A Great Blessing to the Poor

A Great Blessing to the Poor

The letters in P. T. Barnum’s copybook only occasionally make reference to his political views, but in late January of 1846 Barnum was moved to share his opinion about one of many “hot topics” in the United Kingdom at that time, the repeal of Corn Laws. The main point of sharing his comments on politics here is that they provide a window on his view of society, and belief that a good and fair government should benefit ordinary people rather than favor the rich at the expense of the poor.  Barnum had grown up in a family of modest means, a humble background he never swept aside, and both his experience living in New York City and his line of work had brought him in contact with people who were poor or destitute.

Barnum happened to be touring with Gen. Tom Thumb during the early years of the Great Famine, a tragic time of mass starvation and rampant disease in Ireland.  He realized that the British Corn Laws contributed in great measure to that terrible period of hunger since import tariffs effectively put imported grains beyond the reach of people at a time when food was in desperately short supply.  (By way of explanation—or a reminder of a long-forgotten history lesson—the term “Corn” applied to all cereal grains, including wheat, rye, barley, and oats, not just corn as Americans think of it.)  We’ve seen in Barnum’s letters expressions of empathy for people who struggled in poverty; his comments about the impacts of the Corn Laws, and more broadly about free trade and government, paint a more complete picture of Barnum’s worldview and point to a deep desire to see America’s “experiment” in democracy succeed.

Barnum wrote to both his wife Charity and his friend Moses Kimball about hearing Lord John Russell speak on the subject of Corn Laws at a meeting in Glasgow, Scotland.  Lord Russell was a Whig and Liberal statesman in the British Parliament, and on June 30th, 1846, he would begin his first term as Prime Minister of the UK.  (Sir Robert Peel, a Conservative, was Prime Minister at the time Barnum was writing.)  As Barnum explained to Charity in his letter of January 26th,

I was in Glasgow a few weeks ago and the freedom of the City was presented to Lord John Russell—I went to the meeting (having been presented with a ticket) and heard Lord John make a capital speech in favor of abolishing the Corn Laws.  They must be repealed this session of Parliament and the people of this realm will at last have the chance of tasting untaxed bread; or if not altogether “untaxed” (for everything is taxed here except smoke and impudence) it will be at least free from foreign duty—and that will be a great blessing to the poor.

The speech was still on his mind three days later when he penned a letter to Moses Kimball in Boston, telling him,

I went to hear Lord John Russell the other day at Glasgow.  He gave us a crack Anti-Corn Law speech–& I was quite delighted.  Indeed since that time Sir Robert Peel has given the aristocracy a severe thrust under the ribs–& come out himself in favor of free trade in corn.

Membership card for the National Anti-Corn Law League
Membership card for the National Anti-Corn Law League, depicting on the left a starving family that cannot afford to put bread on the table, in contrast to happy, healthy family on the right who have plenty of “cheap bread” to eat. The League or another such organization may have organized the meeting Barnum attended in Glasgow. Such gatherings were advertised as a “Tea-Party” to which members of Parliament and others were invited to speak on abolishing the Corn Laws. (Courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund, Inc., Carmel, IN)

Despite being a Conservative leader, Sir Robert Peel had on several occasions reversed his initial stance on legislation and instead supported liberal legislation such as Catholic Emancipation.  The Corn Laws favored aristocratic landholders, and even years before the Great Famine, Peel had begun to change his thinking on such tariffs and import restrictions, and lean toward free trade.  The catastrophic crop failures in Ireland tipped the scale and propelled him to favor repeal of the Corn Laws, supporting the free trade stance of the Whigs (who would become the Liberal party). That decision brought an end to Peel’s second term as Prime Minister and he resigned on June 29th, 1846.

Barnum continued in his letter to Kimball,

Oh! My dear fellow, the march of liberal principles is onward in this country.  Not a new ministry is formed—not a Parliament meets, not a move takes place either by the Minister or People without advancing the cause of freetrade and liberal principles.  I trust in God that the spirit of non-protection may become general, in our own country as well as everywhere else—for I verily believe that free and mutual intercourse and exchange of commodities between all nations of the earth would establish universal peace and prosperity, and an everlasting friendship throughout the world.

Further emphasizing his beliefs and hopes for the future, he wrote,

I believe Free Trade to be the Great Ne Plus Ultra of commerce and social liberty—the death blow to aristocracy and tyranny and the grand desideratum of the Universe.  God Grant its principles may extend & prosper.

Coincidentally at this time, Barnum was actively working to hire a poor family to work for him under contract in America.  They were to go in April when the trans-Atlantic crossing would be safer than in winter, and meantime he needed to help them get by.  Barnum had met the mother with her two “fat children,” plus two more; other children seem to have been kept out of sight.  Feeling sorry that her efforts to earn a living by showing the two “fat boys” had only brought in a pittance, he offered an opportunity for the mother and her children to come America where he would exhibit the brothers at the American Museum, and tour them if things worked out well.  He mentioned to a couple of correspondents that he had “engaged a couple of very handsome fat children,” but also seemed to have some regrets about the decision because the boys were not as large as he wished.

While in Dundee he replied to a letter from his agent in Glasgow on January 28th, 1846, remarking,

That certainly is a big family and bigger in numbers than anything else, and indeed were they well to do in the world I would much rather have nothing to do with them.  I was only induced to meddle with them on account of their extreme want, and now as they are in fact none the worse for having met me I would rather decline engaging them, except as a matter of Charity to them, for I don’t think I can make a shilling on them.

Barnum did not intend to renege on his offer, despite his diminished enthusiasm.  He advised the agent,

If however they conclude to accept my offer, I will stick to it viz; give £1 per week for one year, with privilege to have them 2 years—they to exhibit whenever & wherever I please—to be entirely under the direction of myself or agents—the mother to take care of the children & clean & dress them according to my orders—to drink no liquor, & I to board clothe lodge & transport them all to & from America, provided she wishes to return at the end of my engagement.  Wages to commence on their arrival in N. Y.  Until April or such time as she sails, she must take care of herself—though upon her signing a writing to the above effect I will lend her by degrees £10 to keep her till she sails—the £10 to come out of her first wages.  If she concludes to go, I think I had better have a first rate large painting of them made to stick outside, in America.  If you know the proper painter you may get it done for me if you please, after we have signed writings.

Barnum must have received a prompt response, for on January 31st he was able to tell his museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock that he had “just received a letter from my agent in Glasgow relative to the fat children.”  He informed Hitchcock, “It is agreed that they sail for America about 1st April, and in the mean time I shall have a splendid Painting made of them representing them exhibiting before the Queen, Prince Albert, and the Royal Family and I shall have five Highland Dresses made for them to exhibit in.”

Highland Boys
Detail from an American Museum poster, circa 1863-1865. Barnum promoted brothers Charles and Alexander Stuart (or Stewart), whom he brought from Glasgow in 1846, as the Highland Fat Boys. He had a wardrobe of Scottish costumes made for them, and commissioned a large painted banner to hang on the exterior of the American Museum. The boys would have long since left Barnum’s employ when this poster was made, but Barnum continued to hire other “fat boys” (and women) as part of his human attractions or “marvels of nature.” (Collection of the Barnum Museum)

In addition to Scottish Highlander costumes, Barnum also had another plan to help ensure success both at the American Museum and as a “stand-alone” show on tour.  The brothers were not simply to be displayed but would entertain visitors as well, and Barnum had the idea they could perform a question-and-answer trick.  He asked the agent in Glasgow, “Would those fat boys know enough to learn the secret of talking together asking & answering questions on the mesmeric as you & I talked about the first time I had the pleasure of seeing you?”

A few days later, Barnum shared with Hitchcock that he had “also purchased the secret by which Mrs. Hannington the “Mysterious Lady” answers questions, describes objects & c with her back turned to the audience, and this secret is being imparted and learned to them [the “fat boys”], so that will be a great feature, & will enable me to make a show of them alone in various parts of America.”

Following up on the “Happy Family” topic of the June 4th, 2021 blog, we find more details about Barnum’s plan in his January 31st letter to Hitchcock.  His previous letter (Jan. 25th) had explained originator John Austin’s secret to creating a caged menagerie of birds and beasts living in harmony, and in his go-to-it manner, Barnum instructed Hitchcock to start right away training animals and preparing a large cage for the museum.  “In a day or two the animals & birds all get the same smell & scent, and they cannot distinguish their natural enemies.”  He advised making the cage as wide as possible to attract more viewers, but also very deep.  “If you start with 20 animals & birds, it will make a decent show—then increase them as fast as you can till you get about 60 or 80 which will perhaps be as many as we can afford to feed.”  In caring for the animals he noted, “You must cover over the cage on cold nights so as to keep them warm. . . . [and] when once got up, the only expense is their food—and that must always be clean & good.”

Barnum then turned again to the matter of advertising.  He had had previously told Hitchcock that the display should be advertised as having been brought from England; in this next letter he provided a John Austin handbill that Hitchcock was to copy verbatim.  He wrote,

Fearing that you had lost the bill [handbill] of the “happy family” I have procured another & send it enclosed.  The Cut [woodcut] you can copy if you cant get up a better one, and I doubt whether you can.  I advise you to copy the whole bill—steal the whole of it—head shoulders body, tail and all.  Take the name of Austin and Son the reputation of his having been before the Queen & c. his having devoted so much time & attention to solving the great Experiment—his having at last succeeded in taming & training the animals and all that gammon.

Pausing to study the woodcut illustration, Barnum noted that it showed several monkeys, the most challenging of the species to manage in a “Happy Family” exhibit.  (See the June 4th, 2021, blog for more about monkeys.)  Barnum knew Austin did not show more than one because that would be asking for trouble.  It goes without saying that in his own ads Barnum frequently concocted images and made claims that were less than truthful, yet he pointed out the false advertising of multiple monkeys to Hitchcock, writing, “. . . that is all very well—but he [Austin] never puts but one in the cage, and that he takes out at night—the raccoon ditto.”  (By the way, I stand corrected for having mentioned in the June 4th blog that the presence of a raccoon in Barnum’s display would hint at it being a collection of American animals, not the Englishman’s Happy Family.)

Next week we will learn more about the anatomical Venus Barnum commissioned for the American Museum, and the delicate issue of how to present it to the public.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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