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

Business Life


In the fall of 1826, Oliver Taylor, who had removed from Danbury to Brooklyn, induced Barnum to leave Grassy Plain, offering him a clerkship in his grocery store, which offer was accepted, and before long the young man was intrusted with the purchasing of all goods for the store. He bought for cash, going into lower New York in search of the cheapest market, frequenting auction sales of merchandise, and often entering into combines with other grocers to bid off large lots, which were afterward divided between them. Thus they were enabled to buy at a much lower rate than if the goods had passed through the hands of wholesale dealers, and Barnum's reputation for business tact and shrewdness increased.

The following summer he was taken ill with smallpox, and during his long confinement to the house his stock of ready money became sadly di-minished. As soon as he was able to travel he went home to recover his strength, and while there had the happiness of renewing the acquaintance, so pleasantly begun, with the pretty tailoress, Charity Hallett.

His health fully restored he returned to Brooklyn, but not to his old position. Pleasant as that had been, it no longer contented the restless, ambitious Barnum. He opened a "porter-home," but sold out a few months later, at a good profit, and took another clerkship, this time at 29 Peck Slip, New York, in the store of a certain David Thorp. He lived in his employer's family, with which he was a great favorite, and where he had frequent opportunities of meeting old friends, for Mr. Thorp's place was a great resort for Bethel and Danbury hatters and combmakers.

At this time Barnum formed his first taste for the theatre. He went to the play regularly and soon set up for a critic. It was his one dissipation, however. A more moral young fellow never existed; he read his Bible and went to church as regularly as ever, and to the day of his death was wont to declare that he owed all that was good in his character to his early observance of Sunday.

In the winter of 1898 his grandfather offered to him, rent free, his carriage-house, which was situated on the main street, if he would come back to Bethel. The young man's capital was one hundred and twenty dollars; fifty of this was spent in fixing up his store, and the remainder he invested in a stock of fruit and confectionery. Having arranged with fruit dealers of his acquaintance in New York to receive his orders, he opened his store on the first of May--in those times known as "training day." The first day was so successful that long before noon the proprietor was obliged to call in one of his old schoolmates to assist in waiting on customers. The total receipts were sixty-three dollars, which sum was promptly invested in a stock of fancy goods --pocket-books, combs, knives, rings, beads, etc. Business was good all summer, and in the fall oysters were added to the list of attractions. The old grandfather was delighted at the success of the scheme, and after a while induced Barnum to take an agency for lottery tickets on a commission of ten per cent. Lotteries in those days were looked upon as thoroughly respectable, and the profit gained from the sale of the tickets was regarded as perfectly legitimate by the agent; his views on the subject changed very materially later on.

The store soon became the great village resort, the centre of all discussions and the scene of many practical jokes.

The following scene, related by Barnum himself, makes a chapter in the history of Connecticut, as the State was when "blue laws" were something more than a dead letter:

"To swear in those days was according to custom, but contrary to law. A person from New York State, whom I will call Crofut, who was a frequent visitor at my store, was equally noted for his self-will and his really terrible profanity. One day he was in my little establishment engaged in conversation when Nathan Seelye, Esq., one of our village justices of the peace, and a man of strict religious principles, came in, and hearing Crofut's profane language he told him he considered it his duty to fine him one dollar for swearing.

"Crofut responded immediately with an oath, that he did not care a d----n for the Connecticut blue laws.

" 'That will make two dollars,' said Mr. Seelye.

"This brought forth another oath.

" 'Three dollars,' said the sturdy justice.

"Nothing but oaths were given in reply, until Esquire Seelye declared the damage to the Connecticut laws to amount to fifteen dollars.

"Crofut took out a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to the justice of the peace, with an oath.

" 'Sixteen dollars,' said Mr. Seelye, counting out four dollars to hand to Mr. Crofut as his change.

