A Jolly Lot of Brother Showmen

A Jolly Lot of Brother Showmen

Slipped in among P. T. Barnum’s business and personal letters in his 1845-1846 copybook are some of his lengthy epistles to the Editors of the New York Atlas, for whom Barnum was acting as a foreign correspondent. The letters provide descriptions of places and people he saw in his travels throughout Great Britain and France.  Aside from the very first blog in this series, on April 11, 2020, I have skirted the letters to the Atlas when choosing topics to write about each week.  Don’t get me wrong—they do contain interesting information, but Barnum’s voice is different in these letters; he was, after all, “writing for an audience” as opposed to writing to individuals.  Since my goal has been to reveal Barnum as himself, not through his public self-presentation, I opted to hop over the Atlas letters.  But don’t feel cheated—I have not encountered very many thus far.  However, this week I came across one I think readers will particularly enjoy for the information about circus and menagerie showmen, as well as other famous entertainers whose names would be familiar to many in Barnum’s time.

This letter was written on November 11th, 1845, from the Hotel Bedford in Paris.  Barnum made a particular note to the Atlas editors (Frederick West, John Ropes, and Anson Herrick) that this was a supplement “independent of and unconnected with [his] regular series of letters.”  Further, he asked that they “please publish it and get it off your hands although you have on hand about a score of my unpublished letters, of an earlier date.”  The information he was providing was, as we would say today, “time-sensitive” and Barnum realized that delaying publication a few weeks would reduce its impact.  The seven-page letter is chock full of crossed out phrases, insertions, and crooked lines (all of which make transcribing a bit tedious), and the content is wide-ranging—altogether too much for one blog.  So we will just explore the entertainment-related tidbits.  Barnum started off by telling his audience,

I was in London a couple of weeks ago and found much enjoyment in calling on old friends.  My pleasure was not a little (though unexpectedly) enhanced by falling in with a jolly lot of brother showmen.  Among these were Major Titus the leviathan showman, one who has made and kept “more money than a horse can draw” and who like “Mr Brown” does not “mean to give it up so.”  Then who else should I find but General Rufus Welch, the man who has scoured the world in search of and to exhibit novelties—the generous Welch, who has got a heart like an ox, and is never happy unless he can see all happy around him.  Then there was Carter the “Lion King”—in fact he may be called King of all animals, for he confines himself no longer to lions alone, but is at home with animals of every description, wild or tame, savage or domestic.

The Carter whom Barnum referred to was James (aka, John) Carter, who was both a competitor and successor to the more famous Lion King, Isaac A. Van Amburgh, whose terrifying shows with ferocious lions had captivated audiences at Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre in London for years.  The two also performed together in stage productions that brought Biblical scenes to life with actual wild animals.  Carter, who was the younger of the two, imitated Van Amburgh’s dramatic style, but his “lion-taming” never received the same acclaim.  Nonetheless, feeding a voracious public appetite for these spectacles, Carter starred in many heart-stopping performances with beasts, including a “Brazilian tiger” and a “black tiger” (respectively, these were probably a jaguar and a panther).  Barnum may have been referring to Carter’s work with a full menagerie in a spectacle called Afghan, which began in 1839.  In addition to lions, the animals included tigers, leopards, and crocodiles, and tamer sorts such as ostriches, zebras and horse.

Portrait of Mr. Van Amburgh, As He Appeared with His Animals at the London Theatres, 1846-1847, by Sir Edward Landseer (1802-1873) (Wikimedia Commons, Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art)

In the Atlas letter Barnum touted Carter’s extraordinary animals, announcing to his readers,

Indeed he is at this moment the owner of the largest horse and largest dog in the world, besides any quantity of Lions, Tigers & c.  Carter’s “big hourse” which he has named General Washington, is indeed a magnificent animal and one of the greatest curiosities I have seen this many a day.  He is 5 years old, beautiful in all his proportions, is near 21 hands high and weighs 3000 pounds!  He is a hoss and no mistake.

Barnum then related some curious details about the man’s idiosyncrasies and an incident in London:

In fact Carter is so much of an animal man that he wears a breastpin-vivant, being nothing more nor less than a beautiful little dog half as big as your fist, which he has constantly lodged in his bosom, its little head, bright eyes, and pretty ears sticking out of Carter’s vest “as large as life and twice as natural.”  Carter called in at Spillmans, the Yankee headquarters in the strand, the other day.  What a beautiful breast pin you have got said Mary [blank space] it looks as natural as life, at the same time putting her finger on the head of the little dog which she little thought was alive.  The breastpin barked; Mrs. Spillman screamed and fainted & I need not add that Carter (the cruel wretch) laughed.

Discussion of “Major Titus, the leviathan showman” was next in Barnum’s letter.  According to circus proprietor  William Cameron Coup (1836-1895) in his book, Sawdust and Spangles, Lewis Titus was among the “original” American circus showmen to show under canvas tents in the early 19th century.  This was in the upstate New York counties of Westchester and Putnam, adjacent to Connecticut’s western border and thus not too distant from Barnum’s hometown of Bethel.  That area is steeped in circus and menagerie history, and among the men who chose those livelihoods, competitors often became partners, and partnerships formed and dissolved as circumstances dictated, feast or famine.  So it was in North Salem, New York, that Titus and two other showmen, John June and Caleb Angevine, formed June, Titus, Angevine & Co.  The business of their menagerie company included capturing exotic wild animals on the African continent, both for their own shows and to sell to others.  Again according to Coup, this company was the first to acquire wild animals on their own account; prior to this, Titus and his first partner, James Raymond, purchased animals from sea captains, who speculated on selling exotic species in European and American ports.  As Barnum’s commentary implies, in the menagerie business not all the animals were captured live.  Undoubtedly many died after capture, during transport, but businessmen still made their money by selling stuffed specimens.  (That said, lifelike, anatomical taxidermy did not develop until the latter half of the 19th century.)

