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

Idleness Without Rest


In the summer of 1855 Barnum had sold the American Museum to Messrs. John Greenwood, Jr., and Henry D. Butler. They paid nearly twice as much for the collection as it had originally cost, giving notes for nearly the entire amount, securing the notes by a chattel mortgage, and hiring the premises from Mrs. Barnum, who owned the Museum property lease, and on which, by agreement of the lessees, she realized something like $19,000 a year. The chattel mortgage was, of course, turned over to the New York assignees with the other property.

Barnum's widespread reputation for shrewdness was, in his present difficulties, destined to be the cause of considerable annoyance to him. Certain outside creditors who had bought clock notes at a tremendous discount, believing that Barnum's means were still ample, made up their minds that they must be paid at once without waiting for the sale of the property by assignees.

They, therefore, took what is known as "supplementary proceedings," by which is meant an examination before a judge, compelling the debtor to disclose, under oath, everything in regard to his property, his present means of living, and so on.

"Putting Barnum through a course of sprouts," as they expressed it, came to be a very frequent occurrence. One creditor after another hauled him up, and the attorneys would ask the same questions which had already been answered a dozen times.

This persistent and unnecessary annoyance created a great deal of sympathy for the man, the papers took his part, and even the judges before whom he appeared, personally sided with him, although they were obliged to administer the law. After a while, the judges ruled that he need not answer any questions propounded by an attorney, if he had already answered the same question in any previous examination.

In fact, one of the judges lost all patience on one occasion, and said sharply to the examining attorney:

"This, sir, has become simply a case of persecution. Mr. Barnum has many times answered every question that can properly be put to him, to elicit the desired information; and I think it is time to stop these examinations. I advise him not to answer one interrogatory which he has replied to under any previous inquiries.

One consequential little lawyer commenced his examination in behalf of a note-shaver, who held a thousand dollar note which he had bought for seven hundred. After the oath had been administered, he arranged his pen, ink, and paper, and in a loud tone of voice asked:

"What is your name, sir?"

The answer was given, and the next question delivered in a louder, more peremptory tone was:

"What is your business?"

"Attending bar," answered Barnum.

"Attending bar!" exclaimed the lawyer; "attending bar! Why, I thought you were a teetotaler."

"So I am," declared the witness.

"And yet, sir, you have the audacity to assert that you peddle rum all day, and drink none yourself?"

"That is not a relevant question," said Barnum.

"I will appeal to his Honor the Judge if you don't answer it instantly," said the lawyer, gleefully.

"Very well; I do attend bar, and yet never drink intoxicating liquors."

"Where do you attend bar, and for whom?" pursued the lawyer.

"I attend the bar of this court nearly every day, for the benefit of two-penny lawyers and their greedy clients," replied the disgusted Barnum.

On another occasion a young lawyer who had been pushing his inquiries to a great length, said in a half-laughing tone of apology:

"You see, Mr. Barnum, I am searching after the small thing; I am willing to take even the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table."

"Which are you, then, Lazarus or one of the dogs?" asked Barnum, wearily.

"I guess a blood-hound would not smell out much on this trial," returned the lawyer, good-naturedly, adding that he had no more questions to ask.

On account of Mrs. Barnum's continued ill-health, the family spent the summer in a farm-house at Westhampton, Long Island. The farm lay close to the ocean, and the place was very cool and delightful. The respite from active life, and the annoyance attendant to his financial troubles was of the greatest benefit to Mr. Barnum, who spent the time shooting, fishing, and driving.

One morning they discovered that the waves had thrown up on the beach a young black whale, nearly twelve feet long. The animal was dead, but still hard and fresh, and Barnum bought it for a few dollars from the man who claimed it by right of discovery. He sent it at once to the Museum, where it was exhibited in a huge refrigerator for a few days, where crowds came to see it. The managers very properly gave Barnum a share of the profits, which amounted to a sum sufficient to pay the board-bill of the family for the entire season.

"Well," said the amazed landlord, when he heard of it, "you do beat all for luck. Here you come and board for four months with your family, and when the time is nearly up and you're getting ready to leave, out rolls a big black whale on our beach, a thing never heard of before in this vicinity, and you take that whale and pay your board-bill with it!"

Shortly after his return to New York an unforeseen event occurred which Barnum realized was likely to extricate him from his difficulties.

The new city which had led him into ruin now promised to be his redemption.

The now gigantic Wheeler & Wilson Sewing-Machine Company was then doing a comparatively small yet rapidly growing business at Watertown, Connecticut. The Terroy & Barnum clock factory was standing idle, almost worthless, in East Bridgeport, and Wheeler & Wilson saw in the empty building, the situation, the ease of communication with New York, and other advantages, precisely what they wanted, provided they could procure the premises at a rate which would compensate them for the expense and trouble of removing their establishment from Watertown. The clock factory was sold for a trifle and the wheeler & Wilson Company moved into it and speedily enlarged it.

This important occurrence gave Barnum great hope for the increased value of the land belonging to his estate. And moreover Mr. Wheeler offered him a loan of $5,000 without security, which sum Barnum accepted, and devoted it, together with Mrs. Barnum's money, to purchasing the East Bridgeport property at the assignees' sale and also taking up such clock notes as could be purchased at a reasonable percentage. Though this new plan did eventually result in putting more money in his pocket than the Jerome complication had taken out, yet the process was a slow one. But Barnum concluded to let it work itself out, and meanwhile, with the idea of doing something to help out the accumulation and even saving something to add to the amount, he made up his mind to go to Europe again.

He set sail in 1857, taking with him Tom Thumb and little Cordelia Howard, who had attained celebrity for her artistic rendering of juvenile characters,

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