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

Hard Times


Looking around now for some permanent business, Barnum at last resorted to the expedient of advertising for a partner, stating that he had $2,500 to invest, and was willing to add his entire personal attention to the business. He was immediately overwhelmed with answers, the most of them coming from sharpers. One was a counterfeiter who wanted $2,500 to invest in paper, ink, and dies.

One applicant was a sedate individual dressed in sober drab; he proposed to buy a horse and wagon and sell oats in bags, trusting that no one would be particular in measuring after a Quaker.

"Do you mean to cheat in measuring your oats?" asked Barnum.

"Well," said the Quaker, with a significant leer, "I shall probably make them hold out."

Finally Barnum decided to go into business with a good-looking, plausible German, named Proler, who was a manufacturer of paste-blacking, cologne, and bear's grease. They opened a store at No. 101 1/2 Bowery, where Proler manufactured the goods, and Barnum kept accounts and attended to sales in the store. The business prospered, or appeared to, until the capital was exhausted, and early in 1840 Barnum sold out his interest to Proler, taking the German's note for $2,600, which was all he ever got, Proler shortly afterward running away to Rotterdam.

Barnum had formed the acquaintance of a very clever young dancer named John Diamond, and soon after leaving the paste-blacking enterprise, he gathered together a company of singers, etc., which, with the dancer, Diamond, he placed in the hands of an agent, not caring to have his name appear in the transaction. He hired the Vauxhall Garden Saloon in New York and gave a variety of performances. This, however, proved unprofitable, and was abandoned after a few months.

Much as Barnum dreaded resuming the life of an itinerant showman, there seemed nothing else to be done, so January 2d, 1841, found him in New Orleans, with a company consisting of C. D. Jenkins, an excellent Yankee character artist; Diamond, the dancer; a violinist, and one or two others. His brother-in-law, John Hallett, acted as advance agent. The venture was fairly successful, though after the first two weeks in New Orleans, the manager and proprietor of the show was obliged to pledge his watch as security for the board-bill. A dancing match between Diamond and a negro from Kentucky put nearly $500 into Barnum's pocket, and they continued to prosper until Diamond, after extorting as much money as possible from his manager, finally ran away. The other members of the troop caused considerable trouble later. Jenkins, the Yankee character man, went to St. Louis, and having enticed Francis Lynch, an orphan protege of Barnum's into the scheme, proceeded to the Museum, where he exhibited Lynch as the celebrated dancer, John Diamond. Barnum poured out his wrath at this swindler in a letter, for which Jenkins threatened suit, and actually did instigate R. W. Lindsay to bring an action against Barnum for a pipe of brandy, alleged to have been included in his contract. Being among strangers, Barnum had some difficulty in procuring the $500 bond required, and was committed to jail until late in the afternoon. As soon as he was released, he had Jenkins arrested for fraud, and then went on his way rejoicing.

After an absence of eight months Barnum found himself back in New York, resolved never again to be a traveling showman. Contracting with the publisher, Robert Sears, for five hundred copies of "Sear's Pictorial Illustrations of the Bible," and accepting the United States agency for the book, he opened an office at the corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets. He advertised widely, had numerous agents, and sold thousands of books, but for all that, lost money.

While engaged in this business the Vauxhall Saloon was re-opened, under the management of John Hallett, Mrs. Barnum's brother. At the end of the season they had cleared about $200. This sum was soon exhausted, and for the rest of the winter Barnum managed to eke out a living by writing for the Sunday papers, and getting up unique advertisements for the Bowery Amphitheatre.

His ambition received a stimulus at last from a friend in Danbury, who held a mortgage on a piece of property owned by Mr. Barnum. Mr. Whittlesey wrote that as he was convinced of Mr. Barnum's inability to lay up money, he thought he might as well demand the five hundred dollars then as at any time. Barnum's flagging energies were aroused, and he began in earnest to look for some permanent investment.

In connection with the Bowery Amphitheatre, the information came to him that the collection of curiosities comprising Scudder's American Museum, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Streets, was for sale. The original proprietor had spent $50,000 on it, and at his death had left a large fortune as the result of the speculation. It was now losing money and the heirs offered it for sale, at the low price of $15,000. Realizing that with tact, energy, and liberality, the business might be made as profitable as ever, Barnum resolved to buy it.

"You buy the American Museum!" exclaimed a friend to whom he confided the scheme. "What will you buy it with?"

"With brass," answered Barnum, "for silver and gold have I none."

And buy it with brass he did, as the story of the transaction testifies.

The Museum building belonged to Mr. Francis W. Olmsted, a retired merchant, to whom he wrote, stating his desire to buy the collection, and that although he had no means, if it could be purchased upon reasonable credit, he was confident that his tact and experience, added to a determined devotion to business, would enable him to make the payments when due. Barnum therefore asked him to purchase the collection in his own name; to give a writing securing it to Barnum, provided he made the payments punctually, including the rent of his building; to allow Barnum twelve dollars and a half a week on which to support his family; and if at any time he failed to meet the installment due, he would vacate the premises, and forfeit all that might have been paid to that date. "In fact, Mr. Olmsted." Barnum continued, earnestly, "you may bind me in any way, and as tightly as you please--only give me a chance to dig out, or scratch out, and I will do so or forfeit all the labor and trouble I may have incurred."

In reply to this letter, which Barnum took to his house himself, Mr. Olmsted named an hour when he could call on him. Barnum was there at the exact moment, and Olmsted was pleased with his punctuality. He inquired closely as to Barnum's habits and antecedents, and the latter frankly narrated his experiences as a caterer for the public, mentioning his amusement ventures in Vauxhall Garden, the circus, and in the exhibitions he had managed at the South and West.

"Who are your references?" Olmsted inquired.

"Any man in my line," Barnum replied, "from Edmund Simpson, manager of the Park Theatre, or William Niblo, to Messrs. Welch, June, Titus, Turner, Angevine, or other circus or menagerie proprietors; also Moses Y. Beach, of the New York Sun."

"Can you get any of them to call on me?"

Barnum told him that he could, and the next day Mr. Niblo rode down and had an interview with Mr. Olmsted, while Mr. Beach and several other gentlemen also called. The following morning Barnum waited upon him for his decision.

"I don't like your references, Mr. Barnum," said Mr. Olmsted, abruptly, as soon as he entered the room.

Barnum was confused, and said, "he regretted to hear it."

"They all speak too well of you," Olmsted added, laughing; "in fact, they all talk as if they were partners of yours, and intended to share the profits."

"Nothing could have pleased me better," says Barnum. "He then asked me what security I could offer in case he concluded to make the purchase for me, and it was finally agreed that, if he should do so, he should retain the property till it was entirely paid for, and should also appoint a ticket-taker and accountant (at my expense), who should render him a weekly statement. I was further to take an apartment hitherto used as a billiard-room in his adjoining building, allowing therefor $500 a year, making a total rental of $3,000 per annum, on a lease of ten years. He then told me to see the administrator and heirs of the estate, to get their best terms, and to meet him on his return to town a week from that time.

"I at once saw Mr. John Heath, the administrator, and his price was $15,000. I offered $10,000, payable in seven annual installments, with good security. After several interviews, it was finally agreed that I should have it for $12,000, payable as above --possession to be given on the 15th of November. Mr. Olmsted assented to this, and a morning was appointed to draw and sign the writings. Mr. Heath appeared, but said he must decline proceeding any further in my case, as he had sold the collection to the directors of Peale's Museum (an incorporated institution) for $15,000, and had received $1,000 in advance.

"I was shocked, and appealed to Mr. Heath's honor. He said that he had signed no writing with me; was in no way legally bound, and that it was his duty to do the best he could for the heirs. Mr. Olmsted was sorry but could not help me; the new tenants would not require him to incur any risk, and my matter was at an end.

"Of course I immediately informed myself as to the character of Peale's Museum Company. It proved to be a band of speculators who had bought Peale's collection for a few thousand dollars, expecting to unite the American Museum with it, issue and sell stock to the amount of $50,000, pocket $30,000 profits, and permit the stockholders to look out for themselves.

"I went immediately to several of the editors, including Major M. M. Noah, M. Y. Beach, my good friends West, Herrick, and Ropes, of the Atlas, and others, and stated my grievances. 'Now,' said I, 'if you will grant me the use of your columns, I'll blow that speculation sky-high.' They all consented, and I wrote a large number of squibs, cautioning the public against buying the Museum stock, ridiculing the idea of a board of broken-down bank directors engaging in the exhibition of stuffed monkeys and gander-skins; appealing to the case of the Zoological Institute, which had failed by adopting such a plan as the one now proposed; and finally, I told the public that such a speculation would be infinitely more ridiculous than Dickens's 'Grand United Metropolitan Hot Muffin and Crumpit-baking and Punctual Delivery Company.'

"The stock was 'as dead as a herring!' I then went to Mr. Heath and asked him when the directors were to pay the other $14,000.' On the 26th day of December, or forfeit the $1,000 already paid,' was the reply. I assured him that they would never pay it, that they could not raise it, and that he would ultimately find himself with the Museum collection on his hands, and if once I started off with an exhibition for the South, I could not touch the Museum at ANY price. 'Now,' said I, 'if you will agree with me confidentially, that in case these gentlemen do not pay you on the 26th of December I may have it on the 27th for $12,000, I will run the risk, and wait in this city until that date.' He readily agreed to the proposition, but said he was sure they would not forfeit their $1,000.

" 'Very well,' said I; 'all I ask of you is, that this arrangement shall not be mentioned.' He assented. 'On the 27th day of December, at ten o'clock A. M., I wish you to meet me in Mr. Olmsted's apartments, prepared to sign the writings, provided this incorporated company do not pay you $14,000 on the 26th. He agreed to this, and by my request put it in writing.

"From that moment I felt that the Museum was mine. I saw Mr. Olmsted, and told him so. He promised secrecy, and agreed to sign the document if the other parties did not meet their engagement. This was about November 15th, and I continued my shower of newspaper squibs at the new company, which could not sell a dollar's worth of its stock. Meanwhile, if any one spoke to me about the Museum, I simply replied that I had lost it."

This newspaper war against the Peales was kept up unceasingly until one morning in December, "I received a letter from the secretary of that company (now calling itself the 'New York Museum Company'), requesting me to meet the directors at the Museum on the following Monday morning. I went, and found the directors in session. The venerable president of the board, who was also the ex-president of a broken bank, blandly proposed to hire me to manage the united museums, and though I saw that he merely meant to buy my silence, I professed to entertain the proposition, and in reply to an inquiry as to what salary I should expect, I specified the sum of $3,000 a year. This was at once acceded to, the salary to begin January 1st, 1842, and after complimenting me on my ability, the president remarked: 'Of course, Mr. Barnum, we shall have no more of your squibs through the newspapers.' To which I replied that I should 'ever try to serve the interests of my employers,' and I took my leave.

"It was as clear to me as noonday that, after buying my silence so as to appreciate their stock, these directors meant to sell out to whom they could, leaving me to look to future stockholders for my salary. They thought, no doubt, that they had nicely entrapped me, but I knew I had caught them.

"For, supposing me to be out of the way, and having no other rival purchaser, these directors postponed the advertisement of their stock to give people time to forget the attacks I had made on it, and they also took their own time for paying the money promised to Mr Heath, December 26th--indeed, they did not even call on him at the appointed time. But on the following morning, as agreed, I was promptly and hopefully at Mr. Olmsted's apartments with my legal adviser, at half-past nine o'clock; Mr. Heath came with his lawyer at ten, and before two o'clock that day I was in formal possession of the American Museum. My first managerial act was to write and dispatch the following complimentary note:

" 'AMERICAN MUSEUM, NEW YORK, Dec. 27th, 1841. " 'To the President and Directors of the New York Museum:

" 'GENTLEMEN: It gives me great pleasure to inform you that you are placed upon the Free List of this establishment until furthur notice.
" 'P. T. BARNUM, Proprietor.'

"It is unnecessary to say that the 'President of the New York Museum' was astounded, and when he called upon Mr. Heath, and learned that I had bought and was really in possession of the American Museum, he was indignant. He talked of prosecution, and demanded the $1,000 paid on his agreement, but he did not prosecute, and he justly forfeited his deposit money."

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