to be a member of the Baptist Church, talking much in her way
on religious subjects, and she sang a variety of ancient hymns.
"In proof of her extraordinary age and pretensions, Mr.
Lindsay exhibited a bill of sale, dated February 5, 1727, from Augustine Washington,
county of Westmoreland, Virginia, to Elizabeth Atwood, a half-sister and neighbor of Mr.
Washington, conveying 'one negro women named Joice Heth, aged fifty-four years, for and in
consideration of the sum of thirty-three pounds lawful money of Virginia.' It was further
claimed that she had long been a nurse in the Washington family; she was called in at the
birth of George and clothed the newborn infant. The evidence seemed authentic, and in
answer to the inquiry why so remarkable a discovery had not been made before, a
satisfactory explanation was given in the statement that she had been carried from
Virginia to Kentucky, had been on the plantation of John S. Bowling so long that no one
knew or cared how old she was, and only recently the accidental discovery by Mr. Bowling's
son of the old bill of sale in the Record Office in Virginia had led to the identification
of this negro woman as 'the nurse of Washington.' "
Everything seemed to Barnum to be entirely straightforward,
and he decided, if possible, to purchase the woman. She was offered to him at $1,000,
although Lindsay at first wanted $3,000. Barnum had $500 in cash, and was able to borrow
$500 more. Thus he secured Joice Heth, sold out his interest in the grocery business to
his partner, and entered upon his career as a showman. He afterward declared that the
least deserving of all his efforts in the show line was this one which introduced him to
the business; it was a scheme in no sense of his own devising; but it was one which had
been for some time before the public, and which he honestly and with good reason believed
to be genuine. He entered upon his new work with characteristic enterprise, resorting to
posters, transparencies, advertisements, newspaper paragraphs, and everything else
calculated to attract the attention of the public, regardless of expense. He exhibited in
New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Albany, and many other places, where his rooms were
thronged and much money made. But in the following February Joice Heth died of old age,
and was buried at Bethel. A postmortem examination was made by a surgeon and some medical
students, who were inclined to doubt if she really was as old as Lindsay had said.
Thus ended Barnum's first enterprise as a showman. It had
been profitable to him, and had pointed out to him the path of success. His next venture
was entirely genuine and straightforward. He engaged an Italian, who called himself Signor
Antonio, and who was a skilful performer on stilts, on the tight rope and at juggling.
Barnum engaged him for a year at $12 a week and his expenses, and got him to change his
stage name to Signor Vivalla. He then resorted to his former means of advertising, and
started on his tour. For Vivalla's first week of performances Barnum received $50, and for
the second week three times as much. At the close of the first performance, in response to
loud applause, Barnum appeared upon the stage and made a speech to the audience, a
performance which he repeated thousands of times in after years. This engagement was at
the Franklin Theatre in New York.
The show next appeared in Boston, with great success. Next it
went to Washington and had a most disastrous week, for every night was stormy. Indeed
Barnum found himself literally stranded there, with not enough money to get away. He was
driven to pawn his watch and chain for $35, and then met a friend who helped him out of
"As this was my first visit to Washington, I was much
interested," says Barnum, "in visiting the capitol and other public buildings. I
also satisfied my curiosity in seeing Clay, Calhoun, Benton, John Quincy Adams, Richard M.
Johnson, Polk, and other leading statesmen of the time. I was also greatly gratified in
calling upon Anne Royall, author of the Black Book, publisher of a little paper called
'Paul Pry,' and quite a celebrated personage in her day. I had exchanged The Herald of
Freedom with her journal, and she strongly sympathized with me in my persecutions. She was
delighted to see me, and although she was the most garrulous old woman I ever saw, I
passed a very amusing and pleasant time with her. Before leaving her I manifested my
showman propensity by trying to hire her to give a dozen or more lectures on 'Government'
in the Atlantic cities, but I could not engage her at any price, although I am sure the
speculation would have been a very profitable one. I never saw this eccentric woman again;
she died at a very advanced age, October 1, 1854, at her residence in Washington."
From Washington the show went to Philadelphia and appeared at
the Walnut Street Theatre. The audiences were small and it was evident that something must
be done to arouse public interest. "And now," says Barnum, "that instinct
which can arouse a community and make it patronize one, provided the article offered is
worthy of patronage, an instinct which served me greatly in later years, astonishing the
public and surprising me, came to my relief, and the help, curiously enough, appeared in
the shape of an emphatic hiss from the pit!
"This hiss, I discovered, came from one Roberts, a
circus performer, and I had an interview with him. He was a professional balancer and
juggler, who boasted that he could do all Vivalla had done and something more. I at once
published a card in Vivalla's name, offering $1,000 to any one who would publicly perform
Vivalla's feats at such place as should be designated, and Roberts issued a counter card
accepting the offer. I then contracted with Mr. Warren, treasurer of the Walnut Street
Theatre, for one-third of the proceeds, if I should bring the receipts up to $400 a
night--an agreement he could well afford to make as his receipts the night before had been
but seventy-five dollars. From him I went to Roberts, who seemed disposed to 'back down,'
but I told him that I should not insist upon the terms of his published card, and ask him
if he was under any engagement? Learning that he was not I offered him thirty dollars to
perform under my direction one night at the Walnut, and he accepted. A great trial of
skill between Roberts and Vivalla was duly announced by posters and through the press.
Meanwhile, they rehearsed privately to see what tricks each could perform, and the
'business' was completely arranged.
"Public excitement was at fever heat, and on the night
of the trial the pit and upper boxes were crowded to the full. The 'contest' between the
performers was eager, and each had his party in the house. So far as I could learn, no one
complained that he did not get all he paid for on that occasion. I engaged Roberts for a
month, and his subsequent 'contests' with Vivalla amused the public and put money in my
In the spring of 1836 Barnum joined his show with Aaron
Turner's travelling circus, himself acting as ticket seller, secretary and treasurer, at
thirty dollars a month and one-fifth of the total profits, while Vivalla was to get fifty
dollars a month. Barnum was himself paying Vivalla eighty dollars a month, so that he
really had left for himself only his one-fifth share of the profits. The combined show set
out from Danbury, Connecticut, for West Springfield, Massachusetts, on April 26. On the
first day, Barnum relates, instead of stopping for dinner, Turner simply distributed to
the company three loaves of rye bread and a pound of butter, which he bought at a
farmhouse for fifty cents. On April 28 they began their performances at West Springfield,
and as their band of music had not arrived from Providence, as expected, Barnum made a
speech to the audience in place of it, which seemed to please everybody. The engagement
was successful, and the tour was continued during the summer through numerous towns and
cities in New England, the Middle States, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
Many incidents, humorous and otherwise, marked their
progress. At Cabotville, Massachusetts, on going to bed one night one of the company threw
a lighted cigar stump into a box of sawdust, and the result was that, an hour or two
later, they all narrowly escaped suffocation from the smoke. At Lenox, Massachusetts, they
spent Sunday and Barnum went to church as usual. The sermon was directed against the
circus, denouncing it in very abusive terms as an immoral and degrading institution.
"Thereupon," says Barnum, "when the minister had read the closing hymn, I
walked up the pulpit stairs and handed him a written request, signed 'P. T. Barnum,
connected with the circus, June 5, 1836,' to be permitted to reply to him. He declined to
notice it, and after the benediction I lectured him for not giving me an opportunity to
vindicate myself and those with whom I was connected. The affair created considerable
excitement, and some of the members of the church apologized to me for their clergyman's
ill behavior. A similar affair happened afterward at Port Deposit, on the lower
Susquehanna, and in this instance I addressed the audience for half an hour, defending the
circus company against the attacks of the clergyman, and the people listened, though their
pastor repeatedly implored them to go home. Often have I collected our company on Sunday
and read to them the Bible or a printed sermon, and one or more of the men frequently
accompanied me to church. We made no pretense of religion, but we were not the worst
people in the world, and we thought ourselves entitled to at least decent treatment when
we went to hear the preaching of the Gospel."
