PTB Letters (#33) “A Heart to Feel for Others More”

“A Heart to Feel for Others More”

Since this is the week when families in America traditionally gather—in normal times—to celebrate Thanksgiving and the start of the holiday season, it seems appropriate to share another of P. T. Barnum’s letters home to his wife, Charity, with updates on the family matters we’ve been exploring in previous letters.  On October 31, 1845, P. T. Barnum was planted at his writing desk in the hotel or apartment where he was staying in Paris, awaiting Gen. Tom Thumb’s arrival from Lyon in mid-November.  Perhaps the day was rainy and cold, not fit to be out and about, for Barnum penned seven or eight letters that day, filling twenty-eight pages in his copybook.  The last of those letters was to Charity, composed after all the business correspondence was done, as well as a letter to Oliver Taylor, a friend and relative in need to  whom he had given $1000.  Beginning the epistle with a reference to the possible home purchase that had been top of mind—and worrying him greatly—only a few days before, Barnum wrote,

My dear wife,
I wrote you by this Steamer from London, but have since recd the letter which you wrote in N. Y. and therefore see that all my advice about the house was useless—as you have given it up, and I think very wisely. . . .  We must be content with our present house [in Bridgeport] till next fall or summer & perhaps till a year from next spring—keep cool, and we shall save enough in interest money next year to buy all our furniture.

The house Charity had wanted to buy might have set them back $14,000—$2000 more than Barnum had paid for the American Museum—unless she had been willing to bargain, which Barnum doubted she would do.  He wished she would wait until he returned from Europe, and from this letter we learn that she had either complied or decided independently that the house would not suit her after all.  With relief and curiosity Barnum inquired about a smaller sum she had requested from Fordyce Hitchcock, this having been reported to him by the American Museum manager.

My dear how happens it that you want $500 from Hitchcock—it must be that he never paid you the money he borrowed from you when you first arrived, did he?  Understand me I am not offended to have you spend all the money which you please to, so that you do it judiciously, still I like to know how the money affairs stand—and I shall not be sorry if you have carried out the plan which you proposed to adopt—namely to keep an account of the money you pay out.

To be sure, $500 was quite a substantial amount when we recall that Barnum had asked Charity to make do with $600 per year for the family’s expenses in 1842 and 1843.  The household’s sacrifice had helped him repay his debt for the purchase of the museum more quickly than otherwise.  Perhaps Charity felt justified in purchasing whatever she wished now that they were wealthy and no longer under threat of being left penniless by her husband’s risky investment.  After more than fifteen years of marriage, she must have been quite familiar with her husband’s proclivity for risk-taking and drive for success.

With Hitchcock handling both the family and business finances in Barnum’s absence, Barnum was elated to learn that Charity had been friendly to his manager in their recent contacts.  He had already been trying to smooth over hard feelings between his Uncle Alanson Taylor and Hitchcock, and it appears he had been on a similar mission to improve the relationship between Hitchcock and Charity.  Barnum wrote to his wife,

I was very much pleased in getting Hitchcock’s last letter.  I wrote you once before that a kind word from you would have good effect on him and so it has proved for he has written across the Atlantic as follows.  “I am very happy to say that Mrs. Barnum has been to the museum twice, both Monday and Tuesday and appeared very kind and friendly, and I pray God it may continue, especially for your sake, and hope that many, very many happy days are in store for you in the bosom of your family for I know that no man living would enjoy domestic tranquility and felicity more than you.”

In case Charity needed further convincing that Hitchcock was the exceptional person Barnum knew him to be, he continued in the letter,

Hitchcock wrote those four lines from the very fullness and bottom of his heart, and as you now see how easy it is to make him happy I hope you will continue to do so for there was never a more honest, faithful nor better hearted fellow on earth.  Not one in 10000, could have managed my business so well as he has, and no bull dog ever guarded property closer than he guards my money.

