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

A Few Side Issues


The great showman did not allow even so great an enterprise as the Jenny Lind concerts to monopolize his attention. In 1849 he planned the formation of a great travelling show, combining the features of a museum, a menagerie and a circus. In this he associated with himself Mr. Seth B. Howes, who was already a noted and successful showman, and also Mr. Stratton, the father of Tom Thumb. In order to procure a supply of novelties for this show they chartered the ship "Regatta," and sent it from New York in May, 1850, to Ceylon. The object of this voyage, was to procure, either by purchase or by capture, a number of living elephants and other wild animals. To make sure of a sufficient supply of fodder for them, nearly a thousand tons of hay were purchased in New York and taken out aboard the ship. Five hundred tons of it were left at the Island of St. Helena, to be taken up on the return trip, and a great supply of staves and hoops were also left there for the construction of water casks.

This extraordinary mission was successful. In almost exactly a year from the day of sailing the ship returned to New York. Its novel cargo was unloaded, the ten elephants which had been secured were harnessed in pairs to a gigantic chariot, and the whole show paraded up Broadway past the Irving House. It was reviewed from the window of that hotel by Jenny Lind, who was stopping there on her second visit to New York. An elaborate outfit of horses, wagons, tents, etc., was added, the whole costing over $100,000, and then the show went on the road under the nominal leadership of Tom Thumb. It was called, "Barnum's Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum and Menagerie;" it travelled about the country for four years, and yielded to its proprietors enormous profits.

At the end of this tour Barnum sold out the entire establishment, including animals, cages, chariots and everything else, excepting one elephant. This huge brute he took to his farm at Bridgeport, for advertising purposes. It occurred to him that if he should keep the animal there for a time and put him to some novel use, such as working on the farm, it would set people to talking and greatly add to public curiosity and interest in his American Museum.

He accordingly took the elephant to Bridgeport and put him in charge of a competent keeper, who was dressed in a striking Oriental costume. A six acre field close by the New York and New Haven railroad track was set apart for their use. Barnum gave the keeper a time-table of the road and directed him to make a point, whenever trains were passing, always to be busily engaged with the elephant at plowing or other agricultural work as close to the track as possible. Of course the passengers noticed the strange spectacle, items concerning it appeared in the newspapers, extending even to the press of foreign lands, and thousands of people came from all parts of the country to witness the strange sight. Every mail brought numerous letters inquiring about it. Many of these were from the officers of agricultural societies in all parts of the United States, making serious and earnest inquiry as to the utility of the elephant as an agricultural animal. These letters were greatly diversified in tone, but the substance of their inquires was about as follows:

1. "Is the elephant a profitable agricultural animal?"

2. "How much can an elephant plow in a day?"

3. "How much can he draw?"

4. "How much does he eat?"--this question was invariably asked, and was a very important one.

5. "Will elephants make themselves generally useful on a farm?"

6. "What is the price of an elephant?"

7. "Where can elephants be purchased?"

Then would follow a score of other inquiries, such as, whether elephants were easily managed; if they would quarrel with cattle; if it was possible to breed them; how old calf elephants must be before they would earn their own living; and so on indefinitely.

Barnum presently began to be alarmed lest some one should buy an elephant and thus share the fate of the man who drew one in a lottery and did not know what to do with him. "Accordingly," he says, "I had a general letter printed, which I mailed to all my anxious inquirers. It was headed 'strictly confidential,' and I then stated, begging my correspondents 'not to mention it,' that to me the elephant was a valuable agricultural animal, because he was an excellent advertisement to my museum; but that to other farmers he would prove very unprofitable for many reasons. In the first place, such an animal would cost from $3,000 to $10,000; in cold weather he could not work at all; in any weather he could not earn half his living; he would eat up the value of his own head, trunk and body every year; and I begged my correspondents not to do so foolish a thing as to undertake elephant farming."

The result of this experiment in advertising was highly successful. Newspaper correspondents sent highly colored accounts of it all over the world, and numerous pictures of the elephant harnessed to a plow appeared in the illustrated papers and magazines. After the field had been plowed over fifty or sixty times, Barnum concluded that the elephant had been "worked for all he was worth," and sold him to Van Amburgh's menagerie.