Titus and Welch have both gone to America.  The former has stuffed animals enough to stock the Rocky Mountains if he would let them all loose.  To get some of these animals he and Van Amburgh have been to Africa . . . . Titus has besides shipped eight of the mammoth Flemish horses, which are so celebrated as being used by the Colliers and Brewers in and about London.  They will cut a swell in America—they must necessarily fill a large space in the public eye, for they are the biggest horses ever seen on the American Continent but they are Tom Thumbs by the side of Carter’s Mammoth.

Barnum’s next descriptions are focused on General Welch, and more about horses.  Rufus Welch (1800-1856) was another famous showman in his day, and he, too, was from New York State.  He made a name for himself in the late 1830s, being the first person to show giraffes (three of them, called “camel leopards” at that time) in the United States.  On equestrian topics—the heart of historical circuses—Barnum wrote,

General Welch has engaged among other novelties the famous and beautiful female rider [Madamoiselle] Camille Roux, whose graceful, daring and unequalled riding I mentioned in one of my first letters from Liverpool nearly two years ago.  These two frouzy old bachelors, Titus & Welch, have been taking lesson at the Hippodrome in Paris, and now they have lashed on their armor and are prepared to carry all before them next year in America.  If they can manage to keep at a respectful distance apart, and like the potentates of different peaceful kingdoms will “cultivate friendly relations” it will be all very well, but if these two mammoth caterers happen to clash, and have war to the hilt—the public may have the fun—but the devil will take the hindmost of the showmen!

Turning to stories of some unusual performing ponies, Barnum refers to Richard (Dick) Sands, who was both a circus (equestrian) performer and circus manager, and is credited with bringing the first complete American circus to Europe.  Barnum provided a lively description to his readers:

Then to make the horse war still more interesting Dick Sands has shipped a wilderness of ponies to America, and these little chaps will prove the biggest attraction in the lot, if all reports are true about them.  A gentleman who has seen them perform says they can do everything but speak!  One pair of these ponies are pugilists.  They are named after the two celebrated boxers Tom Spring and Deaf Burke [James “Deaf” Burke].  They are provided with boxing gloves and enter the ring.  They square off and after several false motions and a good-deal of fighting shy, Mr Pony Burke hits Mr Pony Tom Spring, a rouse in his bread basket which floors him—another pony, his “second,” picks him up and when “time” is called, quick as thought Tom Spring is on his legs again; (his hind legs only) and is again squaring off, and giving some of the “fancy” licks.  Presently “deaf Burke” is floored and he in turn comes to time and thus these quadruped pugilists continue in “sport” which I always thought was more appropriate for beasts than men.

The reference to calling “time” is interesting, because the London Prize Ring Rules had relatively recently been introduced in human boxing matches, and were developed partly in response to a tragic incident involving bareknuckle fighter “Deaf” Burke.  Famous as he was, “Deaf” Burke was imprisoned for a time after his opponent’s death from the inflicted injuries; acquitted, he went to America in 1836 to escape notoriety (and because no one in Great Britain would fight him), but he eventually returned to England.  At age 35, in the same year that Barnum penned this letter, Burke died of tuberculosis and in poverty, though his name remained legendary.

Portrait of prizefighter James “Deaf” Burke, 1839. Engraving by Charles Hunt after a portrait by Henry Hoppner Meyer. (Wikimedia Commons)

Dancing horse stories follow the description of boxing ponies. Barnum compares the grace of dancing horses to two illustrious ballerinas of the era: Swedish-born Marie Taglioni, said to be the first to dance en pointe, and Fanny Elssler, of Austria.  Further on, Barnum mentions Richard Risley (Richard Risley Carlisle), a New Jersey native and equestrian acrobat whose performances in Europe and the U.S. were beyond compare.

Then Sands has got dancing ponies (he has 18 or 20 in all), and military ponies who go through the broadsword exercise, fire guns, feign dead & c, other ponies play at “leap frog,” and he introduces the hurdle races (copying from the Hippodrome) where all the riders are monkeys, and lots of sport do they make. . . . the most curious and astounding of all the curiosities in the Equestrian line shipped to America, have been purchased by Sands—viz the two famous dancing horses from Franconi’s Circus.  One of these horses, formerly the property of Baron Rothschild and trained by the celebrated Boucher, who has frequently danced them before the King, actually dances a set piece of music of such great length as to require half an hour for its performance.  The other horse dances the Polka Mazourka & c. and handles his legs with the grace of Elssler or Taglioni!  The prelude to each dance is marked with all the graceful attitudes, and the “killing” fashion of sticking out the leg, practiced by the most accomplished danceuse.  Sands has been very successful in the performance with his boys a la Risley and has coined “upwards of a considerable” in France, Belgium & Germany, while Risley has done the same thing in Austria, Russia & c.

Concluding the circus and menagerie stories, Barnum reveals his self-interest in the promotion of the many “wonders” about to arrive on American shores.

On the whole my brother showmen are doing themselves great honor in their shipments to America; and I have too much friendship to desire to put them all to shame which I really should were I to tell them what I have shipped from France and England to be brought out at the American Museum for the Holidays.  However my friend [and American Museum Director] Hitchcock will divine that secret all in good time, and being too modest myself to say anything more about it, I drop the subject.

Maybe not so modest, but willing to share the limelight—perhaps because whetting the public’s appetite for novel entertainments was good for all showmen, himself included.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator