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

Tom Thumb in London


The first public appearance of Tom Thumb in London occurred soon after the arrival of the party there, at the Princess's Theatre. A short engagement only had been made, but it was exceedingly successful. The spectators were delighted, the manager overjoyed, and Barnum himself pleased beyond measure. This brief engagement answered his purpose, in arousing public interest and curiosity. That was all the shrewd showman wanted for the present. Accordingly, when the manager of the theatre urged a renewal of the engagement, at a much higher price, Barnum positively declined it. He had secured the desired advertising; now he would exhibit on his own account and in his own way.

He therefore took a splendid mansion in Grafton Street, Bond Street, in the fashionable and aristocratic West End of London. Lord Talbot had lived in it, and Lord Brougham lived close by. It was an audacious stroke for the Yankee showman to invade this select and exclusive region, but it was successful. In response to his invitations members of the nobility came eagerly flocking to the house to see the wonderful child. Barnum showed himself as exclusive as any of them, for he gave orders to his servants that no callers were to be received who did not present cards of invitation. This procedure he afterward explained, was entirely proper. He had not yet announced himself as a public showman. He was simply an American citizen visiting London, and it was incumbent upon him to maintain the dignity of his position! His servants, of course, exercised proper tact, and no offense was given, although many of the nobility and gentry, who drove to his door in carriages adorned with crests and coats of arms, were thus turned away.

Among the early callers was the Hon. Edward Everett, the American minister to England. He was much pleased with Mr. Barnum and his tiny ward, and had them dine with him the next day. He also promised that they should, if possible, be received by the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

A few evenings afterward the Baroness Rothschild sent her carriage for them. They were received by a half a dozen servants, and were ushered up a broad flight of marble stairs to the drawing-room, where they met the Baroness and a party of twenty or more ladies and gentlemen. In this sumptuous mansion of the richest banker in the world, they spent about two hours, and when they took their leave a well-filled purse was quietly slipped into Mr. Barnum's hand. The golden shower had begun to fall.

Mr. Barnum now thought the time ripe for beginning his public exhibitions. He engaged Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and announced that Tom Thumb was to be seen there. The rush of visitors was tremendous. The aristocracy of London thronged the hall night after night, and a phenomenal success was assured. Barnum did not look beyond such work. True, Everett had spoken of an audience with the Queen, but Barnum had no idea that it would ever be granted. One day, however, he met Mr. Murray, Master of the Queen's Household, at Everett's at breakfast, and that gentleman asked him what were his plans for the future. Barnum replied that he expected presently to go to the Continent, but he would most gladly stay in London if he could get the favor of an audience with Her Majesty.

Mr. Murray kindly offered his good offices in the case, and the next day one of the Life Guards, a tall, noble-looking fellow, bedecked as became his station, brought a note, conveying the Queen's invitation to General Tom Thumb and his guardian Mr. Barnum, to appear at Buckingham Palace on an evening specified. Special instructions were the same day orally given by Mr. Murray, by Her Majesty's command, to suffer the General to appear before her, as he would appear anywhere else, without any training in the use of the titles of royalty, as the Queen desired to see him act naturally and without restraint.

Determined to make the most of the occasion, Mr. Barnum put a placard on the door of the Egyptian Hall: "Closed this evening, General Tom Thumb being at Buckingham Palace by command of Her Majesty."

When they arrived at the palace, a Lord-in-Waiting met them, and began "coaching" them on points of court etiquette. Mr. Barnum, especially, was told that he must in no event speak directly to Her Majesty, but through the medium of the aforesaid Lord. He must also keep his face constantly turned toward the Queen, and so, in retiring from the royal presence, must walk backward. Having thus been instructed in the ways of royalty, Mr. Barnum and the diminutive General were led to the presence of the Queen.

They passed through a long corridor to a broad flight of marble steps, which led to the picture gallery, and there the Queen and Prince Albert, the Duchess of Kent, the Duke of Wellington, and others were awaiting their arrival. They were standing at the further end of the room when the doors were thrown open, and the General walked in, looking like a wax doll gifted with the power of locomotion. Surprise and pleasure were depicted on the countenances of the royal circle at beholding this remarkable specimen of humanity so much smaller than they had evidently expected to find him.

The General advanced with a firm step, and, as he came within hailing distance, made a very graceful bow, and exclaimed, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen."

A burst of laughter followed this salutation. The Queen then took him by the hand, led him about the gallery, and asked him many questions, the answers to which kept the party in an uninterrupted strain of merriment. The General familiarly informed the Queen that her picture gallery was "first-rate," and told her he should like to see the Prince of Wales. The Queen replied that the Prince had retired to rest, but that he should see him on some future occasion. The General then gave his songs, dances, and imitations, and after a conversation with Prince Albert, and all present, which continued for more than an hour, they were permitted to depart.

