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

Early Years At Bethel


In August, 1825, the aged grandmother met with an accident in stepping on the point of a rusty nail, which shortly afterwards resulted in her death. She was a woman of great piety, and before she died sent for each of her grandchildren--to whom she was devoted--and besought them to lead a Christian life. Barnum was so deeply impressed by that death-bed scene that through his whole life neither the recollection of it, nor of the dying woman's words, ever left him.

The elder Barnum was a man of many enterprises and few successes. Besides being the proprietor of a hotel he owned a livery-stable, ran a sort of an express, and kept a country store. Phineas was his confidential clerk, and, if he did not reap much financial benefit from his position, he at least obtained a good business education.

On the 7th of September, 1825, the father, after a six months' illness, died at the age of forty-eight, leaving a wife and five children and an insolvent estate. There was literally nothing left for the family; the creditors seized everything; even the small sum which Phineas had loaned his father was held to be the property of a minor, and therefore belonging to the estate. The boy was obliged to borrow money to buy the shoes he wore to the funeral. At fifteen he began the world not only penniless but barefooted.

He went at once to Grassy Plain, a few miles northwest of Bethel, where he managed to obtain a clerkship in the store of James S. Keeler and Lewis Whitlock, at the magnificent salary of six dollars a month and his board. He had chosen his uncle, Alanson Taylor, as his guardian, but made his home with Mrs. Jerusha Wheeler and her two daughters; Mary and Jerusha. He worked hard and faithfully, and so gained the esteem of his employers that they afforded him many opportunities for making money on his own account. His small speculations proved so successful that before long he found himself in possession of quite a little sum.

"I made," says Barnum, "a very remarkable trade at one time for my employers by purchasing, in their absence, a whole wagon-load of green glass bottles of various sizes, for which I paid in unsalable goods at very profitable prices. How to dispose of the bottles was then the problem, and as it was also desirable to get rid of a large quantity of tin-ware which had been in the shop for years and was con-siderably 'shop worn,' I conceived the idea of a lottery, in which the highest prize should be twenty-five dollars, payable in any goods the winner desired, while there were to be fifty prizes of five dollars each, payable in goods, to be designated in the scheme. Then there were one hundred prizes of one dollar each, one hundred prizes of fifty cents each, and three hundred prizes of twenty-five cents each. It is unnecessary to state that the minor prizes consisted mainly of glass and tin-ware; the tickets sold like wildfire, and the worn tin and glass bottles were speedily turned into cash."

Mrs Barnum still continued to keep the village hotel at Bethel, and Phineas went home every Saturday night, going to church with his mother on Sunday, and returning to his work Monday morning. One Saturday evening Miss Mary Wheeler, at whose house the young man boarded, sent him word that she had a young lady from Bethel whom she desired him to escort home, as it was raining violently, and the maiden was afraid to go alone. He assented readily enough, and went over to "Aunt Rushia's," where he was introduced to Miss Charity ("Chairy," for short) Hallett. She was a very pretty girl and a bright talker, and the way home seemed only too short to her escort. She was a tailoress in the village, and went to church regularly, but, although Phineas saw her every Sunday for many weeks, he had no opportunity of the acquaintance that season.

Mrs. Jerusha Wheeler and her daughter Jerusha were familiarly known, the one as "Aunt Rushia," and the other as "Rushia." Many of the store customers were hatters, and among the many kinds of furs sold for the nap of hats was one known to the trade as "Russia." One day a hatter, Walter Dibble, called to buy some furs. Barnum sold him several kinds, including "beaver" and "cony," and he then asked for some "Russia." They had none, and as Barnum wanted to play a joke upon him, he told him that Mrs. Wheeler had several hundred pounds of "Rushia."

"What on earth is a woman doing with 'Russia?' " said he.

Barnum could not answer, but assured him that there were one hundred and thirty pounds of old Rushia and one hundred and fifty pounds of young Rushia in Mrs. Wheeler's house, and under her charge, but whether or not it was for sale he could not say. Off he started to make the purchase and knocked at the door. Mrs. Wheeler, the elder, made her appearance.

"I want to get your Russia," said the hatter.

Mrs. Wheeler asked him to walk in and be seated. She, of course, supposed that he had come for her daughter "Rushia."

"What do you want of Rushia?" asked the old lady.

"To make hats," was the reply.

"To trim hats, I suppose you mean?" responded Mrs. Wheeler.

"No, for the outside of hats," replied the hatter.

"Well, I don't know much about hats," said the old lady, "but I will call my daughter."

Passing into another room where "Rushia" the younger was at work, she informed her that a man wanted her to make hats.

"Oh, he means sister Mary, probably. I suppose he wants some ladies' hats," replied Rushia, as she went into the parlor.

"This is my daughter," said the old lady.

"I want to get your Russia," said he, addressing the young lady.

"I suppose you wish to see my sister Mary; she is our milliner," said young Rushia.

"I wish to see whoever owns the property," said the hatter.

Sister Mary was sent for, and, as she was introduced, the hatter informed her that he wished to buy her "Russia."

"Buy Rushia!" exclaimed Mary, in surprise; I don't understand you."

"Your name is Miss Wheeler, I believe," said the hatter, who was annoyed by the difficulty he met with in being understood.

"It is, sir."

"Ah! very well. Is there old and young Russia in the house?"

"I believe there is," said Mary, surprised at the familiar manner in which he spoke of her mother and sister, who were present.

"What is the price of old Russia per pound?" asked the hatter.

"I believe, sir, that old Rushia is not for sale," replied Mary, indignantly.

"Well, what do you ask for young Russia?" pursued the hatter.

"Sir," said Miss Rushia the younger, springing to her feet, "do you come here to insult defenceless females? If you do, sir, our brother, who is in the garden, will punish you as you deserve."

"Ladies!" exclaimed the hatter, in astonishment, "what on earth have I done to offend you? I came here on a business matter. I want to buy some Russia. I was told you had old and young Russia in the house. Indeed, this young lady just stated such to be the fact, but she says the old Russia is not for sale. Now, if I can buy the young Russia I want to do so--but if that can't be done, please to say so, and I will trouble you no further."

"Mother, open the door and let this man go out; he is undoubtedly crazy," said Miss Mary.

"By thunder! I believe I shall be if I remain here long," exclaimed the hatter, considerably excited. "I wonder if folks never do business in these parts, that you think a man is crazy if he attempts such a thing?"

"Business! poor man!" said Mary soothingly, approaching the door.

"I am not a poor man, madam," replied the hatter. "My name is Walter Dibble; I carry on hatting extensively in Danbury; I came to Grassy Plain to buy fur, and have purchased some 'beaver' and 'cony,' and now it seems I am to be called 'crazy' and a 'poor man,' because I want to buy a little 'Russia' to make up my assortment."

The ladies began to open their eyes; they saw that Mr. Dibble was quite in earnest, and his explanation threw considerable light upon the subject.

"Who sent you here?" asked sister Mary.

"The clerk at the opposite store," was the reply.

"He is a wicked young fellow for making all this trouble," said the old lady; "he has been doing this for a joke."

"A joke!" exclaimed Dibble, in surprise, "have you no Russia, then?"

"My name is Jerusha, and so is my daughter's," said Mrs. Wheeler, "and that, I suppose, is what he meant by telling you of old and young Rushia."

Mr. Dibble, without more words, left the house and made for the store. "You young villain!" he cried, as he entered, "what did you mean by sending me over there to buy Russia?"

"I didn't," answered the young villain, with a perfectly solemn face, "I thought you were a widower or a bachelor who wanted to marry Rushia."

"You lie," said the discomfited Dibble, laughing in spite of himself; "but never mind, I'll pay you off some day." And gathering up his furs he departed.

On another occasion this sense of humor and love of joking was turned to very practical account. Among the customers at the store were a half a dozen old Revolutionary pensioners, who were permitted to buy on credit, leaving their pension papers as security. One of these pensioners was a romancing old fellow named Bevans--more commonly known as "Uncle Bibbins." He was very fond of his glass, and fonder still of relating anecdotes of the Revolution, in which his own prowess and daring were always the conspicuous features. His pension papers were in the possession of Keeler & Whitlock, but it was three months before the money was due, and they grew very weary of having him for a customer. They tried delicately suggesting a visit to his relatives in Guilford, but Uncle Bibbins steadily refused to take the hint. Finally young Barnum enlisted the services of a journeyman hatter named Benton, and together they hit on a plan. The hatter was inspired to call Uncle Bibbins a coward, and to declare his belief that if the old gentleman was wounded anywhere it must have been in the back. Barnum pretended to sympathize with the veteran's just indignation, and finally fired him up to the pitch of challenging the hatter to mortal combat. The challenge was promptly accepted, and the weapons chosen were muskets and ball, at a distance of twenty feet. Uncle Bibbins took his second (Barnum, of course) aside, and begged him to see that the guns were loaded only with blank cartridges. He was assured that it would be so, and that no one would be injured in the encounter.

The ground was measured back of the store, the principals and seconds took their places, and the word of command was given. They fired, Uncle Bibbins, of course, being unhurt, but the hatter, with a fearful yell, fell to the ground as if dead. Barnum rushed up to the frightened Bevans and begged him to fly, promising to let him know when it was safe for him to return. The old fellow started out of town on a run, and for the next three months remained very quietly at Guilford. At the end of that time his faithful second sent for him, with the assurance that his late adversary had not only recovered from his wound but had freely forgiven all. Uncle Bibbins then returned and paid up his debts. Meeting Benton on the street some days later, the two foes shook hands, Benton apologizing for his insult. Uncle Bibbins accepted the apology, "but," he added, "you must be careful after this how you insult a dead-shot."

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