" 'Oh, keep it, keep it,' said Crofut, 'I don't want any change; I'll d----n soon swear out the balance.' He did so, after which he was more circumspect in his conversation, remarking that twenty dollars a day for swearing was about as much as he could stand."

About this time Barnum appeared, on at least one occasion, in the role of lawyer. A man charged with assault and battery was brought before the justice of the peace, Barnum's grandfather, for trial. A medical student, Newton by name, had volunteered to defend the prisoner, and Mr. Couch, the grand juryman, in irony, offered Phineas a dollar to represent the State. The court was crowded. The guilt of the prisoner was established beyond a doubt, but Newton, undaunted, rose to make his speech. It consisted of a flood of invective against the grand juryman, Couch; the court listened for five minutes, and then interrupted a magnificent burst of eloquence by informing the speaker that Mr. Couch was not the plaintiff in the case at all.

"Not the plaintiff!" stammered Newton; "well, then, your honor, who is?"

"The State of Connecticut," was the answer.

The young man dropped into his seat, speechless, and the prosecuting attorney arose and in an elaborate speech declared the guilt of the prisoner shown beyond question, adding that he was astonished that both the prisoner and his counsel had not pleaded guilty at once. In the midst of his soarings the grandfather interrupted with--"Young man, will you have the kindness to inform the court which side you represent--the plaintiff or the defendant?"

The orator stared helplessly at the justice for a moment, and then sat down. Amid peals of laughter from the spectators the prisoner was bound over to the county court for trial.

But Phineas did not often come out so ingloriously in encounters with his grandfather. The old gentleman was always ready to lend his grandson any of his turnouts except one, and this one Phineas especially desired one day for a sleighing party, in which he was to escort the fair Charity Hallett. So he boldly went to the grandfather and asked if he might take Arabian and the new sleigh.

"Oh, yes," said the old man, jokingly, "if you have twenty dollars in your pocket."


"Yes, really."

Whereupon Phineas showed the money, and putting it back in his pocket, remarked, "You see; I am much obliged for the sleigh."

Of course, the grandfather had meant to ask an impossible price for the horse and sleigh; but being caught up so suddenly, there was nothing to do but to consent, and Phineas and "Chairy" had the finest turnout of the party.

There was a young fellow in the town, Jack Mallett, whose education was rather deficient, and who had been somewhat unsuccessfully paying his addresses to a fair but hard-hearted maiden, named Lucretia. One Sunday evening she cruelly refused to accept his escort after church, and added insult to injury by walking off before his very eyes with another man. Accordingly, he determined to write her a letter of remonstrance, and enlisted the aid of Phineas and another young blade known as "Bill" Shepherd. The joint effort of the three resulted in the following:

"BETHEL,----, 18--.

"MISS LUCRETIA: I write this to ask an explanation of your conduct in giving me the mitten on Sunday night last. If you think, madam, that you can trifle with my affections, and turn me off for every little whipper-snapper that you can pick up, you will find yourself considerably mistaken. We read thus far to Mallett, and it met his approval. He said he liked the idea of calling her "madam," for he thought it sounded so "distant," it would hurt her feelings very much. The term "little whipper-snapper" also delighted him. He said he guessed that would make her feel cheap. Shepherd and myself were not quite so sure of its aptitude, since the chap who succeeded in capturing Lucretia, on the occasion alluded to, was a head and shoulders taller than Mallett. However, we did not intimate our thoughts to Mallett, and he desired us to "go ahead and give her another dose." You don't know me, madam, if you think you can snap me up in this way. I wish you to understand that I can have the company of girls as much above you as the sun is above the earth, and I won't stand any of your impudent nonsense no how. This was duly read and approved. "Now," said Mallett, "try to touch her feelings. Remind her of the pleasant hours we have spent together;" and we continued as follows:

My dear Lucretia, when I think of the many pleasant hours we have spent together--of the delightful walks which we have had on moonlight evenings to Fenner's Rocks, Chestnut Ridge, Grassy Plain, Wild Cat and Puppy Town--of the strolls which we have taken upon Shelter Rocks, Cedar Hill--the visits we have made to Old Lane, Wolfpits, Toad Hole and Plum Trees1--when all these things come rushing on my mind, and when; my dear girl, I remember how often you have told me that you loved me better than anybody else, and I assured you that my feelings were the same as yours, it almost breaks my heart to think of last Sunday night.

"Can't you stick in some affecting poetry here?" said Mallett. Shepherd could not recollect any to the point, nor could I; but as the exigency of the case seemed to require it, we concluded to manufacture a verse or two, which we did, as follows:

1 These were the euphonious names of localities in the vicinity of Bethel.

Lucretia, dear, what have I done,
That you should use me thus and so,
To take the arm of Tom Beers' son,
And let your dearest true love go?

Miserable fate, to lose you now,
And tear this bleeding heart asunder!
Will you forget your tender vow?
I can't believe it--no, by thunder.

Mallett did not like the word "thunder," but being informed that no other word could be substituted without destroying both rhyme and reason, he consented that it should remain, provided we added two more stanzas of a softer nature; something, he said, that would make the tears come, if possible, We then ground out the following:

Lucretia, dear, do write to Jack,
And say with Beers you are not smitten;
And thus to me in love come back,
And give all other boys the mitten.

Do this, Lucretia, and till death
I'll love you to intense distraction;
I'll spend for you my every breath,
And we will live in satisfaction.

"That will do very well," said Mallett. "Now I guess you had better blow her up a little more." We obeyed orders as follows: It makes me mad to think what a fool I was to give you that finger-ring and bosom-pin, and spend so much time in your company, just to be flirted and bamboozled as I was on Sunday night last. If you continue this course of conduct, we part forever, and I will thank you to send back that jewelry. I would sooner see it crushed under my feet than worn by a person who abused me as you have done. I shall despise you forever if you don't change your conduct towards me, and send me a letter of apology on Monday next. I shall not go to meeting to-morrow, for I would scorn to sit in the same meeting-house with you until I have an explanation of your conduct. If you allow any young man to go home with you to-morrow night, I shall know it, for you will be watched, "There," said Mallett, "that is pretty strong. Now, I guess, you had better touch her feelings once more, and wind up the letter." We proceeded as follows: My sweet girl, if you only knew the sleepless nights which I have spent during the present week, the torments and sufferings which I endure on your account; if you could but realize that I regard the world as less than nothing without you, I am certain you would pity me. A homely cot and a crust of bread with my adorable Lucretia would be a paradise, where a palace without you would be a hades. "What in thunder is hades?" inquired Jack. We explained. He considered the figure rather bold, and requested us to close as soon as possible. Now, dearest, in bidding you adieu, I implore you to reflect on our past enjoyments, look forward with pleasure to our future happy meetings, and rely upon your affectionate Jack in storm or calm, in sickness, distress or want, for all these will be powerless to change my love. I hope to hear from you on Monday next, and, if favorable, I shall be happy to call on you the same evening, when in ecstatic joy we will laugh at the past, hope for the future, and draw consolation from the fact that "the course of true love never did run smooth." This from your disconsolate but still hoping lover and admirer,

"P. S.--On reflection I have concluded to go to meeting to-morrow. If all is well, hold your pocket-handkerchief in your left hand as you stand up to sing with the choir--in which case I shall expect the pleasure of giving you my arm to-morrow night.
"J. M."

The effect of this letter upon Lucretia was not as favorable as could have been desired. She declined to remove her handkerchief from her right hand, and she returned the "ring and bosom-pin" to her disconsolate admirer, while, not many months after, Mallett's rival led Lucretia to the altar. As for Mallett's agreement to pay Shepherd and Barnum five pounds of carpet-rags and twelve yards of broadcloth "lists" for their services, owing to his ill success, they compromised for one-half the amount.

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