But before this Mr. Barnum had broken the instructions in etiquette which had been so carefully impressed upon him by the Lord-in-Waiting. When the Queen began asking him questions, he answered her, as she addressed him, through the lordly medium, as he had been told. That was inconvenient and irksome, however, and presently Barnum addressed his reply directly to her. The Lord-in-Waiting was horror-struck, but the Queen did not appear to be displeased, for she instantly followed her guest's example, and spoke thereafter directly to him. In a few minutes Her Majesty and the Yankee showman were talking together with the greatest ease and freedom.

"I felt," said Mr. Barnum afterward, "entirely at ease in her presence, and could not avoid contrasting her sensible and amiable manners with the stiffness and formality of upstart gentility at home or abroad.

"The Queen was modestly attired in plain black, and wore no ornaments. Indeed, surrounded as she was by ladies arrayed in the highest style of magnificence, their dresses sparkling with diamonds, she was the last person whom a stranger would have pointed out in that circle as the Queen of England.

"The Lord-in-Waiting was perhaps mollified toward me when he saw me following his illustrious example in retiring from the royal presence. He was accustomed to the process, and therefore was able to keep somewhat ahead (or rather aback) of me, but even I stepped rather fast for the other member of the retiring party. We had a considerable distance to travel in that long gallery before reaching the door, and whenever the General found he was losing ground, he turned around and ran a few steps, then resumed his position of backing out, then turned around and ran, and so continued to alternate his methods of getting to the door, until the gallery fairly rang with the merriment of the royal spectators. It was really one of the richest scenes I ever saw; running, under the circumstances, was an offense sufficiently heinous to excite the indignation of the Queen's favorite poodle dog, and he vented his displeasure by barking so sharply as to startle the General from his propriety. He, however, recovered immediately, and with his little cane, commenced an attack on the poodle, and a funny fight ensued, which renewed and increased the merriment of the royal party.

"This was near the door of exit. We had scarcely passed into the ante-room, when one of the Queen's attendants came to us with the expressed hope of her Majesty that the General had sustained no damage, to which the Lord-in-Waiting playfully added, that in case of injury to so renowned a personage, he should fear a declaration of war by the United States!"

The visitors were then escorted about the Palace, and treated to refreshments. Before leaving Mr. Barnum bethought him of the "Court Circular," in which the doings of the Royal Family were chronicled to the world. Would his reception by the Queen be mentioned in it? Certainly. Well, then, would it not be possible to secure something more than mere mention; some words of special commendation; a "free advertisement" in fact? He would try it! So he inquired where he could find the gentleman who prepared the circular, and was informed that that functionary was in the Palace at that very moment.

"He was sent for," related Mr. Barnum, "by my solicitation, and promptly acceded to my request for such a notice as would attract attention. He even generously desired me to give him an outline of what I sought, and I was pleased to see afterward, that he had inserted my notice verbatim.

"This notice of my visit to the Queen wonderfully increased the attraction of 'Gen. Tom Thumb,' and compelled me to obtain a more commodious hall for my exhibition. I accordingly moved to a larger room in the same building."

On their second visit to the Queen, they were received in what is called the Yellow Drawing Room, a magnificent apartment. It is on the north side of the gallery, and is entered from that apartment. It was hung with drapery of rich yellow satin damask, the couches, sofas, and chairs being covered with the same material. The vases, urns, and ornaments were all of the most exquisite workmanship. The room was panelled in gold, and the heavy cornices beautifully carved and gilt. The tables, pianos, etc., were mounted with gold, inlaid with pearl of various hues, and of the most elegant designs.

They were ushered into this gorgeous drawing-room before the Queen and royal circle had left the dining-room, and, as they approached, the General bowed respectfully, and remarked to Her Majesty, "that he had seen her before," adding, "I think this is a prettier room than the picture gallery; that chandelier is very fine."

The Queen smilingly took him by the hand, and said she hoped he was very well.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied, "I am first-rate."

"General," continued the Queen, "this is the Prince of Wales."

"How are you, Prince?" said the General, shaking him by the hand, and then standing beside the Prince, he remarked, "the prince is taller than I am, but I feel as big as anybody," upon which he strutted up and down the room as proud as a peacock, amid shouts of laughter from all present.

The Queen then introduced the Princess Royal, and the General immediately led her to his elegant little sofa, which he took with him, and with much politeness sat down beside her. Then, rising from his seat, he went through his various performances, and the Queen handed him an elegant and costly souvenir, which had been expressly made for him by her order, for which, he told her, "he was very much obliged, and would keep it as long as he lived." The Queen of the Belgians (daughter of Louis Philippe) was present on this occasion. She asked the General where he was going when he left London.

"To Paris," he replied.

"Whom do you expect to see there?" she continued.

Of course all expected he would answer, "the King of the French," but the little fellow replied.

"Monsieur Guillaudeu."

The two queens looked inquiringly, and when Mr. Barnum informed them that M. Guillaudeu was his French naturalist, they laughed most heartily.

On their third visit to Buckingham Palace, Leopold, King of the Belgians, was also present. He was highly pleased, and asked a multitude of questions. Queen Victoria desired the General to sing a song, and asked him what song he preferred to sing.

"Yankee Doodle," was the prompt reply.

This answer was as unexpected to Mr. Barnum as it was to the royal party. When the merriment it occasioned had somewhat subsided, the Queen good-humoredly remarked, "that is a very pretty song, General, sing it, if you please." The General complied, and soon afterward retired.

The Queen sent to Barnum a handsome fee for each of his visits, but that was only a small part of the benefits which his acquaintance with her brought to him. Such was the force of Court example that it was now deemed unfashionable, almost disloyal, not to have seen Tom Thumb. Carriages of the nobility, fifty or sixty at a time, were to be seen at Barnum's door in Piccadilly. Egyptian Hall was crowded at every exhibition, and the net profits there were on the average more than $500 per day from March 20th to July 20th. Portraits of the tiny General were for sale everywhere, and were eagerly purchased by thousands. Musical compositions were dedicated to him, and songs were sung in his honor. Week after week he was the subject of Punch's wittiest cartoons; and of course all this was just so much free advertising. Besides his three public performances per day, the little General attended three or four private parties per week, for which they were paid eight to ten guineas each. Frequently he would visit two parties in the same evening, and the demand in that line was much greater than the supply. The Queen Dowager Adelaide requested the General's attendance at Marlborough House one afternoon. He went in his court dress, consisting of a richly embroidered brown silk-velvet coat and short breeches, white satin vest with fancy colored embroidery, white silk stockings and pumps, wig, bagwig, cocked hat, and dress sword.

"Why, General," said the Queen Dowager, "I think you look very smart to-day."

"I guess I do," said the General, complacently.

A large party of the nobility were present. The old Duke of Cambridge offered the little General a pinch of snuff, which he declined. The General sang his songs, performed his dances, and cracked his jokes, to the great amusement and delight of the distinguished circle of visitors.

"Dear little General," said the kind-hearted Queen, taking him upon her lap, "I see you have no watch. Will you permit me to present you with a watch and chain?"

"I would like them very much," replied the General, his eyes glistening with joy as he spoke.

"I will have them made expressly for you," responded the Queen Dowager; and at the same moment she called a friend and desired him to see that the proper order was executed. A few weeks thereafter they were called again to Marlborough House. A number of the children of the nobility were present, as well as some of their parents. After passing a few compliments with the General, Queen Adelaide presented him with a beautiful little gold watch, placing the chain around his neck with her own hands.

This watch, also, served the purpose of an advertisement, and a good one, too. It was not only duly heralded, but was placed upon a pedestal in the hall of exhibition, together with the presents from Queen Victoria, and covered with a glass vase. These presents, to which were soon added an elegant gold snuff-box mounted with turquois, presented by his grace the Duke of Devonshire, and many other costly gifts of the nobility and gentry, added to the attraction of the exhibition.

The Duke of Wellington called frequently to see the little General at his public levees. The first time he called, the General was personating Napoleon Bonaparte, marching up and down the platform, and apparently taking snuff in deep meditation. He was dressed in the well-known uniform of the Emperor. Barnum introduced him to the "Iron Duke," who inquired the subject of his meditations. "I was thinking of the loss of the battle of Waterloo," was the little General's immediate reply. This display of wit was chronicled throughout the country, and was of itself worth thousands of pounds to the exhibition.

General Tom Thumb had visited the King of Saxony and also Ibrahim Pacha, who was then in London. At the different parties he attended, he met, in the course of the season, nearly all of the nobility. Scarcely a nobleman in England failed to see General Tom Thumb at his own house, at the house of a friend, or at the public levees at Egyptian Hall. The General was a decided pet with some of the first personages in the land, among whom were Sir Robert and Lady Peel, the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham, Duke of Bedford, Duke of Devonshire, Count d'Orsay, Lady Blessington, Daniel O'Connell, Lord Adolphus Fitzclarence, Lord Chesterfield, and many other persons of distinction They had the free entree to all the theatres, public gardens, and places of entertainment, and frequently met the principal artists, editors, poets, and authors of the country. Albert Smith wrote a play for the General, entitled "Hop o' my Thumb," which was presented with great success at the Lyceum Theatre, London, and in several of the provincial theatres.

Thus the London visit and the tour of England were successful beyond all anticipation, and it was with an overflowing purse that Barnum set out with his charge for the French capital.

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