In 1851 Mr. Barnum became a part owner of the steamship "North America," which he proposed to run between America and Ireland as a passenger and freight vessel. This idea was presently abandoned, and the ship was sent around Cape Horn to San Francisco and put into service on the Pacific Mail Line, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt having purchased a one-half interest in it and Mr. Barnum retaining one-third interest in the remaining half. After she had made several trips Barnum called upon Mr. Vanderbilt at his office and introduced himself. It was their first meeting, and this is Barnum's own account of the interview:

" 'Is it possible you are Barnum?' exclaimed the Commodore, in surprise, 'why, I expected to see a monster, part lion, part elephant, and a mixture of rhinoceros and tiger! Is it possible,' he continued, 'that you are the showman who has made so much noise in the world?'

"I laughingly replied that I was, and added that if I too had been governed in my anticipation of his personal appearance by the fame he had achieved in his line, I should have expected to have been saluted by a steam whistle, and to have seen him dressed in a pea jacket, blowing off steam, and crying out 'all aboard that's going.'

" 'Instead of which,' replied Mr. Vanderbilt, 'I suppose you have come to ask me to walk up to the Captain's office and settle.'

"After this interchange of civilities, we talked about the success of the 'North America' in having got safely around the Horn, and of the acceptable manner in which she was doing her duty on the Pacific side.

" 'We have received no statement of her earnings yet,' said the Commodore, 'but if you want money, give your receipt to our treasurer, and take some.'

"A few months subsequent to this, I sold out my share in the steamship to Mr. Daniel Drew."

Numerous smaller enterprises also marked this stage of Mr. Barnum's career. Some of these were connected with his museum, while others were entirely independent of it. Thus in 1844, in Paris, besides purchasing Robt. Houdin's ingenius automatic writer and other costly curiosities for the museum, he had made at great expense, a huge panorama of the funeral of Napoleon Bonaparte. This gigantic picture showed every event of that pageant, beginning with the embarkation of the body at St. Helena and ending with its final entombment at the Hotel des Invalides. This exhibition, after having had its day at the American Museum, was sold, and extensively and profitably exhibited elsewhere. While Barnum was in London, during the same year, he engaged a company of "Campanalogians, or Lancashire Bell Ringers," then performing in Ireland, to make an American tour. They were really admirable performers, and by means of their numerous bells of various sizes, they produced the most delightful music. They attracted much attention in various parts of the United States, in Canada, and in Cuba.

After the loss of the bell ringers to the English public Barnum secured and sent thither a party of sixteen North American Indians, who were widely exhibited. On his return to America after his first visit to Europe he engaged an ingenious workman to construct an automatic orator. This was a life-size and remarkably life-like figure, and when worked from a key-board similar to that of a piano it actually uttered words and sentences with surprising distinctness. It was exhibited for several months in London and elsewhere in England, but though it was really a wonderful machine and attracted the earnest attention of some people, it was not a popular success. The Duke of Wellington visited it several times, and at first he thought that the "voice" proceeded from the exhibiter, whom he assumed to be a skilful ventriloquist. He was asked to touch the keys with his own fingers, and, after some instruction in the method of operating, he was able to make the machine speak, not only in English but also in German, with which language the Duke seemed familiar. Thereafter, he entered his name on the exhibiter's autograph book, and certified that the "Automaton Speaker" was an extraordinary production of mechanical genius.

Barnum also secured duplicates of the models of machinery exhibited at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London and a great many interesting panoramas and pictures. These were all exhibited at his museum in New York and afterwards sold to other travelling showmen who exhibited them throughout the country. In the summer of 1850 he added to the museum his famous Chinese collection, including a Chinese family of two men, two "small footed" women, and two children.

Few of his curiosities attracted more attention than the performances of the "Scotch Boys." One of these was securely blindfolded, and then, in answer to questions put by the other, accurately described any objects presented by persons who attended the surprising exhibition. The mystery, which was merely the result of patient practice, consisted wholly in the manner in which the question was propounded; in fact, the question invariably carried its own answer; for instance:

"What is this?" meant gold; "Now what is this?" silver; "Say, what is this?" copper; "Tell me what this is?" iron; "What is the shape?" long; "Now, what shape?" round; "Say what shape?" square; "Please say what this is," a watch; "Can you tell what is in this lady's hand?" a purse; "Now, please say what this is?" a key; "Come now, what is this?" money; "How much?" a penny; "Now, how much?" sixpence; "Say how much," a quarter of a dollar; "What color is this?" black; "Now, what color is this?" red; "Say what color?" green; and so on, ad infinitum. To such perfection was this brought that it was almost impossible to present any object that could not be quite closely described by the blindfolded boy.

In 1850, the celebrated Bateman children acted for several weeks at the American Museum, and in June of that year Barnum sent them to London with their father and Mr. Le Grand Smith, where they played in the St. James Theatre, and afterwards in the principal provincial theatres. The elder of these children, Miss Kate Bateman, subsequently attained the highest histrionic distinction in America and abroad, and reached the head of her profession.

Miss Catharine Hayes and Herr Begnis were engaged by Barnum in the fall of 1852 to give a series of sixty concerts in California, and the enterprise proved highly profitable, although Mr. Barnum intrusted its execution to his agents, not caring himself to travel so far. Before she set out for California Miss Hayes, with her mother and sister, spent several days at Iranistan to attend the marriage of Barnum's eldest daughter, Caroline, to Mr. David W. Thompson.

The wedding was to take place in the evening, and on the afternoon of that day Mr. Barnum went to Bridgeport to get shaved for the occasion. While he was lying in the barber's chair, half of his face shaved and the other half covered with lather, his prospective son-in-law, Mr. Thompson, drove up to the door of the shop and rushed in, exclaiming excitedly, "Mr. Barnum, Iranistan is in flames!" Barnum jumped up from the chair and, half shaved and with the lather still on his face, jumped into the wagon and started for home with the horse on a run. "I was greatly alarmed," he afterward said, "for the house was full of visitors who had come from a distance to attend the wedding, and all the costly presents, dresses, refreshments, and everything prepared for a marriage celebration to which nearly a thousand guests had been invited, were already in my house. Mr. Thompson told me he had seen the flames bursting from the roof, and it seemed to me that there was little hope of saving the building.

"My mind was distressed, not so much at the great pecuniary loss which the destruction of Iranistan would involve, as at the possibility that some of my family or visitors would be killed or seriously injured in attempting to save something from the fire. Then I thought of the sore disappointment this calamity would cause to the young couple, as well as to those who were invited to the wedding. I saw that Mr. Thompson looked pale and anxious.

" 'Never mind!' said I; 'we can't help these things; the house will probably be burned; but if no one is killed or injured, you shall be married to-night, if we are obliged to perform the ceremony in the coach-house.'

"On our way, we overtook a fire company, and I implored them to 'hurry up their machine.' Arriving in sight of Iranistan, we saw huge volumes of smoke rolling out from the roof and many men on the top of the house were passing buckets of water to pour upon the fire. Fortunately, several men had been engaged during the day in repairing the roof, and their ladders were against the house. By these means and with the assistance of the men employed upon my grounds, water was passed very rapidly, and the flames were soon subdued without serious damage. The inmates of Iranistan were thoroughly frightened; Catherine Hayes and other visitors, packed their trunks and had them carried out on the lawn; and the house came as near destruction as it well could and escape."

While Miss Hayes was at Bridgeport she gave, at Barnum's request, a concert for the benefit of "Mountain Grove Cemetery," and the large proceeds were devoted to the erection of the stone tower and gateway that now adorn the entrance to that beautiful resting place of the dead. Barnum had bought the eighty acres of land for this cemetery a few years before from several farmers. He had been in the habit of tramping over it, gunning, and while thus engaged, had observed its admirable fitness for the purposes of a cemetery. After the title deeds for the property were secured, it was offered for a cemetery, and at a meeting of citizens, several lots were subscribed for. enough. indeed, to cover the amount of the purchase money. Thus was begun the "Mountain Grove Cemetery," which is now beautifully laid out and adorned with many tasteful and costly monuments. Among these are Barnum's own substantial granite monument, the family monuments of Harral, Bishop, Hubbell, Lyon, Wood, Loomis, Wordin, Hyde, and others, and General Tom Thumb erected a tall marble shaft which is surmounted by a life-size statue of himself. There is no more charming burial-ground in the whole country; yet when the project was suggested, many persons preferred an intermural cemetery to this rural resting-place for their departed friends; though now all concur in considering it fortunate that this adjunct was secured to Bridgeport before the land could be permanently devoted to other purposes.

Mr. Dion Boucicault also lectured at Bridgeport for the benefit of this cemetery and Tom Thumb gave an entertainment for the same object. At Barnum's request and under his management, Tom Thumb and his wife, and Commodore Nutt and his wife, gave several exhibitions and entertainments for the benefit of the Bridgeport Charitable Society, the Bridgeport Library, and other local institutions.

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