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

Burning of the American Museum


On the 13th day of July, 1865, when Barnum was speaking in the Legislature at Hartford, against the railroad schemes, a telegram was handed him from his son-in-law and assistant manager in New York, S. H. Hurd, saying that the American Museum was in flames and its total destruction certain.

Barnum glanced at the dispatch, folded and laid it in his desk, and went calmly on with his speech. At the conclusion of his remarks, the bill which he was advocating was voted upon and carried, and the House adjourned.

Not until then did Barnum hand the telegram to his friend, William G. Coe, of Winsted, who immediately communicated the intelligence to several members.

Warm sympathizers at once crowded around him, and one of his strongest opponents pushing forward, seized his hand, and said: "Mr. Barnum, I am truly sorry to hear of your great misfortune."

"Sorry," replied Barnum; "why, my dear sir, I shall not have time to be sorry in a week! It will take me at least that length of time before I can get over laughing at having whipped you all so nicely on that bill."

But he did find time to be sorry when, next day, he went to New York and saw nothing of what had been the American Museum but a smouldering mass of debris.

Here was destroyed, in a few hours, the result of many years' toil in accumulating from every part of the world myriads of curious productions of nature and art--a collection which a half a million of dollars and a quarter of a century could not restore.

In addition to these, there were many Revolutionary relics and other articles of historical interest that could never be duplicated. Not a thousand dollars worth of property was saved; the loss was irreparable, and the insurance was only forty thousand dollars.

The fire probably originated in the engine-room, where steam was constantly kept up to pump fresh air into the waters of the aquaria and to propel the immense fans for cooling the atmosphere of the rooms.

All the New York newspapers made a great "sensation" of the fire, and the full particulars were copied in journals throughout the country. A facetious reporter; Mr. Nathan D. Urner, of the Tribune, wrote the following amusing account, which appeared in that journal, July 14, 1865, and was very generally quoted from and copied by provincial papers, many of whose readers accepted every line of the glowing narrative as "gospel truth":

"Soon after the breaking out of the conflagration, a number of strange and terrible howls and moans proceeding from the large apartment in the third floor of the Museum, corner of Ann street and Broadway, startled the throngs who had collected in front of the burning building, and who were at first under the impression that the sounds must proceed from human beings unable to effect their escape. Their anxiety was somewhat relieved on this score, but their consternation was by no means decreased upon learning that the room in question was the principal chamber of the menagerie connected with the Museum, and that there was imminent danger of the release of the animals there confined, by the action of the flames. Our reporter fortunately occupied a room on the north corner of Ann street and Broadway, the windows of which looked immediately into this apartment; and no sooner was he apprised of the fire than he repaired there, confident of finding items in abundance. Luckily the windows of the Museum were unclosed, and he had a perfect view of almost the entire interior of the apartment. The following is his statement of what followed, in his own language.

"Protecting myself from the intense heat as well as I could by taking the mattress from the bed and erecting it as a bulwark before the window, with only enough space reserved on the top so as to look out, I anxiously observed the animals in the opposite room. Immediately opposite the window through which I gazed was a large cage containing a lion and lioness. To the right hand was the three-storied cage, containing monkeys at the top, two kangaroos in the second story, and a happy family of cats, rats, adders, rabbits, etc., in the lower apartment. To the left of the lions' cage was the tank containing the two vast alligators, and still further to the left, partially hidden from my sight, was the grand tank containing the great white whale, which has created such a furore in our sightseeing midst for the past few weeks. Upon the floor were caged the boa-constrictor, anacondas and rattlesnakes, whose heads would now and then rise menacingly through the top of the cage. In the extreme right was the cage, entirely shut from my view at first, containing the Bengal tiger and the Polar bear, whose terrific growls could be distinctly heard from behind the partition. With a simultaneous bound the lion and his mate sprang against the bars, which gave way and came down with a great crash, releasing the beasts, which for a moment, apparently amazed at their sudden liberty, stood in the middle of the floor lashing their sides with their tails and roaring dolefully.

