Search just our sites by using our customised search engine
Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

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

The Wheat and the Chaff


But while misfortune reveals a man his foes, it also shows him his friends. Barnum was overwhelmed with offers of assistance, funds were declared at his disposal, both for the support of his family and to re-establish him in business. "Benefits" by the score were offered him, and there was even a proposition among leading citizens of New York to give a series of benefits.

Every one of these offers Barnum declined on his unvarying principle of never accepting a money favor. The following correspondence is taken from the New York papers of the time, and will show the stand he took in the matter:

NEW YORK, June 2d, 1856.


Dear Sir. The financial ruin of a man of acknowledged energy and enterprise is a public calamity. The sudden blow, therefore, that has swept away, from a man like yourself, the accumulated wealth of years, justifies, we think, the public sympathy. The better to manifest our sincere respect for your liberal example in prosperity, as well as exhibit our honest admiration of your fortitude under overwhelming reverses, we propose to give that sympathy a tangible expression by soliciting your acceptance of a series of benefits for your family, the result of which may possibly secure for your wife and children a future home, or at least rescue them from the more immediate consequences of your misfortune.

Freeman Hunt, E. K. Collins, Isaac V. Fowler, James Phalen, Cornelius Vanderbilt, F. B. Cutting, James W. Gerard, Simeon Draper, Thomas McElrath, Park Godwin, R. F. Carman, Gen. C. W. Sanford, Philo Hurd, President H. R. R.; Wm. Ellsworth, President Brooklyn Ins. Co.; George S. Doughty, President Excelsior Ins. Co.; Chas. T. Cromwell, Robert Stuyvesant, E. L. Livingston, R. Busteed, Wm. P. Fettridge, E. N. Haughwout, Geo. F. Nesbitt, Osborne Boardman & Townsend, Charles H. Delavan, I. & C. Berrien, Fisher & Bird, Solomon & Hart, B. Young, M. D., Treadwell, Acker & Co., St. Nicholas Hotel; John Wheeler, Union Square Hotel; S. Leland & Co., Metropolitan Hotel; Albert Clark, Brevoort House; H. D. Clapp, Everett House; John Taylor, International Hotel; Sydney Hopman, Smithsonian Hotel; Messrs. Delmonico, Delmonico's; Geo. W. Sherman, Florence's Hotel; Kingsley & Ainslee, Howard Hotel; Libby & Whitney, Lovejoy's Hotel; Howard & Brown, Tammany Hall; Jonas Bartlett, Washington Hotel; Patten & Lynde, Pacific Hotel; J. Johnson, Johnson's Hotel, and over 1,000 others.

To this gratifying communication he replied as follows:

LONG ISLAND, Tuesday, June 3d, 1856.

GENTLEMEN: I can hardly find words to express my gratitude for your very kind proposition. The popular sympathy is to me far more precious than gold, and that sympathy seems in my case to extend from my immediate neighbors, in Bridgeport, to all parts of our Union.

Proffers of pecuniary assistance have reached me from every quarter, not only from friends, but from entire strangers. Mr. Wm. E. Burton, Miss Laura Keene, and Mr. Wm. Niblo have in the kindest manner tendered me the receipts of their theatres for one evening, Mr. Gough volunteered he proceeds of one of his attractive lectures; Mr. James Phalon generously offered me the free use of the Academy of Music; many professional ladies and gentlemen have urged me to accept their gratuitous services. I have, on principle, respectfully declined them all, as I beg, with the most grateful acknowledgments (at least for the present), to decline yours--not because a benefit, in itself, is an objectionable thing, but because I have ever made it a point to ask nothing of the public on personal grounds, and should prefer, while I can possibly avoid that contingency, to accept nothing from it without the honest conviction that I had individually given it in return a full equivalent.

While favored with health, I feel competent to earn an honest livelihood for myself and family. More than this I shall certainly never attempt with such a load of debt suspended in terrorem over me. While I earnestly thank you, therefore, for your generous consideration, gentlemen, I trust you will appreciate my desire to live unhumiliated by a sense of dependence, and believe me, sincerely yours,

To Messrs. FREEMAN HUNT, E. K. COLLINS, and others.

And with other offers of assistance from far and near, came the following from a little gentleman who did not forget his old friend and benefactor in the time of trial:


MY DEAR MR. BARNUM: I understand your friends, and that means "all creation," intend to get up some benefits for your family. Now, my dear sir, just be good enough to remember that I belong to that mighty crowd, and I must have a finger (or at least a "thumb") in that pie. I am bound to appear on all such occasions in some shape, from "Jack the Giant killer," Up-stairs, to the door-keeper down, whichever may serve you best; and there are some feats that I can perform as well as any other man of my inches. I have just started out on my Western tour, and have my carriage, ponies, and assistants all here, but I am ready to go on to New York, bag and baggage, and remain at Mrs. Barnum's service as long as I, in a small way, can be useful. Put me into any "heavy" work, if you like. Perhaps I can not lift as much as some other folks, but just take your pencil in hand and you will see I can draw a tremendous load. I drew two hundred tons at a single pull to-day, embracing two thousand persons, whom I hauled up safely and satisfactorily to all parties, at one exhibition. Hoping that you will be able to fix up a lot of magnets that will attract all New York, and volunteering to sit on any part of the loadstone, I am, as ever, your little but sympathizing friend,

All the prominent papers published editorials and paragraphs full of sympathy for the great man's misfortune, the Saturday Evening Gazette of Boston breaking out in the following poem.



BARNUM, your hand! Though you are "down,"
And see full many a frigid shoulder,
Be brave, my brick, and though they frown,
Prove that misfortune makes you bolder.
There's many a man that sneers, my hero,
And former praise converts to scorning,
Would worship--when he fears--a Nero,
And bend "where thrift may follow fawning."

You humbugged us--that we have seen,
And though you thought our MINDS were GREEN,
We never thought your HEART was YELLOW.
We knew you liberal, generous, warm,
Quick to assist a falling brother,
And, with such virtues, what's the harm
All memories of your faults to smother?

We had not heard the peerless Lind,
But for your spirit enterprising,
You were the man to raise the wind,
And make a coup confessed surprising.
You're reckoned in your native town
A friend in need, a friend in danger,
You ever keep the latch-string down,
And greet with open hand the stranger.

Stiffen your upper lip. You know
Who are your friends and who your foes now;
We pay for knowledge as we go;
And though you get some sturdy blows now,
You've a fair field--no favors crave--
The storm once passed will find you braver--
In virtue's cause long may you wave,
And on the right side, never waver.

The editor of the paper was Mr. B. P. Shillaber, better known as "Mrs. Partington," and to him Barnum years later wrote to find out the author of this effusion. Mr. Shillaber replied as follows:
CHELSEA, April 25th, 1868.

MY DEAR MR. BARNUM: The poem in question was written by A. Wallace Thaxter, associate editor with Mr. Clapp and myself, on the Gazette--since deceased, a glorious fellow--who wrote th poem from a sincere feeling of admiration for yourself. Mr. Clapp (Hon. W. W. Clapp) published it with his full approbation. I heard of your new trouble, in my sick chamber, where I have been all winter, with regret, and wish you as ready a release from attending difficulty as your genius has hitherto achieved under like circumstances.
Yours, very truly

The manifestations of sympathy from his fellow-citizens in Bridgeport gratified Barnum more than all the rest. The Mayor headed and more than 300 leading citizens signed a call for a mass meeting of sympathy.

At the hour appointed for the meeting a large assemblage crowded Washington Hall, the principal hall of the city. Many people thronged the door, unable to gain entrance.

