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

The American Museum


With great hopes for the success of his project, Barnum entered upon the management of the Museum. It was a new epoch in his career, he felt that the opportunity of his life had presented itself--in the show business, to be sure, but in a permanent, substantial phase of it.

He must pay for the establishment within the stipulated time, or forfeit all he had paid on account. A rigid plan of economy was determined upon, his wife agreeing to support the family on $600 a year, or even on four hundred if necessary. Barnum himself made every possible personal retrenchment. One day, some six months after the purchase had been made, Mr. Olmsted happened into the ticket office, while the proprietor was eating his lunch of cold corned beef and bread.

"Is that all you eat for dinner?" asked Mr. Olmsted.

"I have not eaten a warm dinner, except on Sundays, since I bought the Museum," was the reply, "and I don't intend to, until I am out of debt."

"That's right," said Mr. Olmsted, heartily, "and you'll pay for the Museum before the year is out."

And he was right.

The nucleus of this establishment, Scudder's Museum, was formed in 1810. It was begun in Chatham Street, and was afterward transferred to the old City Hall, and from small beginnings, by purchases, and to a considerable degree by presents, it had grown to be a large and valuable collection. People in all parts of the country had sent in relics and rare curiosities. Sea captains for years had brought and deposited strange things from foreign lands; and besides all these gifts, the previous proprietor had actually expended, as was stated, $50,000 in making the collection, which valuable as it was when Barnum bought it, was only the beginning of its subsequent greatness. In 1842 the entire contents of Peale's Museum was purchased, and in 1850 the Peale collection of Philadelphia was added. In 1865 the space occupied for museum purposes was more than twice as large as in 1842. The Lecture Room, originally narrow, ill-contrived, and inconvenient, was so enlarged and improved that it became one of the most commodious and beautiful amusement halls in the city of New York. At first the attractions and inducements were merely the collection of curiosities by day, and an evening entertainment, consisting of such variety performances as were current in ordinary shows. Then Saturday afternoons and, soon afterward, Wednesday afternoons, were devoted to entertainments, and the popularity of the Museum grew so rapidly that it was presently found expedient and profitable to open the great Lecture Room every afternoon, as well as every evening, on every weekday in the year. The first experiments in this direction more than justified expectations, for the day exhibitions were always more thronged than those of the evening.

Holidays, of course, were made the most of, and there is a record of twelve performances, to as many audiences, being given in one day.

By degrees the character of the stage performances were changed. The transient attractions of the Museum were constantly diversified, and educated dogs, industrious fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists, living statuary, tableaux, gypsies, Albinoes, fat boys, giants, dwarfs, rope-dancers, live "Yankees," pantomime, instrumental music, singing and dancing in great variety, dioramas, panoramas, models of Niagara, Dublin, Paris, and Jerusalem; Hannington's dioramas of the Creation, the Deluge, Fairy Grotto, Storm at Sea; the first English Punch and Judy in this country, Italian Fantoceini, mechanical figures, fancy glass-blowing, knitting machines, and other triumphs in the mechanical arts; dissolving views, American Indians, who enacted their warlike and religious ceremonies on the stage--these, among others, were all exceedingly successful.

No man ever understood the art of advertising better than Barnum. Knowing that mammon is ever caught with glare, he took pains that his posters should be larger, his transparencies more brilliant, his puffing more persistent than anybody elses. And if he resorted to hyperbole at times in his advertisements, it was always his boast that no one ever went away from his Museum, without having received the worth of his money. It used to amuse Mr. Barnum later in life, to relate some of the unique advertising dodges which his inventive genius devised. Here is a fair sample, as he once told it:

"One morning a stout, hearty-looking man came into my ticket-office and begged some money. I asked him why he did not work and earn his living? He replied that he could get nothing to do, and that he would be glad of any job at a dollar a day. I handed him a quarter of a dollar, told him to go and get his breakfast and return, and I would employ him, at light labor, at a dollar and a half a day. When he returned I gave him five common bricks.

" 'Now,' said I, 'go and lay a brick on the sidewalk, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street; another close by the Museum; a third diagonally across the way, at the corner of Broadway and Vesey Street, by the Astor House; put down the fourth on the sidewalk, in front of St. Paul's Church opposite; then, with the fifth brick in hand, take up a rapid march from one point to the other, making the circuit, exchanging your brick at every point, and say nothing to any one.'

" 'What is the object of this?' inquired the man.

" 'No matter,' I replied: 'all you need to know is that it brings you fifteen cents wages per hour. It is a bit of my fun, and to assist me properly you must seem to be as deaf as a post; wear a serious countenance; answer no questions; pay no attention to any one; but attend faithfully to the work, and at the end of every hour, by St. Paul's clock, show this ticket at the Museum door; enter, walking solemnly through every hall in the building; pass out, and resume your work.' "

With the remark that "it was all one to him, so long as he could earn his living," the man placed his bricks, and began his round. Half an hour afterward, at least five hundred people were watching his mysterious movements. He had assumed a military step and bearing, and, looking as sober as a judge, he made no response whatever to the constant inquiries as to the object of his singular conduct. At the end of the first hour, the sidewalks in the vicinity were packed with people, all anxious to solve the mystery. The man, as directed, then went into the Museum, devoting fifteen minutes to a solemn survey of the halls, and afterward returning to his round. This was repeated every hour until sundown, and whenever the man went into the Museum a dozen or more persons would buy tickets and follow him, hoping to gratify their curiosity in regard to the purpose of his movements. This was continued for several days--the curious people who followed the man into the Museum considerably more than paying his wages--till finally the policeman, to whom Barnum had imparted his object, complained that the obstruction of the sidewalk by crowds, had become so serious that he must call in his "brick man." This trivial incident excited considerable talk and amusement; it advertised Barnum; and it materially advanced his purpose of making a lively corner near the Museum.

Barnum realized above all that to have people pleased with his attractions was the best advertisement he could possibly have, and he tried honestly to keep the Museum supplied with every novelty. A curiosity which possessed some merit, and considerable absurdity was the celebrated model of Niagara, "with real water."

One day the enterprising proprietor was called before the Board of Water Commissioners, and informed that he must pay a large extra compensation for the immense amount of water that supplied his Niagara. To the astonishment of the Board Mr. Barnum gave his assurance that a single barrel of water per month served to run the machine.

Apropos of this wonderful model, Barnum used to tell how he got even with his friend, Louis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker, an inveterate joker, and who was fond of guying the Museum. The first time Clark viewed "Niagara" he assumed great admiration.

"Well, Barnum, I declare, this is quite an idea; I never saw the like of this before in all my life."

"No?" inquired Barnum, quite pleased.

"No," said Clark, fervently, "and I hope to the Lord, I never will."

Barnum might have forgiven this, but Clark's next joke was too much to bear. He came in one day and asked Barnum if he had the club with which Captain Cook was killed. The Museum boasted a large collection of Indian curiosities, and Barnum showed one warlike weapon which he assured Clark was the identical club and he had all the documents to prove it.

"Poor Cook! Poor Cook!" said Clark, musingly. "Well, Mr. Barnum," he continued, with great gravity, at the same time extending his hand, "I am really very much obliged to you for your kindness. I had an irrepressible desire to see the club that killed Captain Cook, and I felt quite confident you could accommodate me. I have been in half a dozen smaller museums, and as they all had it, I was sure a large establishment like yours would not be without it."

But Barnum's turn came. A few weeks afterward, he wrote to Clark that if he would come to his office he was anxious to consult him on a matter of great importance. He came, and Barnum said:

"Now, I don't want any of your nonsense, but I want your sober advice."

Clark assured him that he would serve him in any way in his power, and Barnum proceeded to tell him about a wonderful fish from the Nile, offered for exhibition at $100 a week, the owner of which was willing to forfeit $5,000, if, within six weeks, this fish did not pass through a transformation in which the tail would disappear and the fish would then have legs.

"Is it possible!" asked the astonished Clark.

Barnum assured him that there was no doubt of it.

Thereupon Clark advised Barnum to engage the wonder at any price; that it would startle the naturalists, wake up the whole scientific world, draw in the masses, and make $20,000 for the Museum. Barnum told him that he thought well of the speculation, only he did not like the name of the fish.

"That makes no difference whatever," said Clark; "what is the name of the fish?"

"Tadpole," Barnum replied, with becoming gravity, "but it is vulgarly called 'pollywog.' "

"Sold, by thunder!" exclaimed Clark, and he left.

Another story is illustrative of some of the trials incident to theatrical management.

An actor named La Rue presented himself as an imitator of celebrated histrionic personages, including Macready, Forrest, Kemble, the elder Booth, Kean, Hamblin, and others. Taking him into the green-room for a private rehearsal, and finding his imitations excellent, Barnum engaged him. For three nights he gave great satisfaction, but early in the fourth evening he staggered into the Museum so drunk that he could hardly stand, and in half an hour he must be on the stage! Barnum called an assistant, and they took La Rue and marched him up Broadway as far as Chambers Street, and back to the lower end of the Park, hoping to sober him. At this point they put his head under a pump and gave him a good ducking, with visible beneficial effect, then a walk around the Park and another ducking, when he assured them that he should be able to give his imitations "to a charm."

"You drunken brute," said Barnum, "if you fail, and disappoint my audience, I will throw you out of the window."

He declared that he was "all right," and Barnum led him behind the scenes, where he waited with considerable trepidation to watch his movements on the stage. La Rue began by saying:

"Ladies and gentlemen: I will now give you an imitation of Mr. Booth, the eminent tragedian."

His tongue was thick, his language somewhat incoherent, and Barnum had great misgivings as he proceeded; but as no token of disapprobation came from the audience, he began to hope he would go through with his parts without exciting suspicion of his condition. But before he had half finished his representation of Booth, in the soliloquy in the opening act of Richard III, the house discovered that he was very drunk, and began to hiss. This only seemed to stimulate him to make an effort to appear sober, which, as is usual in such cases, only made matters worse, and the hissing increased. Barnum lost all patience, and, going on the stage and taking the drunken fellow by the collar, apologized to the audience, assuring them that he should not appear before them again. Barnum was about to march him off, when he stepped to the front, and said:

"Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Booth has often appeared on the stage in a state of inebriety, and I was simply giving you a truthful representation of him on such occasions. I beg to be permitted to proceed with my imitations."

The audience at once supposed it was all right, and cried out, "go on, go on"; which he did, and at every imitation of Booth, whether as Richard, Shylock, or Sir Giles Overreach, he received a hearty round of applause. Barnum was quite delighted with his success; but when he came to imitate Forrest and Hamblin, necessarily representing them as drunk also, the audience could be no longer deluded; the hissing was almost deafening, and Barnum was forced to lead the actor off. It was his last appearance on that stage.

Barnum always denied that the "Feejee Mermaid," which attained such lasting notoriety, was an invention of his own. It was first exhibited in London in 1822, where it was purchased by Mr. Moses Kimball, of the Boston Museum, who sold it to Barnum. The creature was really most ingeniously constructed, probably by some Japanese. It drew like magic, and afterward served as a good advertisement, sent throughout the country for exhibition, the posters reading, "From Barnum's Great American Museum, New York."

Barnum believed in making his place of exhibition as attractive as possible, and the building was decorated with flags and banners, the posters were of the most sensational character, and the first "Drummond Lights" ever seen in New York were placed on top of the Museum, flooding the streets around with brilliance.

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