The Blodgett Family
Detail of The Blodgett Family, 1864, by Eastman Johnson. Fordyce Hitchcock’s words to Barnum, “I know that no man living would enjoy domestic tranquility and felicity more than you” is conveyed in this scene, a vision of family togetherness that Barnum must have dreamed of while he was on his own in Europe. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As far as the family’s health, the news that “dear little Helen is once more fat and hearty” was music to a father’s ears.  Helen was the Barnums’ second child, born in 1840, and seems to have had frequent bouts with throat-related illnesses, including a case of whooping cough.  At one point during the summer, Barnum greatly feared receiving the same tragic news he’d learned in March of 1844 when Frances, the Barnum’s third child, had passed away shortly before her second birthday.  That Helen was a lively little girl seems clear in other letters, and in this one Barnum reported to Charity,

Mr Hitchcock says I may well be proud of her for she is pretty as a pink.  She sent me a kiss by Mr Hitchcock.  Kiss her for me and send my love to Caroline.

Caroline, the eldest daughter, was nearly twelve and a half years old at the time of this letter.  Her father was determined that she attend a boarding school, one that would require her to speak and read French for much of the day.  This letter suggests that the school they had chosen for Caroline to begin her formal education was not in New York City, nor close to Bridgeport, Connecticut, for Barnum asked Charity to write and “Tell her we will come on next summer & see her, and I will come as soon as I get home this winter.”  He also suggested that she “write to Caroline often, and give her good advice.  She is now the right age to have it do her good.”  How funny this sounds when today most people would say that parental advice to a child entering her teens is practically guaranteed to be ignored!

Few words in the letter are devoted to Charity’s health, and this is quite curious.  Barnum wrote only that he was “sorry your health is not better,” before telling her of his own.  At that point, the end of October, Charity would have been about to start her sixth month of pregnancy.  Had she not communicated her “condition” to her husband in her most recent letter to him?  Was the subject too delicate to put in writing, even to one’s spouse?  Considering Barnum’s deep concern for the health of his five-year-old, it is hard to believe he would not have been excited—and somewhat worried—about his wife’s pregnancy had he known of it.  Yet Barnum’s oft-changing “decisions” on the date when he expected to return to America seem to be based only on the profitability—or lack thereof—of Gen. Tom Thumb’s performances, and give no indication of anticipating the birth of a child.

As far as Barnum’s current state of health, we get various reports.  To Hitchcock he wrote on the same day that “My health is very much better” while also informing Oliver Taylor, “My health has been miserable—and is not “first rate” now but I play the granny some and take care of myself, so that I hope Nature assisted by my good habits (for they are good) will triumph at last.”  He gave Charity a more upbeat report, telling her,

[My health] is very good—I could feel the fat coming on to my bones while I was in London partaking of the roast-beef and ale.  I have not smoked for a month nor shall not again soon—as I am sure it made me poor [in health].  I have never snuffed since you left—so you see I am a very promising and moral young gentleman.

The Barnum household also included another family member at this time, Barnum’s sister Cordelia, whom we learned from a letter to Francis Olmsted had been reduced to extreme poverty during her husband’s long battle with “consumption” (tuberculosis) and was struggling to support their very young child.  Her dire situation only became known to Barnum after the death of his brother-in-law, when an uncle informed him.  Barnum sent his sister money and suggested that she board with his family so that she could save her meagre earnings as a tailoress.  That she accepted her brother’s offer is confirmed in the October 31st letter to Charity, for Barnum suggests to his wife, “Let Cordelia answer this if you cant.”

Since the Thanksgiving holiday is a time when gratitude—the quality of thankfulness, appreciation and the desire to return kindness—is paramount, it is especially fitting to share Barnum’s perspective on assisting others in their times of need, like Oliver Taylor, his sister Cordelia Benedict, and others to whom he gave money or found employment.  For these acts of kindness he credits his uncle Alanson Taylor whose own actions in that regard had impressed him, and influenced him to be charitable.  Barnum shared this in a multi-part letter to Hitchcock:

As for Alanson Taylor—he has peculiarities which I by no means admire, still he is good at heart, and he has been a disappointed and broken spirited man.  I once remember that while he was in the hey-day of success with the patent land speculation, I was travelling with a show in Tennessee & Alabama—our folks heard that I had bursted up and had no money to get home on—Alanson Taylor believed it & wrote to me telling me to draw on him to any amount necessary to pay my liabilities at the south & my expences home & he would pay the whole with pleasure.  The report was false—but he believed it and his kind offer showed that he “he had a heart to feel for others more,” and I shall never forget it, although I never before repeated the circumstance to him or any other person.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator