The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
The American Museum
ADVERTISING EXTRAORDINARY--A QUICK-WITTED PERFORMER--NIAGARA
FALLS WITH REAL WATER--OTHER ATTRACTIONS--DRUMMOND LIGHTS.
With great hopes for the success of his project, Barnum
entered upon the management of the Museum. It was a new epoch in his career, he felt that
the opportunity of his life had presented itself--in the show business, to be sure, but in
a permanent, substantial phase of it.
He must pay for the establishment within the stipulated time,
or forfeit all he had paid on account. A rigid plan of economy was determined upon, his
wife agreeing to support the family on $600 a year, or even on four hundred if necessary.
Barnum himself made every possible personal retrenchment. One day, some six months after
the purchase had been made, Mr. Olmsted happened into the ticket office, while the
proprietor was eating his lunch of cold corned beef and bread.
"Is that all you eat for dinner?" asked Mr.
"I have not eaten a warm dinner, except on Sundays,
since I bought the Museum," was the reply, "and I don't intend to, until I am
out of debt."
"That's right," said Mr. Olmsted, heartily,
"and you'll pay for the Museum before the year is out."
And he was right.
The nucleus of this establishment, Scudder's Museum, was
formed in 1810. It was begun in Chatham Street, and was afterward transferred to the old
City Hall, and from small beginnings, by purchases, and to a considerable degree by
presents, it had grown to be a large and valuable collection. People in all parts of the
country had sent in relics and rare curiosities. Sea captains for years had brought and
deposited strange things from foreign lands; and besides all these gifts, the previous
proprietor had actually expended, as was stated, $50,000 in making the collection, which
valuable as it was when Barnum bought it, was only the beginning of its subsequent
greatness. In 1842 the entire contents of Peale's Museum was purchased, and in 1850 the
Peale collection of Philadelphia was added. In 1865 the space occupied for museum purposes
was more than twice as large as in 1842. The Lecture Room, originally narrow,
ill-contrived, and inconvenient, was so enlarged and improved that it became one of the
most commodious and beautiful amusement halls in the city of New York. At first the
attractions and inducements were merely the collection of curiosities by day, and an
evening entertainment, consisting of such variety performances as were current in ordinary
shows. Then Saturday afternoons and, soon afterward, Wednesday afternoons, were devoted to
entertainments, and the popularity of the Museum grew so rapidly that it was presently
found expedient and profitable to open the great Lecture Room every afternoon, as well as
every evening, on every weekday in the year. The first experiments in this direction more
than justified expectations, for the day exhibitions were always more thronged than those
of the evening.
Holidays, of course, were made the most of, and there is a
record of twelve performances, to as many audiences, being given in one day.
By degrees the character of the stage performances were
changed. The transient attractions of the Museum were constantly diversified, and educated
dogs, industrious fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists, living statuary, tableaux,
gypsies, Albinoes, fat boys, giants, dwarfs, rope-dancers, live "Yankees,"
pantomime, instrumental music, singing and dancing in great variety, dioramas, panoramas,
models of Niagara, Dublin, Paris, and Jerusalem; Hannington's dioramas of the Creation,
the Deluge, Fairy Grotto, Storm at Sea; the first English Punch and Judy in this country,
Italian Fantoceini, mechanical figures, fancy glass-blowing, knitting machines, and other
triumphs in the mechanical arts; dissolving views, American Indians, who enacted their
warlike and religious ceremonies on the stage--these, among others, were all exceedingly
No man ever understood the art of advertising better than
Barnum. Knowing that mammon is ever caught with glare, he took pains that his posters
should be larger, his transparencies more brilliant, his puffing more persistent than
anybody elses. And if he resorted to hyperbole at times in his advertisements, it was
always his boast that no one ever went away from his Museum, without having received the
worth of his money. It used to amuse Mr. Barnum later in life, to relate some of the
unique advertising dodges which his inventive genius devised. Here is a fair sample, as he
once told it:
"One morning a stout, hearty-looking man came into my
ticket-office and begged some money. I asked him why he did not work and earn his living?
He replied that he could get nothing to do, and that he would be glad of any job at a
dollar a day. I handed him a quarter of a dollar, told him to go and get his breakfast and
return, and I would employ him, at light labor, at a dollar and a half a day. When he
returned I gave him five common bricks.
" 'Now,' said I, 'go and lay a brick on the sidewalk, at
the corner of Broadway and Ann Street; another close by the Museum; a third diagonally
across the way, at the corner of Broadway and Vesey Street, by the Astor House; put down
the fourth on the sidewalk, in front of St. Paul's Church opposite; then, with the fifth
brick in hand, take up a rapid march from one point to the other, making the circuit,
exchanging your brick at every point, and say nothing to any one.'
" 'What is the object of this?' inquired the man.
" 'No matter,' I replied: 'all you need to know is that
it brings you fifteen cents wages per hour. It is a bit of my fun, and to assist me
properly you must seem to be as deaf as a post; wear a serious countenance; answer no
questions; pay no attention to any one; but attend faithfully to the work, and at the end
of every hour, by St. Paul's clock, show this ticket at the Museum door; enter, walking
solemnly through every hall in the building; pass out, and resume your work.' "
With the remark that "it was all one to him, so long as
he could earn his living," the man placed his bricks, and began his round. Half an
hour afterward, at least five hundred people were watching his mysterious movements. He
had assumed a military step and bearing, and, looking as sober as a judge, he made no
response whatever to the constant inquiries as to the object of his singular conduct. At
the end of the first hour, the sidewalks in the vicinity were packed with people, all
anxious to solve the mystery. The man, as directed, then went into the Museum, devoting
fifteen minutes to a solemn survey of the halls, and afterward returning to his round.
This was repeated every hour until sundown, and whenever the man went into the Museum a
dozen or more persons would buy tickets and follow him, hoping to gratify their curiosity
in regard to the purpose of his movements. This was continued for several days--the
curious people who followed the man into the Museum considerably more than paying his
wages--till finally the policeman, to whom Barnum had imparted his object, complained that
the obstruction of the sidewalk by crowds, had become so serious that he must call in his
"brick man." This trivial incident excited considerable talk and amusement; it
advertised Barnum; and it materially advanced his purpose of making a lively corner near
Barnum realized above all that to have people pleased with
his attractions was the best advertisement he could possibly have, and he tried honestly
to keep the Museum supplied with every novelty. A curiosity which possessed some merit,
and considerable absurdity was the celebrated model of Niagara, "with real
One day the enterprising proprietor was called before the
Board of Water Commissioners, and informed that he must pay a large extra compensation for
the immense amount of water that supplied his Niagara. To the astonishment of the Board
Mr. Barnum gave his assurance that a single barrel of water per month served to run the
Apropos of this wonderful model, Barnum used to tell how he
got even with his friend, Louis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker, an inveterate
joker, and who was fond of guying the Museum. The first time Clark viewed
"Niagara" he assumed great admiration.
"Well, Barnum, I declare, this is quite an idea; I never
saw the like of this before in all my life."
"No?" inquired Barnum, quite pleased.
"No," said Clark, fervently, "and I hope to
the Lord, I never will."
Barnum might have forgiven this, but Clark's next joke was
too much to bear. He came in one day and asked Barnum if he had the club with which
Captain Cook was killed. The Museum boasted a large collection of Indian curiosities, and
Barnum showed one warlike weapon which he assured Clark was the identical club and he had
all the documents to prove it.
"Poor Cook! Poor Cook!" said Clark, musingly.
"Well, Mr. Barnum," he continued, with great gravity, at the same time extending
his hand, "I am really very much obliged to you for your kindness. I had an
irrepressible desire to see the club that killed Captain Cook, and I felt quite confident
you could accommodate me. I have been in half a dozen smaller museums, and as they all had
it, I was sure a large establishment like yours would not be without it."
But Barnum's turn came. A few weeks afterward, he wrote to
Clark that if he would come to his office he was anxious to consult him on a matter of
great importance. He came, and Barnum said:
"Now, I don't want any of your nonsense, but I want your
Clark assured him that he would serve him in any way in his
power, and Barnum proceeded to tell him about a wonderful fish from the Nile, offered for
exhibition at $100 a week, the owner of which was willing to forfeit $5,000, if, within
six weeks, this fish did not pass through a transformation in which the tail would
disappear and the fish would then have legs.
"Is it possible!" asked the astonished Clark.
Barnum assured him that there was no doubt of it.
Thereupon Clark advised Barnum to engage the wonder at any
price; that it would startle the naturalists, wake up the whole scientific world, draw in
the masses, and make $20,000 for the Museum. Barnum told him that he thought well of the
speculation, only he did not like the name of the fish.
"That makes no difference whatever," said Clark;
"what is the name of the fish?"
"Tadpole," Barnum replied, with becoming gravity,
"but it is vulgarly called 'pollywog.' "
"Sold, by thunder!" exclaimed Clark, and he left.
Another story is illustrative of some of the trials incident
to theatrical management.
An actor named La Rue presented himself as an imitator of
celebrated histrionic personages, including Macready, Forrest, Kemble, the elder Booth,
Kean, Hamblin, and others. Taking him into the green-room for a private rehearsal, and
finding his imitations excellent, Barnum engaged him. For three nights he gave great
satisfaction, but early in the fourth evening he staggered into the Museum so drunk that
he could hardly stand, and in half an hour he must be on the stage! Barnum called an
assistant, and they took La Rue and marched him up Broadway as far as Chambers Street, and
back to the lower end of the Park, hoping to sober him. At this point they put his head
under a pump and gave him a good ducking, with visible beneficial effect, then a walk
around the Park and another ducking, when he assured them that he should be able to give
his imitations "to a charm."
"You drunken brute," said Barnum, "if you
fail, and disappoint my audience, I will throw you out of the window."
He declared that he was "all right," and Barnum led
him behind the scenes, where he waited with considerable trepidation to watch his
movements on the stage. La Rue began by saying:
"Ladies and gentlemen: I will now give you an imitation
of Mr. Booth, the eminent tragedian."
His tongue was thick, his language somewhat incoherent, and
Barnum had great misgivings as he proceeded; but as no token of disapprobation came from
the audience, he began to hope he would go through with his parts without exciting
suspicion of his condition. But before he had half finished his representation of Booth,
in the soliloquy in the opening act of Richard III, the house discovered that he was very
drunk, and began to hiss. This only seemed to stimulate him to make an effort to appear
sober, which, as is usual in such cases, only made matters worse, and the hissing
increased. Barnum lost all patience, and, going on the stage and taking the drunken fellow
by the collar, apologized to the audience, assuring them that he should not appear before
them again. Barnum was about to march him off, when he stepped to the front, and said:
"Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Booth has often appeared on
the stage in a state of inebriety, and I was simply giving you a truthful representation
of him on such occasions. I beg to be permitted to proceed with my imitations."
The audience at once supposed it was all right, and cried
out, "go on, go on"; which he did, and at every imitation of Booth, whether as
Richard, Shylock, or Sir Giles Overreach, he received a hearty round of applause. Barnum
was quite delighted with his success; but when he came to imitate Forrest and Hamblin,
necessarily representing them as drunk also, the audience could be no longer deluded; the
hissing was almost deafening, and Barnum was forced to lead the actor off. It was his last
appearance on that stage.
Barnum always denied that the "Feejee Mermaid,"
which attained such lasting notoriety, was an invention of his own. It was first exhibited
in London in 1822, where it was purchased by Mr. Moses Kimball, of the Boston Museum, who
sold it to Barnum. The creature was really most ingeniously constructed, probably by some
Japanese. It drew like magic, and afterward served as a good advertisement, sent
throughout the country for exhibition, the posters reading, "From Barnum's Great
American Museum, New York."
Barnum believed in making his place of exhibition as
attractive as possible, and the building was decorated with flags and banners, the posters
were of the most sensational character, and the first "Drummond Lights" ever
seen in New York were placed on top of the Museum, flooding the streets around with
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