Mr. Charles B. Hubbell, President of the Pequonnock Bank, was appointed President; Messrs. Charles Foote, Cashier of the Connecticut Bank; Stephen Tomlinson, President of the Farmers' Bank; Samuel F. Hurd, President of the Bridgeport City Bank, Hanford Lyon, Dwight Morris, E. Ferris Bishop, A. P. Houston, and Wm. H. Noble, Vice-Presidents, and Messrs. Samuel M. Chesney and Julius L. Hanover, Secretaries.

Mr. Dwight Morris said that they had met for the purpose of expressing their sympathy with their former fellow-citizen, P. T. Barnum, in his pecuniary reverses. It was well known how much Mr. Barnum had done for Bridgeport. He had expended large sums to build up their city, had accommodated many of them with the means of securing themselves homes, and it was principally to him that they owed their present beautiful resting-place for the dead. Applause. The citizens of Bridgeport hoped that his misfortunes would soon pass away, and that he would ere long resume his position in Bridgeport, and among the citizens of Fairfield County. Prolonged applause.

Mr. Wm. H. Noble read the following resolutions.

WHEREAS, Our late neighbor and friend, P. T. Barnum, has become involved in financial misfortune which seems likely to be irretrievable, and to prevent his again residing in our vicinity--Resolved, That we as citizens of Bridgeport deem it an act of justice no less than a slight return for the many acts of liberality, philanthropy, and public spirit in our midst, which have marked his prosperity, to offer him our tribute of respect and sympathy in this the hour of his trouble.

Resolved, That in his intercourse with us in the private and social relations of life, Mr. Barnum is remembered as a man of upright dealings and honorable sentiments--a kind and genial neighbor, and exemplary character, a beneficent philanthropist, and a most generous friend.

Resolved, That in his more extended capacity as a citizen he has enduringly associated his name with numerous objects, which remain as monuments among us, connected with the institutions of religion, education, and commercial prosperity--with the advancement of the mechanical, agricultural, and other useful arts and sciences--with the spirit of public improvement and public morals; and that so long as these remain to us matters of interest, we shall never forget that he has been of them all among the foremost, most liberal, and most efficient promoters.

Resolved, That we hereby express to him our heartfelt sympathy in his misfortunes, our unshaken confidence in his integrity, and our admiration of the dignified fortitude and composure with which he has met the reverses into which he has been dragged, through no fault of his own, except a too generous confidence in pretended friends, and our earnest hope that he may yet return to that wealth which he has so nobly employed and to the community he has so signally benefited.

Resolved, That copies of these resolutions, signed by the President and other officers of this meeting, be transmitted to Mr. Barnum, and also to the press of this city.

Mr. E. B. Goodsell said that Mr. Barnum had been the friend of the poor, and his hospitalities had been extended to men of every State in the Union. The citizens of Bridgeport should be proud to claim as one of their citizens P. T. Barnum. His name was written upon every charity in their city, and the temples of God bore its impress. By a few fell strokes of an ugly pen, he has been drawn into that whirlpool of destruction to himself and almost destruction to many in the city. In the midst of his prosperity, while he was building up a city on the east side of their little harbor, he had fallen by the hand of traitors. He hoped that he might survive his misfortunes and come back to live in their midst. He did not expect that he could ever return with that "pocketful of rocks" which he used to talk so much about; but, if he would come, he for one was ready to pledge himself that he should never starve in the city of Bridgeport. Loud and prolonged applause.

Mr. Oakley was loudly called for. He said that he had deep regard for Mr. Barnum in his distress. He was one of the very few people in Bridgeport who had never received any aid from Mr. Barnum, but he was ready to join in any expression of sympathy, and saw no reason why it should not assume a material form loud applause. He would only allude to Mr. Barnum's unostentatious benevolence. To one of the churches of the city Mr. Barnum gave $500--to one of their churches in which he felt no interest beyond his interest for Bridgeport, and this was but a specimen of his munificence. Nobody could say that Mr. Barnum had not made the best and most benevolent use of his money Applause. He had been the means of adding a large number to the population of Bridgeport. He never yet had found a man who was more eminently the friend of the poor man than P. T. Barnum Cheers. He had alleviated the sufferings of many a broken heart, and he had aided many a young man to start in business. If Mr. Barnum had erred, it was only an error of judgment Cheers. He sympathized with Mr. Barnum. He had talents which would cope with those of most of the human race. He did not believe that there was a man in the city who had so little soul as to begrudge a tear to him in his misfortune loud applause. They should at least send him assurance that there were thousands of hearts in his own city which appreciated his noble benevolence, and loved and honored his character.

Mr. Noble read the following letter from Mr. Barnum:

"NEW YORK, April 25th, 1856.
"DEAR SIR: I have just received a slip containing a call for a public meeting of the citizens of Bridgeport, to sympathize with me in my trouble. It is headed by his Honor the Mayor, and is signed by most of our prominent citizens, as well as by many more who by hard labor earn their daily bread, and who appreciate a calamity which at a single blow strips a man of his fortune, his dear home, and all the worldly comfort which years of diligent labor has acquired. It is due to truth to say that I knew nothing of this movement until your letter informed me of it. In misfortune, the true sympathy of neighbors is more consoling and precious than anything which money can purchase. This voluntary offering of my fellow-citizens, though it thrills me with painful emotions and causes tears of gratitude, yet it imparts renewed strength and fills my heart with thankfulness to Providence for raising up to my sight, above all this wreck, kind hearts which soar above the sordid atmosphere of 'dirty dollars.' I can never forget this unexpected kindness from my old friends and neighbors. I trust I am not blind to my many faults and shortcomings; I, however, do feel great consolation in believing that I never used money or position to oppress the poor or wrong my fellowmen, and that I never turned empty away whom I had the power to assist. My poor sick wife, who needs the bracing air which our dear home (made beautiful by her willing hand) would now have afforded her, is driven by the orders of her physician to a secluded spot on Long Island, where the sea-wind lends its healthful influence, and where I have also retired for the double purpose of consoling her and recruiting my own constitution, which, through the excitement of the last few months, has most seriously failed me. In our quiet and humble retreat that which I most sincerely pray for is tranquillity and contentment. I am sure that the remembrance of the kindness of my Bridgeport friends will aid me in securing these cherished blessings. No man who has not passed through similar scenes, can fully comprehend the misery which has been crowded into the last few months of my life; but I have endeavored to preserve my integrity, and I humbly hope and believe that I am being taught humility and reliance upon Providence, which will yet afford a thousand times more peace and true happiness than can be acquired in the dire strife and turmoil, excitements and struggles of this money-worshiping age. The man who coins his brain and blood into gold, who wastes all of his time and thought upon the almighty dollar, who looks no higher than blocks of houses and tracts of lands, and whose iron chest is crammed with stocks and mortgages, tied up with his own heart-strings, may console himself with the idea of safe investments; but he misses a pleasure which I firmly believe this lesson was intended to secure to me, and which it will secure, if I can fully bring my mind to realize its wisdom. I think I hear you say,

When the devil was sick,
The devil a saint would be,
But when the devil got well,
The devil a saint was he.'

"Granted, but after all the man who looks upon the loss of money as anything compared to the loss of honor, or health, or self-respect, or friends; a man who can find no source of happiness except in riches, is to be pitied for his blindness. I certainly feel that the loss of money, of home and my home comforts, is dreadful; that to be driven again to find a resting place away from the friends that I loved, and from where I had fondly hoped I was to end my days. And when I had lavished time, money, and everything to make my descent to the grave placid and pleasant, is indeed a severe lesson; but after all I firmly believe it is for the best, and though my heart may break I will not repine. I regret, beyond expression, that any man should be a loser for having trusted to my name; it would not have been so if I had not myself been deceived. As it is, I am gratified in knowing that all my individual obligations will be met. It would have been much better if clock creditors had accepted the best offers that it was in my power to make them. But it was not so to be, it is now too late, and as I willingly give up all I possess, I can do no more. Wherever my future lot may be cast, I shall ever fondly cherish the kindness which I have always received from the citizens of Bridgeport. I am, my dear sir,
"Truly yours, P. T. BARNUM."

The reading of the letter excited much sensation, applause, and laughter.

The resolutions were re-read and passed unanimously.

Mr. William Bishop said it was unusual for citizens to meet together to express sympathy with one who had lost his fortune. It was very common for the people and the press to eulogize a man when he was beyond the reach of human sympathy. He thought it was far better to tender a man the marks of approval while he was yet alive and could appreciate it. Applause For along time in this city they were accustomed to bury their dead among the living. Mr. Barnum had done more than any other man to secure to this city the most beautiful-cemetery in Connecticut. He alone had secured to the city what it had never had before--a public square. On the east side of the river he had almost completed a school-house, a thing which could be said of no other man. Loud cheering. If material aid were needed, he should be proud to assist in raising it. There was one clause in the resolutions which he did not believe. He did not believe that "in all probability he could ever retrieve" his fortune. Prolonged cheering.

Mr. J. E. Dunham made a brief but earnest speech. He hoped this meeting would put down the sneers which were in circulation in relation to Mr. Barnum's sincerity, by showing that those estimated him most who knew him best.

Mr. Nathaniel Greene and Mr. Bowles made short but effective speeches.

The meeting was characterized throughout by the greatest enthusiasm, and adjourned with three loud cheers for Barnum.

Nor was sympathy all his neighbors offered him; shortly after this meeting a number of gentlemen in Bridgeport offered him a loan of $50,000, if that sum would meet the exigency.

Little by little the magnitude of the fraud practiced upon Barnum's too confiding nature dawned upon him. Not only had his notes been used to five times the amount stipulated, but the money had been applied, not to relieving the temporary embarrassment of the company, but almost entirely to the redemption of the old claims of years gone by. Barnum sent two of his friends to New Haven to ask for a meeting of the creditors, authorizing them to say for him in substance:

"GENTLEMEN: This is a capital practical joke! Before I negotiated with your clock company at all, I was assured by several of you, and particularly by a representative of the bank which was the largest creditor of the concern, that the Jerome Company was eminently responsible, and that the head of the same was uncommonly pious. On the strength of such representations solely, I was induced to agree to indorse and accept paper for that company to the extent of $110,000--no more. That sum I am now willing to pay for my own verdancy, with an additional sum of $40,000 for your 'cuteness, making a total of $150,000, which you can have if you cry 'quits' with the fleeced showman and let him off."

Many of the old creditors favored this proposition; but it was found that the indebtedness was so scattered it would be impracticable to attempt a settlement by an unanimous compromise of the creditors.

Barnum therefore turned over his Bridgeport property to Connecticut assignees, moved his family to New York, and made an assignment there of all his other property, real estate and personal effects.

About this time he received a letter from Philadelphia proffering the loan of $500 in case he really was in need. The wording of the letter made Barnum suspicious that it was a trick to ascertain whether he really had any property or if he made an honest settlement to the best of his ability. To this letter Barnum replied that he did need $500, and as he had expected the money never came.

But the Philadelphia banks which were holding the Jerome paper for a higher percentage, at once acceded to the terms which Mr. Barnum had announced himself able to pay,

Every dollar which he owed on his own account he had already paid, and for the liabilities incurred by the swindle which had involved him he offered such a percentage which he thought his estate, when sold, would eventually pay. Mrs. Barnum also gave up certain portions of her own property to redeem such notes as could be secured upon these terms.

They went to live in a hired furnished house in New York, the landlady and her family boarding with them. At forty-six Barnum found himself once more at the foot of the ladder--beginning life anew.

"The situation is disheartening," he said, "but I have experience, energy, health, and hope."

Previous | Contents | Next


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus