A Correct Account of a Catastrophe

A Correct Account of a Catastrophe

As we are now within the last fifty pages of Barnum’s letters in the copybook, (not counting several of Barnum’s letters to the Atlas newspaper), I am on the lookout for information that brings us closer to conclusions on the storylines that have taken shape over the past sixteen months of blog posts.  Inevitably, this will result in a bit of a hodgepodge of topics in my next posts, but I hope you’ll find them no less interesting.  For myself, I find that the way Barnum expresses himself even in regard to relatively small matters (historically small, that is) says a lot about his character and helps me understand the person he was at that time in his life.

In last week’s blog post I surmised that Barnum’s friend and agent in Paris, Mon. Huet, had informed him that he had been swindled to the tune of 500 francs; this would be approximately $3330 in today’s U.S. dollars.  The conman had been writing letters saying he was ill to cover up the fact that he wasn’t doing what Barnum had employed him to do; in reality he had taken off with money that had been advanced to him.  A second person was also involved in the scheme though perhaps unknowingly. This was upsetting news of course, and it seems Barnum had mentioned it to his friend in London.

In his letter of February 19th to Mr. Collins Barnum sounds both disappointed and resigned to the loss.  Still, he explained to Collins, he would hold to the notion that it was preferable to risk being cheated than to deny an honest person in need.  His comments in this letter are consistent with views and actions shared in several others about “the deserving poor,” a concept of charity embraced by many in the 19th century.  Barnum was quite willing to help people who through no fault of their own needed money to get by, and would gladly give them cash or help them get employment, but he was firm in his conviction that the needy person should also be industriously working to improve their situation, independent of his help.  He replied to Collins:

Thank you for your remarks on French affairs.  I have many times in this world been the victim of misplaced confidence—and expect to be many times more if I live for I had rather be “done” by giving to those who do not deserve, than to risque the chance of refusing those who do, but when I once find myself swindled I am pretty careful not to catch a second dose in the same quarter.  I still fancy that the first recipient was honest, but shall feel glad to know it, if that was not the case.

On the subject of helping others, you may recall that Barnum was trying to assist Mr. Collins’s stepson in finding a job in America; he had been trained as a saddle maker.  Mr. and Mrs. Collins had sent him abroad in order to end a love interest they did not approve of, and Barnum was anxious to help the family, both the son and parents.  We now learn that the young man’s first name was Emile (surname still unknown), and that he had fallen ill after he arrived in the U.S.  That probably explains why he had neither found employment at his trade, nor had Hitchcock employed him at the American Museum or sent him to the new museum in Baltimore, as Barnum suggested he could do.

Turning to a different topic, it goes without saying that Gen. Tom Thumb’s miniature coach and ponies, a gift from Queen Victoria, became a very effective identity brand.  Images of the equipage were used on handbills and posters, and even on the finely detailed souvenir medals Barnum ordered from a firm in Birmingham, England.  Both on stage and on the streets, the actual coach and ponies delighted all and of course served as a great marketing tool, attracting people to attend the General’s performances.  Charles, being a young boy, had his especial favorite among the ponies, but as we learned from Barnum’s letters, that “smallest white pony” had died while the entourage was traveling between Ayr and Glasgow.  Barnum took the hide to “Martin the Naturalist” in Glasgow to have it preserved and then shipped to the American Museum for Mon. Guillaudeu to do his taxidermy magic.

Shetland_ponies_ca_1900
Photograph of two women from the Shetland Isles in Scotland with their ponies, ca. 1900. Only a few years before Barnum’s tour of the UK, the Mines Act of 1842 was passed prohibiting women, girls, and boys under 10 from working in the mines. Mine operators turned to Shetland ponies to replace some of the human labor, thus these ponies would have been brought to mainland mining areas to be sold for that purpose. This circumstance gives context to Barnum’s comment that he thought he would find no difficulty buying Shetland ponies for Gen. Tom Thumb’s miniature coach. (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy Shetland Museum’s photographic archives)

Meanwhile, Barnum and Stratton decided to avail themselves of the opportunity to purchase suitably sized ponies while in Scotland; the diminutive yet strong Shetland ponies were ideal for the job.  Barnum thus made arrangements to meet with a man in the town of Stirling who had ponies for sale, and perhaps he looked elsewhere as well.  As he told Mr. Fillingham in London, “I think we shall find no difficulty in getting a pony here, so mine may as well remain at grass.”

Writing to a Mr. Stuart on February 4th from Aberdeen, Barnum said that General Tom Thumb would be in Stirling on the 14th only, and that “Mr Stratton, the General’s father, will then be happy to see the ponies you spoke to him about when we were in Dundee.”  Nearly two weeks later, on February 17th, Barnum wrote to “Fill” once again, this time with instructions regarding three ponies he had shipped.

I have sent a pony (black) to you by the Dundee & London Steamer which leaves Dundee tomorrow wednesday & arrives in London friday night.  I have also given the Captain a Cheque on you for £11 besides the usual freight of a pony, whatever that is.  The pony was to have been delivered to me on board the steamer at Dundee for the £11.  Stratton also sends you a pair of ponies (cream colour) by the Edinburgh & London Steamer, which leaves Leith tomorrow wednesday morning.  Nothing to pay on them.  Please take care of the ponies.

Barnum seems to have been in a buying mood while in Stirling, because after visiting the ancient castle with its splendid Tudor-era carved portraits, he decided to purchase plaster copies of the large oak medallions.  (See July 23, 2021, blog post for photos.)  The plaster copies had been painted to appear like wood, as Barnum told Fordyce Hitchcock, and Barnum wanted to display them in the museum, bringing “history” to his American audience.  Apparently he had had at least two options for buying copies, as he wrote to a Mr. John Waddell, R. A. (Royal Academy?) at Stirling Castle to say, “I purchased the models from the Post Master at Stirling on saturday last, and therefore shall not want those which you were so kind as to offer me.”  Alas, the ones he did purchase still had not been sent a few days later, and he wrote with annoyance to the seller on February 21st,

I am very much surprised and annoyed at not having received the Cask of model casts which I purchased from you when I was in Stirling with General Tom Thumb.  Please forward them immediately, directed to me at George Hotel, St. George Square  Glasgow.

Barnum expected to reach Glasgow on Sunday, February 15th.  His agent there, Mr. Miller, had been dutifully keeping him abreast of progress with the “fat children” whom Barnum planned to send to America in early April.  Barnum sent a brief note to Miller on the 13th to thank him for his letters, adding a postscript that he hoped the “fat child” who had been ill was getting better.  Little did Barnum know at the time that a larger headache was about to occur, the accident in Airdrie on the evening of February 16th, 1846.

Thus far we have only pieced together what happened from rather brief references to the accident in Barnum’s letters; now we have a more detailed account that Barnum composed for the London papers to publish.  This account is included among the out-of-sequence February letters.  Barnum penned three drafts, with slight modifications and additions to the second and third versions.  Presumably it was the third version that he sent to Mr. Brettell in London when he wrote to him the day after the accident.

I enclose you a correct account of a catastrophe which occurred here last night.  Will you please hand it to the “Globe” with the assurance that it is correct in every particular, and with a request that the editor will insert the gist of it, of course adopting his own language, as I do not pretend to be capable of using the proper language for a public journal.  I am thankful, most thankful, to say that we all escaped injury except the General’s mother and Mr Paine, father to the little footman, the first of whom was slightly and the latter seriously bruised.

Airdrie
Bank Street in the center of Airdrie, Scotland, circa 2009. The Trades Hall, where Gen. Tom Thumb performed on February 16, 1846, was located on Bank Street. (Wikimedia Commons)

Copied here is Barnum’s third version, the last sentence being the most significant addition to the first two drafts.  Fyi, a detail not included in his account but mentioned in a letter to Mr. Collins, was that the space into which people fell was a tin shop located below the Hall’s main floor.

Serious accident, and Narrow Escape of General Tom Thumb.  During one of the public Levee’s of the renowned General Tom Thumb in the Trades Hall at Airdrie on monday night last, a large portion of the floor gave way with an awful crash, and precipitated some three hundred men, women, and children into the room below, a distance of fourteen feet.  The scene of confusion and excitement mingled with the groans and screechings of the suffering and affrighted multitude can scarcely be imagined.  About one thousand persons were in the Hall, but fortunately and strange to say no death was occasioned by the accident.  One man Mr William Harley, lamp-lighter to the town had a leg broken, and several other persons, including some of the General’s suite were bruised.  That portion of the floor which fell, was the precise spot where the General gave his performances and which the little fellow had left only two minutes before, and had gone into an adjoining room to change his costume.  The table on which he exhibited fell with the multitude and was crushed to atoms, and the little General must inevitably have been killed, had he not Providentially left the room a couple of minutes before, for the purpose above indicated.  On examination of the ruins, it was found that the building was quite unfit for the purpose for which it was erected, the joists of the floor being far apart and consisting of two inch scantling of yellow pine, a fact which the proprietor ought to have known, but of which the little General being a stranger, was of course ignorant.  We opine that General Thumb, “light weight” as he is, will not trust himself or his patrons in another Hall without first learning that it is substantially built.  We are happy to add that the General took immediate steps for alleviating in a pecuniary point of view such poor persons as were injured, and to whom a loss of time would prove a serious inconvenience.

Since Barnum himself had been a newspaperman for three years, his comment to Brettell that he did not “pretend to be capable of using the proper language for a public journal” is curious–perhaps he was simply being polite, indicating deference to the Globe’s Editor.  In any case, he certainly crafted his account with an aim to stir the emotions of readers, while also building Gen. Tom Thumb’s “brand” as a just and generous soul, a little person with a big heart.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

Now more than ever, the Barnum Museum needs your help!  Please consider making a donation to help support our educational programs!

Donate to the Barnum Museum!

Become a Barnum Museum YouTube Subscriber and be the first to see all our new episodes!

Subscribe to our new YouTube Channel