"Almost at the same moment the upper part of the three-storied cage, consumed by the flames, fell forward, letting the rods drop to the floor, and many other animals were set free. Just at this time the door fell through and the flames and smoke rolled in like a whirlwind from the Hadean river Cocytus. A horrible scene in the right-hand corner of the room, a yell of indescribable agony, and a crashing, grating sound, indicated that the tiger and Polar bear were stirred up to the highest pitch of excitement. Then there came a great crash, as of the giving way of the bars of their cage. The flames and smoke momentarily rolled back, and for a few seconds the interior of the room was visible in the lurid light of the flames, which revealed the tiger and the lion, locked together in close combat.

"The monkeys were perched around the windows, shivering with dread, and afraid to jump out. The snakes were writhing about, crippled and blistered by the heat, darting out their forked tongues, and expressing their rage and fear in the most sibilant of hisses. The 'Happy Family' were experiencing an amount of beatitude which was evidently too cordial for philosophical enjoyment. A long tongue of flame had crept under the cage, completely singing every hair from the cat's body. The felicitous adder was slowly burning in two and busily engaged in impregnating his organic system with his own venom. The joyful rat had lost his tail by a falling bar of iron; and the beatific rabbit, perforated by a red-hot nail, looked as if nothing would be more grateful than a cool corner in some Esquimaux farm-yard. The members of the delectated convocation were all huddled together in the bottom of their cage, which suddenly gave way, precipitating them out of view in the depths below, which by this time were also blazing like the fabled Tophet.

"At this moment the flames rolled again into the room, and then again retired. The whale and alligators were by this time suffering dreadful torments. The water in which they swam was literally boiling. The alligators dashed fiercely about, endeavoring to escape, and opening and shutting their great jaws in ferocious torture; but the poor whale, almost boiled, with great ulcers bursting from his blubbery sides, could only feebly swim about, though blowing excessively, and every now and then sending up great fountains of spray. At length, crack went the glass sides of the great cases, and whale and alligators rolled out on the floor with the rushing and steaming water. The whale died easily, having been pretty well used up before. A few great gasps and a convulsive flap or two of his mighty flukes were his expiring spasm. One of the alligators was killed almost immediately by falling across a great fragment of shattered glass, which cut open his stomach and let out the greater part of his entrails to the light of day. The remaining alligator became involved in a controversy with an anaconda, and joined the melee in the centre of the flaming apartment.

"A number of birds which were caged in the upper part of the building were set free by some charitably inclined person at the first alarm of fire, and at intervals they flew out. There were many valuable tropical birds, parrots, cockatoos, mockingbirds, humming-birds, etc., as well as some vultures and eagles, and one condor. Great excitement existed among the swaying crowds in the streets below as they took wing. There were confined in the same room a few serpents, which also obtained their liberty; and soon after the rising and devouring flames began to enwrap the entire building, a splendid and emblematic sight was presented to the wondering and upgazing throngs. Bursting through the central casement, with flap of wings and lashing coils, appeared an eagle and a serpent wreathed in fight. For a moment they hung poised in mid-air, presenting a novel and terrible conflict. It was the earth and air (or their respective representatives) at war for mastery; the base and the lofty, the groveller and the soarer, were engaged in deadly battle. At length the flat head of the serpent sank; his writhing, sinuous form grew still; and wafted upward by the cheers of the gazing multitude, the eagle, with a scream of triumph, and bearing his prey in his iron talons, soared towards the sun. Several monkeys escaped from the burning building to the neighboring roofs and streets; and considerable excitement was caused by the attempts to secure them. One of the most amusing incidents in this respect, was in connection with Mr. James Gordon Bennett. The veteran editor of the Herald was sitting in his private office, with his back to the open window, calmly discussing with a friend the chances that the Herald establishment would escape the conflagration, which at that time was threateningly advancing up Ann street towards Nassau street. In the course of his conversation, Mr. Bennett observed: 'Although I have usually had good luck in cases of fire, they say that the devil is ever at one's shoulder, and'--here an exclamation from his friend interrupted him, and turning quickly he was considerably taken aback at seeing the devil himself, or something like him, at his very shoulder as he spoke. Recovering his equanimity, with the ease and suavity which is usual with him in all company, Mr. Bennett was about to address the intruder, when he perceived that what he had taken for the gentleman in black was nothing more than a frightened orang-outang. The poor creature, but recently released from captivity, and doubtless thinking that he might fill some vacancy in the editorial corps of the paper in question, had descended by the water-pipe and instinctively taken refuge in the inner sanctum of the establishment. Although the editor--perhaps from the fact that he saw nothing peculiarly strange in the visitation--soon regained his composure, it was far otherwise with his friend, who immediately gave the alarm. Mr. Hudson rushed in and boldly attacked the monkey, grasping him by the throat. The book-editor next came in, obtaining a clutch upon the brute by the ears; the musical critic followed and seized the tail with both hands, and a number of reporters, armed with inkstands and sharpened pencils, came next, followed by a dozen policemen with brandished clubs; at the same time, the engineer in the basement received the preconcerted signal and got ready his hose, wherewith to pour boiling hot water upon the heads of, those in the streets, in case it should prove a regular systematized attack by gorillas, Brazil apes, and chimpanzees. Opposed to this formidable combination the rash intruder fared badly, and was soon in durance vile. Numerous other incidents of a similar kind occurred; but some of the most amusing were in connection with the wax figures.

"Upon the same impulse which prompts men in time of fire to fling valuable looking-glasses out of three-story windows, and at the same time tenderly to lower down feather beds--soon after the Museum took fire, a number of sturdy firemen rushed into the building to carry out the wax figures. There were thousands of valuable articles which might have been saved if there had been less of solicitude displayed for the miserable effigies which are usually exhibited under the appellation of 'wax figures.' As it was, a dozen firemen rushed into the apartment where the figures were kept, amid a multitude of crawling snakes, chattering monkeys and escaped paroquets. The 'Dying Brigand' was unceremoniously throttled and dragged towards the door; liberties were taken with the tearful 'Senorita' who has so long knelt and so constantly wagged her doll's head at his side; the mules of the other bandits were upset, and they themselves roughly seized. The full-length statue of P. T. Barnum fell down of its own accord, as if disgusted with the whole affair. A red-shined fireman seized with either hand Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan by their coat-collars, tucked the Prince Imperial of France under one arm and the Veiled Murderess under the other, and coolly departed for the street. Two ragged boys quarreled over the Tom Thumb, but at length settled the controversy by one of them taking the head, the other satisfying himself with the legs below the knees. They evidently had Tom under their thumbs, and intended to keep him down. While the curiosity-seeking policeman was garroting Benjamin Franklin, with the idea of abducting him, a small monkey, flung from the windowsill by the strong hand of an impatient fireman, made a straight dive, hitting Poor Richard just below the waistcoat, and passing through his stomach, as fairly as the Harlequin in the 'Green Monster' pantomime ever pierced the picture with the slit in it, which always hangs so conveniently low and near. Patrick Henry had his teeth knocked out by a flying missile, and in carrying Daniel Lambert down stairs, he was found to be so large that they had to break off his head in order to get him through the door. At length the heat became intense, the 'figgers' began to perspire freely, and the swiftly approaching flames compelled all hands to desist from any further attempt at rescue. Throwing a parting glance behind as we passed down the stairs, we saw the remaining dignitaries in a strange plight. Some one had stuck a cigar in General Washington's mouth, and thus, with his chapeau crushed down over his eyes and his head leaning upon the ample lap of Moll Pitcher, the Father of his Country led the van of as sorry a band of patriots as not often comes within one's experience to see. General Marion was playing a dummy game of poker with General Lafayette; Governor Morris was having a set-to with Nathan Lane, and James Madison was executing a Dutch polka with Madam Roland on one arm and Luicretia Borgia on the other. The next moment the advancing flames compelled us to retire.

"We believe that all the living curiosities were saved; but the giant girl, Anna Swan, was only rescued with the utmost difficulty. There was not a door through which her bulky frame could obtain a passage. It was likewise feared that the stairs would break down, even if she should reach them. Her best friend, the living skeleton, stood by her as long as he dared, but then deserted her, while, as the heat grew in intensity, the perspiration rolled from her face in little brooks and rivulets, which pattered musically upon the floor. At length, as a last resort, the employees of the place procured a lofty derrick which fortunately happened to be standing near, and erected it alongside of the Museum. A portion of the wall was then broken off on each side of the window, the strong tackle was got in readiness, the tall woman was made fast to one end and swung over the heads of the people in the street, with eighteen men grasping the other extremity of the line, and lowered down from the third story, amid enthusiastic applause. A carriage of extraordinary capacity was in readiness, and, entering this, the young lady was driven away to a hotel.

"When the surviving serpents, that were released by the partial burning of the box in which they were contained, crept along on the floor to the balcony of the Museum and dropped on the sidewalk, the crowd, seized with St. Patrick's aversion to the reptiles, fled with such precipitate haste that they knocked each other down and trampled on one another in the most reckless and damaging manner.

"Hats were lost, coats torn, boots burst and pantaloons dropped with magnificent miscellaneousness, and dozens of those who rose from the miry streets into which they had been thrown looked like the disembodied spirits of a mud bank. The snakes crawled on the sidewalk and into Broadway, where some of them died from injuries received, and others were dispatched by the excited populace. Several of the serpents of the copper-head species escaped the fury of the tumultuous masses, and, true to their instincts, sought shelter in the World and News offices. A large black bear escaped from the burning Museum into Ann street, and then made his way into Nassau, and down that thoroughfare into Wall, where his appearance caused a sensation. Some superstitious persons believed him the spirit of a departed Ursa Major, and others of his fraternity welcomed the animal as a favorable omen. The bear walked quietly along to the Custom House, ascended the steps of the building, and became bewildered, as many a biped bear has done before him. He seemed to lose his sense of vision, and, no doubt, endeavoring to operate for a fall, walked over the side of the steps and broke his neck. He succeeded in his object, but it cost him dearly. The appearance of Bruin in the street sensibly affected the stock market, and shares fell rapidly; but when he lost his life in the careless manner we have described, shares advanced again, and the Bulls triumphed once more.

"Broadway and its crossings have not witnessed a denser throng for months than assembled at the fire yesterday. Barnum's was always popular, but it never drew so vast a crowd before. There must have been forty thousand people on Broadway, between Maiden Lane and Chambers street, and a great portion stayed there until dusk. So great was the concourse of people that it was with difficulty pedestrians or vehicles could pass.

"After the fire several high-art epicures, groping among the ruins, found choice morsels of boiled whale, roasted kangaroo and fricasseed crocodile, which, it is said, they relished; though the many would have failed to appreciate such rare edibles. Probably the recherche epicures will declare the only true way to prepare those meats is to cook them in a Museum wrapped in flames, in the same manner that the Chinese, according to Charles Lamb, first discovered roast pig in a burning house, and ever afterward set a house on fire with a pig inside, when they wanted that particular food."

All the New York journals, and many more in other cities, editorially expressed their sympathy with the misfortune, and their sense of the loss the community had sustained in the destruction of the American Museum. The following editorial is from the New York Tribune of July 14, 1865:

"The destruction of no building in this city could have caused so much excitement and so much regret as that of Barnum's Museum. The collection of curiosities was very large, and though many of them may not have had much intrinsic or memorial value, a considerable portion was certainly of great worth for any Museum. But aside from this, pleasant memories clustered about the place, which for so many years has been the chief resort for amusement to the common people who cannot often afford to treat themselves to a night at the more expensive theatres, while to the children of the city, Barnum's has been a fountain of delight, ever offering new attractions as captivating and as implicitly believed in as the Arabian Nights Entertainments: Theatre, Menagerie and Museum, it amused, instructed, and astonished. If its thousands and tens of thousands of annual visitors were bewildered sometimes with a Wooly Horse, a What is It? or a Mermaid, they found repose and certainty in a Giraffe, a Whale or a Rhinoceros. If wax effigies of pirates and murderers made them shudder lest those dreadful figures should start out of their glass cases and repeat their horrid deeds, they were reassured by the presence of the mildest and most amiable of giants, and the fattest of mortal women, whose dead weight alone could crush all the wax figures into their original cakes. It was a source of unfailing interest to all country visitors, and New York to many of them was only the place that held Barnum's Museum. It was the first thing--often the only thing--they visited when they came among us, and nothing that could have been contrived, out of our present resources, could have offered so many attractions, unless some more ingenious showman had undertaken to add to Barnum's collection of waxen criminals by putting in a cage the live Boards of the Common Council. We mourn its loss, but not as without consolation. Barnum's Museum is gone, but Barnum himself, happily, did not share the fate of his rattlesnakes and his, at least, most "un-Happy Family." There are fishes in the seas and beasts in the forest; birds still fly in the air, and strange creatures still roam in the deserts; giants and pigmies still wander up and down the earth; the oldest man, the fattest woman, and the smallest baby are still living, and Barnum will find them.

"Or even if none of these things or creatures existed, we could trust to Barnum to make them out of hand. The Museum, then, is only a temporary loss, and much as we sympathize with the proprietor, the public may trust to his well-known ability and energy to soon renew a place of amusement which was a source of so much innocent pleasure, and had in it so many elements of solid excellence."

As already stated, Mr. Barnum's insurance was but forty thousand dollars while the loss was fully four hundred thousand, and as his premium was five per cent., he had already paid the insurance companies more than they returned to him.

His first impulse, on reckoning up his losses, was to retire from active life and all business occupations, beyond what his real estate interests in Bridgeport and New York would compel. He went to his old friend, Horace Greeley, and asked for advice on the subject.

"Accept this fire as a notice to quit, and go a-fishing," said Mr. Greeley.

"What?" exclaimed Barnum.

"Yes, go a-fishing," replied Greeley. "Why, I have been wanting to go for thirty years, and have never yet found time to do so."

And but for two considerations Barnum might have taken this advice. One hundred and fifty employees were thrown out of work at a season when it would have been difficult to get anything else to do. That was the most important consideration. Then, too, Barnum felt that a large city like New York needed a good Museum, and that his experience of a quarter of a century in that direction afforded the greatest facilities for founding another establishment of the kind. So he took a few days for reflection.

The Museum employees were tendered a benefit at the Academy of Music, at which most of the dramatic artists in the city gave their services. At the conclusion Barnum was called for, and made a brilliant speech, in which he announced that he had decided to establish another Museum, and that, in order to give present occupation to his employees, he had engaged the Winter Garden Theatre for a few weeks, his new establishment promising to be ready by fall.

The New York Sun commented on the speech as follows:

"One of the happiest impromptu oratorical efforts that we have heard for some time was that made by Barnum at the benefit performance given for his employees on Friday afternoon. If a stranger wanted to satisfy himself how the great showman had managed so to monopolize the ear and eye of the public during his long career, he could not have had a better opportunity of doing so than by listening to this address. Every word, though delivered with apparent carelessness, struck a key-note in the hearts of his listeners. Simple, forcible and touching, it showed how thoroughly this extraordinary man comprehends the character of his countrymen, and how easily he can play upon their feelings.

"Those who look upon Barnum as a mere charlatan, have really no knowledge of him. It would be easy to demonstrate that the qualities that have placed him in his present position of notoriety and affluence would, in another pursuit, have raised him to far greater eminence. In his breadth of views, his profound knowledge of mankind, his courage under reverses, his indomitable perseverance, his ready eloquence and his admirable business tact, we recognize the elements that are conducive to success in most other pursuits. More than almost any other living man, Barnum may be said to be a representative type of the American mind."

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