Turner, the proprietor of the circus, was a self-made man. He
had made himself rich through industry, as he believed any other man with common sense
could do, and he was very proud of the fact. He was also an inveterate practical joker,
and once, at Annapolis, Maryland, he played upon Barnum a trick which came very near
having a serious result. They got there on Saturday night, and the next morning Barnum
went out for a walk, wearing a fine new suit of black clothes. As he passed through the
bar-room and out of the hotel Turner said to some bystanders, who did not know Barnum:
"I think it very singular that you permit that rascal to
march your streets in open day. It wouldn't be allowed in Rhode Island, and I suppose that
is the reason the scoundrel has come down this way."
"Why, who is he?" they demanded.
"Don't you know? Why, that is the Rev. E. K. Avery, the
murderer of Miss Cornell."
Instantly there was a rush of the whole crowd to the door,
eager to get another look at Barnum, and uttering threats of vengeance. This man Avery had
only lately been tried in Rhode Island for the murder of Miss Cornell, whose dead body was
discovered in a stack-yard, and though he was acquitted by the court everybody believed
him guilty. Accordingly, Barnum soon found himself overtaken and surrounded by a mob of
one hundred or more and his ears saluted with such remarks as "the lecherous old
hypocrite," "the sanctified murderer," "the black-coated
villain," "lynch him," "tar and feather him," and others still
more harsh and threatening. Then one man seized him by the collar, while others brought a
fence rail and some rope.
"Come," said the man who collared him, "old
chap, you can't walk any further; we know you, and as we always make gentlemen ride in
these parts, you may just prepare to straddle that rail!"
His surprise may be imagined. "Good heavens!" he
exclaimed, as they all pressed around, "gentlemen, what have I done?"
"Oh, we know you," exclaimed half a dozen voices;
"you needn't roll your sanctimonious eyes; that game don't take in this country.
Come, straddle the rail, and REMEMBER THE STACK-YARD!"
He grew more and more bewildered; he could not imagine what
possible offence he was to suffer for, and he continued to exclaim, "Gentlemen, what
have I done? Don't kill me, gentlemen, but tell me what I have done."
"Come, make him straddle the rail; we'll show him how to
hang poor factory girls," shouted a man in the crowd.
The man who had him by the collar then remarked "Come,
MR. AVERY, it's no use; you see, we know you, and we'll give you a touch of lynch law, and
start you for home again."
"My name is NOT Avery, gentlemen; you are mistaken in
your man," he exclaimed.
"Come, come, none of your gammon; straddle the rail,
The rail was brought and Barnum was about to be placed on it,
when the truth flashed upon him.
"Gentlemen," he exclaimed, "I am not Avery; I
despise that villain as much as you can; my name is Barnum; I belong to the circus which
arrived here last night, and I am sure Old Turner, my partner, has hoaxed you with this
"If he has we'll lynch him," said one of the mob.
"Well, he has, I'll assure you, and if you will walk to
the hotel with me, I'll convince you of the fact."
This they reluctantly assented to, keeping, however, a close
hand upon him. As they walked up the main street, the mob received a re-enforcement of
some fifty or sixty, and Barnum was marched like a malefactor up to the hotel. Old Turner
stood on the piazza ready to explode with laughter. Barnum appealed to him for heaven's
sake to explain this matter, that he might be liberated. He continued to laugh, but
finally told them "he believed there was some mistake about it. The fact is,"
said he, "my friend Barnum has a new suit of black clothes on and he looks so much
like a priest that I thought he must be Avery."
The crowd saw the joke and seemed satisfied. Barnum's new
coat had been half-torn from his back, and he had been very roughly handled. But some of
the crowd apologized for the outrage, declaring that Turner ought to be served in the same
way, while others advised Barnum to "get even with him." Barnum was very much
offended, and when the mob-dispersed he asked Turner what could have induced him to play
such a trick.
"My dear Mr. Barnum," he replied, "it was all
for our good. Remember, all we need to insure success is notoriety. You will see that this
will be noised all about town as a trick played by one of the circus managers upon the
other, and our pavilion will be crammed to-morrow night."
It was even so; the trick was told all over town, and every
one came to see the circus managers who were in a habit of playing practical jokes upon
each other. They had fine audiences while they remained at Annapolis, but it was a long
time before Barnum forgave Turner for his rascally "joke."
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