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

An Enterprising Englishman


The morning after the lecture in Manchester a gentleman named John Fish called at the hotel where Barnum was staying. He said that he had attended the lecture the evening before, and added that he was pretty well acquainted with the lecturer, having read his autobiography. He went on to say that he was joint proprietor with another gentleman in a cotton-mill near Manchester, "although," he said, "a few years ago I was working as a journeyman, and probably should have been at this time had I not read your book."

Observing Mr. Barnum's surprise, he continued:

"The fact is, Mr. Barnum, upon reading your autobiography, I thought I perceived you tried to make yourself out worse than you really were; for I discovered a pleasant spirit and a good heart under the rougher exterior in which you chose to present yourself to the public; but," he added, "after reading your life, I found myself in possession of renewed strength, and awakened energies and aspirations, and I said to myself, 'Why can't I go ahead and make money, as Barnum did? He commenced without money and succeeded; why may not I?' In this train of thought," he continued, "I went to a newspaper office and advertised for a partner with money to join me in establishing a cotton-mill. I had no applications, and, remembering your experiences when you had money and wanted a partner, I spent half a crown in a similar experiment. I advertised for a partner to join a man who had plenty of capital. Then I had lots of applicants ready to introduce me into all sorts of occupations, from that of a banker to that of a horsejockey or gambler, if I would only furnish the money to start with. After a while, I advertised again for a partner, and obtained one with money. We have a good mill. I devote myself closely to business, and have been very successful. I know every line in your book; so, indeed, do several members of my family; and I have conducted my business on the principles laid down in your published 'Rules for Money-making.' I find them correct principles; and, sir, I have sought this interview in order to thank you for publishing your autobiography, and to tell you that to that act of yours I attribute my present position in life."

"Your statement is certainly flattering," said Mr. Barnum, "and I am glad if I have been able in any manner, through my experiences, to aid you in starting in life. But I presume your genius would have found vent in time if I had not written the book."

"No, indeed, it would not," he replied, in an earnest tone; "I am sure I should have worked as a mill-hand all my life if it had not been for you. Oh, I have made no secret of it," he continued; "the commercial men with whom I deal know all about it; indeed, they call me 'Barnum' on 'change here in Manchester."

On one occasion, when General Tom Thumb exhibited in Bury, Mr. Fish closed his mill, and gave each of his employees a ticket to the exhibition; out of respect, as he said, to Barnum. On a subsequent occasion, when the little General visited England the last time, Mr. Fish invited him, his wife, Commodore Nutt, Minnie Warren, and the managers of "the show," to a splendid and sumptuous dinner at his house, which the distinguished little party enjoyed exceedingly.

Soon after his return to America, Barnum read an account of a French giant then exhibiting in Paris, and said to be over eight feet in height. As this was considerably taller than anything that the showman had ever beheld, he wrote to his friend Fish, who had expressed a wish to do him any service in his power, and requested him to go to Paris, and, by actual measurement, find out the exact height of the giant. He inclosed an offer, arranging the prices on a sliding scale, commencing at eight feet, and descending to seven feet two inches, for if he were not taller than that he was not to be desired.

Mr. Fish put a two-foot rule in his pocket, and started for Paris, where, after several days' delay and much trouble beside, he finally succeeded in gaining an interview. The giant was shown Barnum's letter, and read the tempting offers made for his services, provided he measured eight feet, or within six inches of that height.

"Oh, I measure over eight feet," said he.

"Very likely," responded Mr. Fish, "but you see my orders are to measure you."

"There's no need of that; you can see for yourself," stretching himself up a few inches by aid of a peculiar knack which giants and dwarfs possess to increase or diminish their apparent stature.

"No doubt you are right," persisted Mr. Fish, "but you see I must obey orders, and if I am not permitted to measure you I shall not engage you."

"Well," said the giant, "if you can't take my word for it, look at that door. You see my head is more than two feet above the top (giving his neck a severe stretch); just measure the door."

But Mr. Fish refused. The giant was now desperate, and, stretching himself up to his full height, exclaimed: "Well, be quick! Put your rule to my feet and measure me; but hurry up, please!"

Mr. Fish regarded him coolly. "Look here!" said he, "this sort of thing won't do, you know. I don't understand this contrivance around the soles of your boots, but it seems to me you've got a set of springs there which aids your height when you desire it. Now I will not stand any more nonsense. If I engage you at all, you must first take off your boots, and lie flat upon your back in the middle of the floor."

The giant protested, but Mr. Fish was firm, and at last he slowly took off his coat and lay down on the floor. Mr. Fish applied his rule, and to his own astonishment and the giant's indignation the latter proved to be barely seven feet one and one-half inches. So he was not engaged at all.

Some time afterwards Barnum wrote to his friend and asked his permission to put him into a new book then in course of preparation. He wrote in return the following characteristic letter:

Had I made a fortune of L100,000 I should have been proud of a place in your Autobiography; but as I have only been able to make (here he named a sum which in this country would be considered almost a fortune), I feel I should be out of place in your pages; at all events, if you mention me at all, draw it mildly, if you please.

The American war has made sad havoc in our trade, and it is only by close attention to business that I have lately been at all successful. I have built a place for one thousand looms, and have, as you know, put in a pair of engines, which I have named "Barnum" and "Charity." Each engine has its name engraved on two large brass plates at either end of the cylinder, which has often caused much mirth when I have explained the circumstances to visitors. I started and christened "Charity" on the 14th of January last, and she has saved me L12 per month in coals ever since. The steam from the boiler goes first to "Charity" (she is high pressure), and "Barnum" only gets the steam after she has done with it. He has to work at low pressure (a condensing engine), and the result is a saving. Barnum was extravagant when he took steam direct, but since I fixed Charity betwixt him and the boiler, he can only get what she gives him. This reminds me that you state in your "Life" you could always make money, but formerly did not save it. Perhaps you never took care of it till Charity became Chancellor of Exchequer. When I visited you at the Bull Hotel, in Blackburn, you pointed to General Tom Thumb, and said: "That is my piece of goods; I have sold it hundreds of thousands of times, and have never yet delivered it!" That was ten years ago, in 1858. If I had been doing the same with my pieces of calico, I must have been wealthy by this time; but I have been hammering at one (cotton) nail several months, and, as it did not offer to clinch, I was almost tempted to doubt one of your "rules," and thought I would drive at some other nail; but, on reflection, I knew I understood cotton better than anything else, and so I back up your rule and stick to cotton, not doubting it will be all right and successful.

Mr. Fish was one of the large class of English manufacturers who suffered seriously from the effects of the rebellion in the United States. As an Englishman, he could not have a patriot's interest in the progress of that terrible struggle; but he made a practical exhibition of sympathy for the suffering soldiers, in a pleasant and characteristic manner.

At the great Sanitary Fair in New York, during the war, Mr. Fish sent two monster "Simuel cakes," covered with miniature forts, cannon, armies, and all the panoply of war, which attracted great attention from every one present.

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