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

Some Domestic Enterprises


In the summer of 1853 Alfred Bunn, formerly manager of Drury Lane Theatre, London, arrived in Boston. He was then one of the most notable figures in the theatrical world. It was he who had made the first engagement with Jenny Lind to appear in London. She had been induced to break this engagement, however, through the solicitations of Mr. Lumley, of Her Majesty's Theatre, with the result that Mr. Lumley had to pay to Mr. Bunn heavy damages for the breach of contract. Barnum and Bunn had never met, though they knew each other well by reputation, and indeed Bunn labored under the delusion that he had met Barnum, for soon after his arrival he hastened to New York and entered Barnum's private office at the Museum with the exclamation, "Well, Barnum, do you remember me?"

Barnum was confident that he had never seen him before, and indeed did not really know who he was. But, quick as a flash, he thought that the ex-manager of Drury Lane must be the only living Englishman with presumption enough to accost him in this way. So he answered without hesitation, "Why, this is Mr. Bunn, isn't it?"

"Ah, my boy," said Bunn, slapping him familiarly on the back, "I thought you would remember me. Well, Barnum, how have you been since I last saw you?"

Barnum replied in a manner that encouraged his impression that they were old acquaintances, and during the next two hours they had much gossip about men and affairs in London. Bunn called upon Barnum several times after that, and probably never realized that Barnum really had been in London two or three years without making his acquaintance. When Barnum went to London again in 1858 he renewed his acquaintance with Bunn and they became great chums.

The years 1851, 1852 and 1853 were mostly spent at Bridgeport, with frequent visits to New York of a day or two each. In the last-named year he resigned the office of President of the Fairfield County Agricultural Society, but in accepting his resignation the society insisted that it should not go into effect until after the annual fair of 1854 His administration of the affairs of the society had been very successful, especially in relation to the fairs and cattle shows.

The manner in which Barnum turned every circumstance to account in the interest of these fairs is well shown in his dealings with a pickpocket at the fair of 1853. The man was caught in the act of taking a pocket-book from a country farmer, and on arrest was found to be a notorious English thief. He had already victimized many other visitors to the fair, and there was almost a state of panic among the visitors. The fair was to close the next day.

Early the next morning the thief was taken before a justice, legally examined, and was bound over for trial. Barnum then obtained consent from the Sheriff that the fellow should be put on the fair grounds, for the purpose of giving those who had been robbed an opportunity of identifying him. For this purpose he was handcuffed and placed in a conspicuous position, where of course he was "the observed of all observers." Then Barnum papered the country round about with handbills, stating that, for the last day of the fair, the managers had secured an extraordinary attraction. They would, he said, exhibit, safely handcuffed, and without extra charge, a live pickpocket, who had on the day preceding been caught in the act of robbing an honest farmer. Crowds of people rushed in to see the show, parents for miles around brought their children to see the awful example of iniquity, and great was the profit to the treasury of the fair.

At the close of his presidency in 1854 Barnum was asked to deliver the opening speech at the County Fair at Stamford. He did so, delivering simply a portion of his lecture on "The Philosophy of Humbug." The next morning, as he was being shaved in the village barber's shop, which was at the time crowded with customers, the ticket-seller to the fair came in. Here is Barnum's own account of what followed:

"What kind of a house did you have last night?" asked one of the gentlemen in waiting.

"Oh, first-rate, of course. Barnum always draws a crowd," was the reply of the ticket-seller, to whom I was not known.

Most of the gentlemen present, however, knew me, and they found much difficulty in restraining their laughter.

"Did Barnum make a good speech?" I asked.

"I did not hear it. I was out in the ticket-office. I guess it was pretty good, for I never heard so much laughing as there was all through his speech. But it makes no difference whether it was good or not," continued the ticket-seller, "the people will go to see Barnum."

"Barnum must be a curious chap," I remarked.

"Well, I guess he is up to all the dodges."

"Do you know him?" I asked.

"Not personally," he replied; "but I always get into the Museum for nothing. I know the doorkeeper, and he slips me in free."

"Barnum would not like that, probably, if he knew it," I remarked.

"But it happens he don't know it," replied the ticket-seller, in great glee.

"Barnum was on the cars the other day, on his way to Bridgeport," said I, "and I heard one of the passengers blowing him up terribly as a humbug. He was addressing Barnum at the time, but did not know him. Barnum joined in lustily, and indorsed everything the man said. When the passenger learned whom he had been addressing, I should think he must have felt rather flat."

"I should think so, too," said the ticket-seller.

This was too much, and we all indulged in a burst of laughter; still the ticket-seller suspected nothing. After I had left the shop, the barber told him who I was. I called into the ticket-office on business several times during the day, but the poor ticket-seller kept his face turned from me, and appeared so chapfallen that I did not pretend to recognize him as the hero of the joke in the barber's shop.

There were many incidents similar to the foregoing in Barnum's career. One occurred on board a steamboat, going from New York to Bridgeport. As they entered the harbor of the latter city a stranger asked the great showman to point out "Barnum's house" from the deck. Barnum did so, and then another bystander remarked, "I know all about that house, for I did a lot of painting there for several months while Barnum was in Europe." He went on to say that it was the meanest and worst contrived house he ever saw, and added, "It will cost old Barnum a mint of money and not be worth two cents after it is finished." "I suppose from that that old Barnum didn't pay you very punctually," observed Barnum himself. "Oh, yes; he pays promptly every Saturday night," said the other; "there's no trouble about that. He has made half a million by exhibiting a little boy whom he took from Bridgeport and whom we never thought any great shakes until Barnum took him and trained him."

Presently one of the other passengers told this man who Barnum was, and nothing more was seen of him.

On another occasion, says Barnum, I went to Boston by the Fall River route. Arriving before sunrise, I found but one carriage at the depot. I immediately engaged it, and, giving the driver the check for my baggage, told him to take me directly to the Revere House, as I was in great haste, and enjoined him to take in no other passengers, and I would pay his demands. He promised compliance with my wishes, but soon afterwards appeared with a gentleman, two ladies, and several children, whom he crowded into the carriage with me, and, placing their trunks on the baggage-rack, started off. I thought there was no use in grumbling, and consoled myself with the reflection that the Revere House was not far away. He drove up one street and down another for what seemed to me a very long time, but I was wedged in so closely that I could not see what route he was taking.

After half an hour's drive he halted, and I found we were at the Lowell Railway Depot. Here my fellow-passengers alighted, and after a long delay the driver delivered their baggage, received his fare, and was about closing the carriage door preparatory to starting again. I was so thoroughly vexed at the shameful manner in which he had treated me, that I remarked:

"Perhaps you had better wait till the Lowell train arrives; you may possibly get another load of passengers. Of course my convenience is of no consequence. I suppose if you land me at the Revere House any time this week, it will be as much as I have a right to expect."

"I beg your pardon," he replied, "but that was Barnum and his family. He was very anxious to get here in time for the first train, so I stuck him for $2, and now I'll carry you to the Revere House free."

"What Barnum is it?" I asked.

"The Museum and Jenny Lind man," he replied.

The compliment and the shave both having been intended for me, I was of course mollified, and replied, "You are mistaken, my friend, I am Barnum."

"Coachee" was thunderstruck, and offered all sorts of apologies.

"A friend at the other depot told me that I had Mr. Barnum on board," said he, "and I really supposed he meant the other man. When I come to notice you, I perceive my mistake, but I hope you will forgive me. I have carried you frequently before, and hope you will give me your custom while you are in Boston. I never will make such a mistake again."

The Pequonnock Bank of Bridgeport was organized in the spring of 1851. Barnum had no interest whatever in it, not holding a single share of the stock. He was, however, unanimously elected President of it. He accepted the office, but as he knew he could not devote much time to it, requested that Mr. Hubbell, then Mayor of Bridgeport, should be made Vice-President.

Mr. Barnum also invested $20,000, as special partner, in a company for the publication of an illustrated weekly newspaper in New York. This was The Illustrated News. The first number was issued on the 1st of January, 1853, and within a month it had seventy thousand circulation. Various complications arose, which greatly annoyed Barnum, and at the end of the first year the whole concern was sold out without loss.

He was earnestly urged, in February, 1854, to accept the presidency of the Universal Exposition, which was held in New York in the famous Crystal Palace. At first he positively declined. But the matter was persistently urged upon him by many influential gentlemen, who represented to him that the success of the enterprise depended upon his acceptance of the position. The result was that at last he did accept it, and he entered upon its duties with all the vigor he could command. The concern was almost bankrupt, and to save it from utter ruin Barnum advanced large sums of money from his own purse. By this means and by various other efforts, such as the re-inauguration, the famous Jullien concerts, etc., here stored a semblance of prosperity. But it was uphill work, and after a time he resigned the presidency and abandoned the institution to its fate.

A little incident which occurred at Iranistan, in the winter of 1852, was observed by a lady from Philadelphia who was visiting there at the time. She afterward made it the subject of a poem, which Mr. Barnum prized highly. It was as follows:



The poor man's garden lifeless lay
Beneath a fall of snow;
But Art in costly greenhouses,
Keeps Summer in full glow.
And Taste paid gold for bright bouquets,
The parlor vase that drest,
That scented Fashion's gray boudoir,
Or bloomed on Beauty's breast.

A rich man sat beside the fire,
Within his sculptured halls;
Brave heart, clear head, and busy hand
Had reared those stately walls.
He to his gardener spake, and said
In tone of quiet glee--
"I want a hundred fine bouquets--
Canst make them, John, for me?

John's eyes became exceeding round,
This question when he heard;
He gazed upon his master,
And he answered not a word.
"Well, John," the rich man laughing said,
"If these too many be,
What sayest to half the number, man?
Canst fifty make for me?"

Now John prized every flower, as 'twere
A daughter or a son;
And thought, like Regan--"What the need
Of fifty, or of one?"
But, keeping back the thought, he said,
"I think, sir, that I might;
But it would leave my lady's flowers
In very ragged plight."

"Well, John, thy vegetable pets
Must needs respected be;
We'll halve the number once again--
Make twenty-five for me.
And hark ye, John, when they are made
Come up and let me know;
And I'll give thee a list of those
To whom the flowers must go,"

The twenty-five bouquets were made,
And round the village sent;
And to whom thinkest thou, my friend,
These floral jewels went?
Not to the beautiful and proud--
Not to the rich and gay--
Who, Dives-like, at Luxury's feast
Are seated every day.

An aged Pastor, on his desk
Saw those fair preachers stand;
A Widow wept upon the gift,
And blessed the giver's hand.
Where Poverty bent o'er her task,
They cheered the lonely room;
And round the bed where sickness lay,
They breathed Health's fresh perfume

Oh! kindly heart and open hand--
Those flowers in dust are trod,
But they bloom to weave a wreath for thee,
In the Paradise of God.
Sweet is the Minstrel's task, whose song
Of deeds like these may tell;
And long may he have power to give,
Who wields that Dower so well!

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