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

Fighting a Newspaper


After the destruction of his museum by fire, Barnum determined to open another and still finer establishment. It would not be on the old site, however, but further up town. The unexpired lease of the two lots at Ann Street and Broadway he proposed to sell; and he quickly had numerous offers for it. This lease still had about eleven years to run, and the annual rental was only $10,000; and there was a provision that, in case of the burning of the building, the owner was to spend $24,000 in aiding Barnum to rebuild, and then, at the expiration of the lease, was to pay Barnum the appraised value of the building, not exceeding $100,000. This lease had seemed extravagant when Barnum had made it, but the great growth of the city had so increased the value of property in that vicinity, that now the rental of $10,000 seemed ridiculously small. An experienced real estate broker, whom Barnum engaged for the purpose, estimated the value of the lease at $275,000. Barnum was so anxious, however, to get the matter settled at once that he decided to offer the lease for sale at $225,000.

The next day he met James Gordon Bennett, the elder, the owner of the New York Herald. Mr. Bennett told him that he thought of buying both the lease and the fee simple of the property itself, and erecting there a fine building for his great newspaper. Barnum therefore, offered him the lease for $200,000, and after a few day's consideration Mr. Bennett accepted the offer. His attorney thereupon handed to Mr. Barnum a check on the Chemical Bank for $200,000, which Barnum immediately used in the purchase of Government Bonds. Mr. Bennett had agreed to purchase the fee of the property for $500,000. He had been informed that the property was worth some $300,000 to $400,000, and he did not mind paying $100,000 extra for the purpose of carrying out his plans. But the parties who estimated for him the value of the land knew nothing of the fact that there was a lease upon the property, else of course they would in their estimate have deducted the $200,000, which the lease would cost. When, therefore, Mr. Bennett saw it stated in the newspapers that the sum which he had paid for a piece of land measuring only fifty-six by one hundred feet was more than was ever paid before in any city in the world for a tract of that size, he discovered the serious oversight which he had made; and the owner of the property was immediately informed that Bennett would not take it. But Bennett had already signed a bond to the owner, agreeing to pay $100,000 cash, and to mortgage the premises for the remaining $400,000.

Supposing that by this step he had shaken off the owner of the fee, Bennett was not long in seeing that, as he was not to own the land, he would have no possible use for the lease, for which he had paid the $200,000; and accordingly his next step was to shake Barnum off also, and get back the money he had paid him.

In speaking of what followed, Mr. Barnum afterwards said: "My business for many years, as manager of the Museum and other public entertainments, compelled me to court notoriety; and I always found Bennett's abuse far more remunerative than his praise, even if I could have had the praise at the same price, that is for nothing. Especially was it profitable to me when I could be the subject of scores of lines of his scolding editorials free of charge, instead of paying him forty cents a line for advertisements, which would not attract a tenth part so much attention. Bennett had tried abusing me, off and on, for twenty years, on one occasion refusing my advertisement altogether for the space of about a year; but I always managed to be the gainer by his course. Now, however, when new difficulties threatened, all the leading managers in New York were members of the 'Managers' Association,' and as we all submitted to the arbitrary and extortionate demands of the Herald, Bennett thought he had but to crack his whip, in order to keep all and any of us within the traces. Accordingly one day Bennett's attorney wrote me a letter, saying that he would like to have me call on him at his office the following morning. Not dreaming of the object, I called as desired, and after a few pleasant commonplace remarks about the weather, and other trifles, the attorney said:

" 'Mr. Barnum, I have sent for you to say that Mr. Bennett has concluded not to purchase the museum lots, and therefore that you had better take back the lease, and return the $200,000 paid for it.'

" 'Are you in earnest?' I asked with surprise.

" 'Certainly, quite so,' he answered.

" 'Really,' I said, smiling, 'I am sorry I can't accommodate Mr. Bennett; I have not got the little sum about me; in fact, I have spent the money.'

" 'It will be better for you to take back the lease,' said the attorney, seriously.

" 'Nonsense,' I replied, 'I shall do nothing of the sort; I don't make child's bargains. The lease was cheap enough, but I have other business to attend to, and shall have nothing to do with it.'

"The attorney said very little in reply; but I could see, by the almost benignant sorrow expressed upon his countenance, that he evidently pitied me for the temerity that would doubtless lead me into the jaws of the insatiable monster of the Herald. The next morning I observed that the advertisement of my entertainments with my museum company at Winter Garden was left out of the Herald columns. I went directly to the editorial rooms of the Herald; and learning that Bennett was not in, I said to Mr. Hudson, then managing editor:

" 'My advertisement is left out of the Herald; is there a screw loose?'

" 'I believe there is,' was the reply.

" 'What is the matter?' I asked.

" 'You must ask the Emperor,' said Mr. Hudson, meaning of course Bennett.

" 'When will the "Emperor" be in?' I inquired. 'Next Monday,' was the answer.

" 'Well, I shall not see him,' I replied; 'but I wish to have this thing settled at once. Mr. Hudson, I now tender you the money for the insertion of my museum advertisement on the same terms as are paid by other places of amusement; will you publish it?'

" 'I will not,' Mr. Hudson peremptorily replied.

" 'That is all,' I said. Mr. Hudson then smilingly and blandly remarked, 'I have formally answered your formal demand, because I suppose you require it; but you know, Mr. Barnum, I can only obey orders.' I assured him that I understood the matter perfectly, and attached no blame to him in the premises. I then proceeded to notify the secretary of the 'Managers' Association' to call the managers together at twelve o'clock the following day; and there was a full meeting at the appointed time. I stated the facts in the case in the Herald affair, and simply remarked, that if we did not make common cause against any newspaper publisher who excluded an advertisement from his columns simply to gratify a private pique, it was evident that either and all of us were liable to imposition at any time.

"One of the managers immediately made a motion that the entire Association should stop their advertising and bill printing at the Herald office, and have no further connection with that establishment. Mr. Lester Wallack advised that this motion should not be adopted until a committee had waited upon Bennett, and had reported the result of the interview to the Association. Accordingly, Messrs. Wallack, Wheatley and Stuart were delegated to go, down to the Herald office to call on Mr. Bennett.

"The moment Bennett saw them, he evidently suspected the object of their mission, for he at once commenced to speak to Mr. Wallack in a patronizing manner; told him how long he had known, and how much he respected his late father, who was a true English gentleman of the old school,' with much more in the same strain. Mr. Wallack replied to Bennett that the three managers were appointed a committee to wait upon him to ascertain if he insisted upon excluding from his columns the museum advertisements--not on account of any objection to the contents of the advertisements, or to the museum itself, but simply because he had a private business disagreement with the proprietor; intimating that such a proceeding, for such a reason, and no other, might lead to a rupture of business relations with other managers. In reply, Mr. Bennett had something to say about the fox that had suffered tailwise from a trap, and thereupon advised all other foxes to cut their tails off; and he pointed the fable by setting forth the impolicy of drawing down upon the Association the vengeance of the Herald. The committee, however, coolly insisted upon a direct answer to their question.

"Bennett then answered: 'I will not publish Barnum's advertisement; I do my business as I please, and in my own way.'

" 'So do we,' replied one of the managers, and the committee withdrew.

"The next day the Managers' Association met, heard the report, and unanimously resolved to withdraw their advertisements from the Herald, and their patronage from the Herald job establishment, and it was done. Nevertheless, the Herald for several days continued to print gratutitously the advertisements of Wallack's Theatre and Niblo's Garden, and inordinately puffed these establishments, evidently in order to ease the fall, and to convey the idea that some of the theatres patronized the Herald, and perhaps hoping by praising these managers to draw them back again, and so to nullify the agreement of the Association in regard to the Herald. Thereupon, the mangers headed their advertisements in all the other New York papers with the line, 'This establishment does not advertise in the New York Herald,' and for many months this announcement was kept at the top of every theatrical advertisement and on the posters and playbills.

"The Herald then began to abuse and villify the theatrical and opera managers, their artists and their performances, which, of course, was well understood by the public, and relished accordingly. Meanwhile the theatres prospered amazingly. Their receipts were never larger, and their houses never more thronged. The public took sides in the matter with the managers and against the Herald, and thousands of people went to the theatres merely to show their willingness to support the managers and to spite 'Old Bennett.' The editor was fairly caught in his own trap. Other journals began to estimate the loss the Herald sustained by the action of the managers, and it was generally believed that this loss in advertising and job printing was not less than from $75,000 to $100,000 a year. The Herald's circulation also suffered terribly, since hundreds of people, at the hotels and elsewhere, who were accustomed to buy the paper solely for the sake of seeing what amusements were announced for the evening, now bought other papers. This was the hardest blow of all, and it fully accounted for the abuse which the Herald daily poured out upon the theatres.

"Bennett evidently felt ashamed of the whole transaction. He would never publish the facts in his columns, though he once stated in an editorial that it had been reported that he had been cheated in purchasing the Broadway property; that the case had gone to court, and the public would soon know all the particulars. Some persons supposed by this that Bennett had sued me; but this was far from being the case. The owner of the lots sued Bennett, to compel him to take the title and pay for the property as per agreement; and that was all the 'law' there was about it. He held James Gordon Bennett's bond, that he would pay him half a million of dollars for the land, as follows: $100,000 cash, and a bond and mortgage upon the premises for the remaining $400,000. The day before the suit was to come to trial, Bennett came forward, took the deed, and paid $100,000 cash, and gave a bond and mortgage of the entire premises for $400,000.

"Had I really taken back the lease, as Bennett desired, he would have been in a worse scrape than ever; for having been compelled to take the property, he would have been obliged, as my landlord, to go on and assist in building a Museum for me, according to the terms of my lease, and a Museum I should certainly have built on Bennett's property, even if I had owned a dozen Museums up town.

"In the autumn of 1868, the associated managers came to the conclusion that the punishment of Bennett for two years was sufficient, and they consented to restore their advertisements to the Herald. I was then carrying on my new Museum, and although I did not immediately resume advertising in the Herald, I have since done so."

Such is the account Barnum gave, in his own words, of this extraordinary quarrel. He was, it will be seen, unsparing of criticism and denunciation. Kindly as was his nature, he was "a good hater," and never was there a more relentless fighter. In denouncing Mr. Bennett he was perfectly sincere, and believed himself to be entirely in the right. At the same time he never hesitated to give a full meed of appreciative praise to the great journalist, for his extraordinary enterprise and commanding talents. Both the men are now dead, after careers of marvellous success, and the animosity that raged between them is also long dead; it perished years before they did. It is here rehearsed merely as an integral and essential part of this biography, to be regarded in a spirit of philosophic contemplation, entirely devoid of bitterness or acrimony,

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