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

Incidents of a Circus Tour


At almost every place visited by the travelling company, some notable incident occurred. At Hanover Court House, Virginia, for example, it was raining so heavily that they could not give a performance, and Turner therefore decided to start for Richmond immediately after dinner. Their landlord, however, said that as their agent had engaged three meals and lodgings for the whole troupe, the whole bill must be paid whether they went then or stayed until next morning. No compromise could be made with the stubborn fellow, and Turner was equally stubborn in his determination both to go at once and also to have the worth of his money. The following programme was accordingly carried out, Turner insisting upon every detail:

Dinner was ordered at twelve o'clock and was duly prepared and eaten. As soon as the table was cleared, supper was ordered, at half past twelve. After eating as much of this as their dinner had left room for, the whole company went to bed at one o'clock in the afternoon. Each man insisted upon taking a lighted candle to his room, and the whole thirty-six of them undressed and went to bed as though they proposed to stay all night. Half an hour later they arose and dressed again and went down to breakfast, which Turner had ordered served at two o'clock sharp. They could eat but little of this meal, of course, but they did the best they could, and at half past two in the afternoon were on their way to Richmond. Throughout the whole absurd proceedings the landlord was furiously angry. Turner was as solemn as a corpse, and the rest of the company were convulsed with laughter.

After the performance one evening at Richmond, Barnum tried to pay Turner for that practical joke about the Rev. Mr. Avery. A score of the company were telling stories and singing songs in the sitting room of the hotel. Presently somebody began propounding some amusing arithmetical problems. Then Turner proposed one, which was readily solved. Barnum's turn came next, and he offered the following, for Turner's especial benefit:

"Suppose a man is thirty years of age, and he has a child one year of age; he is thirty times older than his child. When the child is thirty years old, the father, being sixty, is only twice as old as his child. When the child is sixty the father is ninety, and therefore only one-third older than the child. When the child is ninety the father is one hundred and twenty, and therefore only one-fourth older than the child. Thus you see, the child is gradually but surely gaining on the parent, and as he certainly continues to come nearer and nearer, in time he must overtake him. The question therefore is, suppose it was possible for them to live long enough, how old would the father be when the child overtook him and became of the same age?"

The company generally saw the catch; but Turner was very much interested in the problem, and although he admitted he knew nothing about arithmetic, he was convinced that as the son was gradually gaining on the father he must reach him if there was time enough--say, a thousand years, or so--for the race. But an old gentleman gravely remarked that the idea of a son becoming as old as his father while both were living, was simply nonsense, and he offered to bet a dozen of champagne that the thing was impossible, even "in figures." Turner, who was a betting man, and who thought the problem might be proved, accepted the wager; but he was soon convinced that however much the boy might relatively gain upon his father, there would always be thirty years difference in their ages. The champagne cost him $25, and he failed to see the fun of Barnum's arithmetic, though at last he acknowledged that it was a fair offset to the Avery trick.

From Richmond they went to Petersburg, and thence to Warrenton, North Carolina, and there, on October 30, Barnum and Turner separated, Barnum's engagement having expired with a clear profit to himself of about $1,200. Barnum took Vivalla, a negro singer and dancer named James Sandford, several musicians, horses and wagons, and a small canvas tent. With these he proposed to carry on a travelling show of his own. His first stop was on Saturday, November 12, 1836, at Rocky Mount Falls, North Carolina. The next day, being Sunday, Barnum set out for church. "I noticed," he says, "a stand and benches in a grove near by, and determined to speak to the people if I was permitted. The landlord who was with me said that the congregation, coming from a distance to attend a single service, would be very glad to hear a stranger, and I accordingly asked the venerable clergyman to announce that after service I would speak for half an hour in the grove. Learning that I was not a clergyman, he declined to give the notice, but said that he had no objection to my making the announcement, which I did, and the congregation, numbering about three hundred, promptly came to hear me.

"I told them I was not a preacher, and had very little experience in public speaking, but I felt a deep interest in matters of morality and religion, and would attempt in a plain way, to set before them the duties and privileges of man. I appealed to every man's experience, observation and reason, to confirm the Bible doctrine of wretchedness in vice and happiness in virtue. We cannot violate the laws of God with impunity, and He will not keep back the wages of well-doing. The outside show of things is of very small account. We must look to realities and not to appearances. 'Diamonds may glitter on a vicious breast,' but 'the soul's calm sunshine and the heart-felt joy is virtue's prize.' The rogue, the passionate man, the drunkard, are not to be envied even at the best, and a conscience hardened by sin is the most sorrowful possession we can think of."

Barnum proceeded in this strain with various scriptural quotations and familiar illustrations, for three-quarters of an hour. At the end of his address several persons came up to shake hands with him, saying that they had been greatly pleased and edified by his remarks and asking to know his name. He went away feeling that possibly he had done some good by means of his impromptu preaching.

The negro singer and dancer, Sandford, abruptly deserted the show at Camden, South Carolina, and left Barnum in a bad plight. An entertainment of negro songs had been advertised, and no one was able to fill Sandford's place. Barnum was determined, however, that his audience should not be disappointed, and so he blackened his own face and went on the stage himself, singing a number of plantation melodies. His efforts were received with great applause, and he was recalled several times. This performance was repeated for several evenings.

One night after thus personating a negro, Barnum heard a disturbance outside the tent. Hastening to the spot he found a man quarreling with one of his company. He interfered, whereupon the man drew a pistol and pointing it at Barnum's head, exclaimed, "you black scoundrel! How dare you use such language to a white man?" He evidently took Barnum for a real negro, and in another moment would have blown his brains out. But quick as a flash the showman exclaim, "I am as white as you!" and at the same moment rolled up his sleeves showing the white skin of his arm. The other man dropped his pistol in consternation and humbly begged Barnum's pardon.

"On four different occasions in my life," said Mr. Barnum not long before his death, "I have had a loaded pistol pointed at my head and each time I have escaped death by what seemed a miracle. I have also often been in deadly peril by accidents, and when I think of these things I realize my indebtedness to an all-protecting Providence. Reviewing my career, too, and considering the kind of company I kept for years and the associations with which I was surrounded and connected, I am surprised as well as grateful that I was not ruined. I honestly believe that I owe my preservation from the degradation of living and dying a loafer and a vagabond, to the single fact that I was never addicted to strong drink. To be sure, I have in times past drank liquor, but I have generally wholly abstained from intoxicating beverages, and for many years, I am glad to say, I have been a strict 'teetotaller.' "

At Camden, Barnum also lost one of his musicians, a Scotchman named Cochran. This man was arrested and, in spite of Barnum's efforts to save him, imprisoned for many months for advising a negro barber who was shaving him to run away to the Free States or to Canada. To fill up his ranks Barnum now hired Bob White, a negro singer, and Joe Pentland, a clown, ventriloquist, comic singer, juggler, and sleight-of-hand performer, and also bought four horses and two wagons. He called this enlarged show "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theatre."

At Raleigh, North Carolina, Barnum had sold a half interest in his show to a man called Henry,--not his real name. The latter now acted as treasurer and ticket taker. When they reached Augusta, Georgia, the Sheriff served a writ upon Henry for a debt of $500. As Henry had $600 of the Company's money in his pockets, Barnum at once secured a bill of sale of all his property in the exhibition. Armed with this he met Henry's creditor and his lawyer, who demanded the key of the stable, so that they might levy on the horses and wagons. Barnum asked them to wait a little while until he could see Henry, to which they agreed. Henry was anxious to cheat his creditor, and accordingly was glad to sign the bill of sale. Then Barnum returned and told the creditor and his lawyer that Henry would neither pay nor compromise the claim. The Sheriff thereupon demanded the stable key, so that he might attach Henry's share of the property. "Not yet," said Barnum, pulling out the bill of sale, "I am in possession as entire owner of this property. I have already purchased it, and you have not yet levied on it. You will touch my property at your peril."

The creditor and the sheriff were thus baffled, but they immediately arrested Henry and took him to prison. The next day Barnum learned that Henry really owed $1,300, and that he had promised his creditor that he would pay him $500 of the company's money and a bill of sale of his interest in the show at the end of the Saturday night performance, in consideration of which the creditor was to allow him to take one of the horses and run away, leaving Barnum in the lurch. Learning this, Barnum was not disposed to help Henry any further. Finding that Henry had intrusted the $500 to Vivalla, to keep it from the sheriff, Barnum secured it from Vivalla on Henry's order, under pretense of securing bail for the prisoner. Then he paid the creditor the full amount obtained from Henry as the price of his half-interest and received in return an assignment of $500 of the creditor's claim and a guarantee that he should not be troubled by Henry for it. Thus his own promptness rescued Barnum from one of the most unpleasant situations in which he was ever placed.

After this they got into one of the most desolate parts of Georgia. One night their advance agent, finding it impossible to reach the next town, arranged for the whole show to spend the night at a miserable and solitary hovel owned by an old woman named Hayes. The horses were to be picketed in a field, and the company were to sleep in the tent and the out houses. Posters were scattered over the country, announcing that a performance would be given there the next day, the agent thinking that, as a show was a rarity in that region, a considerable number of small farmers would be glad to attend.

"Meanwhile," says Barnum, "our advertiser, who was quite a wag, wrote back informing us of the difficulty of reaching a town on that part of our route, and stating that he had made arrangements for us to stay over night on the plantation of 'Lady Hayes,' and that although the country was sparsely settled, we could doubtless give a profitable performance to a fair audience.

"Anticipating a fine time on this noble 'plantation,' we started at four o'clock in the morning so as to arrive at one o'clock, thus avoiding the heat of the afternoon. Towards noon we came to a small river where some men, whom we afterwards discovered to be down-east Yankees, from Maine, were repairing a bridge. Every flooring plank had been taken up, and it was impossible for our teams to cross. 'Could the bridge be fixed so that we could go over?' I inquired. 'No; it would take half a day, and meantime, if we must cross, there was a place about sixteen miles down the river where we could get over. 'But we can't go so far as that; we are under engagement to perform on Lady Hayes's place to-night, and we must cross here. Fix the bridge and we will pay you handsomely.'

"They wanted no money, but if we would give them some tickets to our show they thought they might do something for us. I gladly consented, and in fifteen minutes we crossed that bridge. The cunning rascals had seen our posters and knew we were coming; so they had taken up the planks of the bridge and had hidden them till they had levied upon us for tickets, when the floor was re-laid in a quarter of an hour.

"Towards dinner-time we began to look out for the grand mansion of 'Lady Hayes,' and seeing nothing but little huts we quietly pursued our journey. At one o'clock--the time when we should have arrived at our destination--I became impatient, and riding up to a poverty-stricken hovel and seeing a ragged, bare-footed old woman, with her sleeves rolled up to her shoulders, who was washing clothes in front of the door, I inquired--" 'Hello! can you tell me where Lady Hayes lives?'

"The old woman raised her head, which was covered with tangled locks and matted hair, and exclaimed--" 'Hey?'

" 'No, Hayes, Lady Hayes; where is her plantation?'

" 'This is the place,' she answered; 'I'm Widder Hayes, and you are all to stay here to-night.'

"We could not believe our ears or eyes; but after putting the dirty old woman through a severe cross-examination she finally produced a contract, signed by our advertiser, agreeing for board and lodging for the company, and we found ourselves booked for the night. It appeared that our advertiser could find no better quarters in that forlorn section, and he had indulged in a joke at our expense by exciting our appetites and imaginations in anticipation of the luxuries we should find in the magnificent mansion of 'Lady Hayes.'

"Joe Pentland grumbled, Bob White indulged in some very strong language, and Signor Vivalla laughed. He had travelled with his monkey and organ in Italy and could put up with any fare that offered. I took the disappointment philosophically, simply remarking that we must make the best of it and compensate ourselves when we reached a town next day.

"The next forenoon we arrived at Macon, and congratulated ourselves that we had reached the regions of civilization.

"In going from Columbus, Ga., to Montgomery, Ala., we were obliged to cross a thinly-settled, desolate tract, known as the 'Indian Nation,' and as several persons had been murdered by hostile Indians in that region, it was deemed dangerous to travel the road without an escort. Only the day before we started, the mail stage had been stopped and the passengers murdered, the driver alone escaping. We were well armed, however, and trusted that our numbers would present too formidable a force to be attacked, though we dreaded to incur the risk. Vivalla alone was fearless and was ready to encounter fifty Indians and drive them into the swamp.

"Accordingly, when we had safely passed over the entire route to within fourteen miles of Montgomery, and were beyond the reach of danger, Joe Pentland determined to test Vivalla's bravery. He had secretly purchased at Mt. Megs, on the way, an old Indian dress with a fringed hunting shirt and moccasins and these he put on, after coloring his face with Spanish brown. Then shouldering his musket he followed Vivalla and the party, and, approaching stealthily leaped into their midst with a tremendous whoop.

"Vivalla's companions were in the secret, and they instantly fled in all directions. Vivalla himself ran like a deer and Pentland after him, gun in hand and yelling horribly. After running a full mile the poor little Italian, out of breath and frightened nearly to death, dropped on his knees and begged for his life. The 'Indian' leveled his gun at his victim, but soon seemed to relent, and signified that Vivalla should turn his pockets inside out--which he did, producing and handing over a purse containing eleven dollars. The savage then marched Vivalla to an oak, and with a handkerchief tied him in the most approved Indian manner to the tree, leaving him half dead with fright.

"Pentland then joined us, and washing his face and changing his dress, we all went to the relief of Vivalla. He was overjoyed to see us, and when he was released his courage returned; he swore that after his companions left him, the Indian had been re-inforced by six more, to whom, in default of a gun or other means to defend himself, Vivalla had been compelled to surrender. We pretended to believe his story for a week, and then told him the joke, which he refused to credit, and also declined to take the money which Pentland offered to return, as it could not possibly be his since seven Indians had taken his money. We had a great deal of fun over Vivalla's courage, but the matter made him so cross and surly that we were finally obliged to drop it altogether. From that time forward, however, Vivalla never boasted of his prowess."

At the end of February, 1837, they reached Montgomery, and there Barnum sold a half interest in his show to Henry Hawley, a sleight-of-hand performer. He was a very clever fellow and was never known to be non-plussed or embarrassed in his tricks, except upon one occasion. This was when he was performing the well-known egg and bag trick, which he did with great success, taking egg after egg from the bag and finally breaking one to show that they were genuine. "Now," said he "I will show you the old hen that laid them." But it happened that the negro boy to whom had been intrusted the duty of supplying "properties," had made a slight mistake. The result was that Hawley triumphantly produced not "the old hen that laid the eggs," but a most palpable and evident rooster. The audience roared with laughter, and Hawley, completely taken aback, fled in confusion to his dressing room, uttering furious maledictions upon the boy who was the author of his woe.

The show visited various places in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, and finally disbanded at Nashville in May, 1837. Vivalla went to New York and gave some performances on his own account before sailing for Cuba. Hawley remained in Tennessee, and Barnum went home to his family. Early in July, however, he formed a new company and went back to rejoin Hawley. But they were not successful, and in August they parted again, Barnum forming a new partnership with one Z. Graves. He then went to Tiffin, Ohio, where he re-engaged Joe Pentland and got together the nucleus of a new company.

During his short stay at Tiffin, Barnum got into a discussion with various gentlemen on religious subjects, and in response to their invitation lectured, or preached, in the school-house on Sunday afternoon and evening. He also went to the neighboring town of Republic and delivered two lectures.

On his way back to Kentucky, just before he reached Cincinnati, he met a drove of hogs. One of the drivers made an insolent remark because the circus wagons interfered with the driving of the hogs, and Barnum responded angrily. Thereupon the fellow jumped from his horse, pointed a pistol at Barnum's breast and swore he would shoot him if he did not apologize. Barnum asked permission to speak first to a friend in the next wagon, after which, he said, he would give the man full satisfaction. The "friend" proved to be a loaded double barrelled gun, which Barnum leveled at the hog-driver's head, saying:

"Now, sir, you must apologize, or have your brains blown out. You drew a weapon upon me for a careless remark. You seem to hold human life at a cheap price. Now you have the choice between a load of shot and an apology."

The man apologized promptly, a pleasant conversation ensued, and they parted excellent friends.

On this tour they exhibited at Nashville, where Barnum visited General Jackson at the Hermitage; at Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, Vicksburg and various other places, generally doing well. At Vicksburg they bought a steamboat and went down the river, stopping at every important landing to exhibit. At Natchez their cook deserted them, and Barnum set out to find another. He found a white woman who was willing to go, only she expected to marry a painter in that town, and did not want to leave him. Barnum went to see the painter and found that he had not fully made up his mind whether to marry the woman or not. Thereupon the enterprising showman told the painter that if he would marry the woman the next morning he would hire him for $25 a month as painter, and his bride at the same wages as cook, give them both their board and add a cash bonus of $50. There was a wedding on the boat the next day, and they had a good cook and a good dinner.

During one evening performance at Francisville, Louisiana, a man tried to pass Barnum at the door of the tent, claiming that he had paid for admittance. Barnum refused him entrance; and as he was slightly intoxicated, he struck Barnum with a slung shot, mashing his hat and grazing what phrenologists call "the organ of caution." He went away and soon returned with a gang of armed and half-drunken companions, who ordered the showmen to pack up their "traps and plunder" and to get on board their steamboat within an hour. The big tent speedily came down. No one was permitted to help, but the company worked with a will, and within five minutes of the expiration of the hour they were on board and ready to leave. The scamps who had caused their departure escorted them and their last load, waving pine torches, and saluted them with a hurrah as they swung into the stream.

The New Orleans papers of March 19th, 1838, announced the arrival of the "Steamer Ceres, Captain Barnum, with a theatrical company." After a week's performance, they started for the Attakapas country. At Opelousas they exchanged the steamer for sugar and molasses; the company was disbanded, and Barnum started for home, arriving in New York. June 4th, 1838.

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