A New Chapter for a New Year

A New Chapter for a New Year

A “new chapter” is about to begin in P. T. Barnum’s business life as we learn from a group of letters he composed—appropriately—on New Year’s Day in 1846.  Barnum had just arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland, after two days in Newcastle upon Tyne, where Gen. Tom Thumb performed.  Even in their brief time there Barnum had managed to write several letters to correspondents in America,  but no sooner were these crossing the ocean than a new batch requiring answers was delivered to him in Scotland.  Once again he set to work with pen in hand.  As he mentioned in a brief letter to “Brother Drew,” . . . all my American letters came to day & must be answered before 9 this evening or they are too late for this Steamer.”  Barnum had a great deal on his mind as a result of receiving those letters from America, and he let “Brother Drew” know that he could not possibly support his money-making scheme, for, “I am more than two-thirds crazy already with the multiplicity of my affairs on both sides of the Atlantic & should absolutely go mad if I should engage in more.”

In addition to business matters, Barnum was also concerned about his wife Charity’s forthcoming “confinement” (as he referred to the time of childbirth), her fear and anxiety, and her despondency over the recent death of her sister.  Barnum felt tortured by the difficult decision whether to dare crossing the Atlantic in mid-winter in order to be with his wife—a risk that could prove fatal—and now his anxiety level was heightened by Gen. Tom Thumb’s parents, Sherwood and Cynthia Stratton:

Stratton’s folks stand upon their dignity immediately and say that if I go they shall expect to have the whole of the profits.  Even that I would not care much about if it was not for humoring them, by giving them what does not justly belong to them.

Summing up his feelings, he told Charity,

As it is I don’t know one moments peace—I am harassed day and night with thoughts of family and business in America.  I may muster courage to go off by Steamer of 4th February, profits or no profits—but still I cant help thinking such a step would be foolish and uncalled for—and I shall not therefore probably leave till March.

He tried to calm her fears, advising that she get two doctors lined up in case one was called elsewhere, and reminded her, “You have friends and every worldly comfort about you and by having the very best medical advice, you will with God’s blessing get along as well as if I was there.”  He also encouraged her to get whatever she needed:  “I apprehend no danger at all for you if you have good nurses and good medical advice, and as you have every thing requisite to command these, of course you will procure them in advance.”

The end of this letter to Charity brings the surprise news that Barnum was now the owner of the former (Rubens) Peale’s Museum in New York, and that another museum purchase was imminent if not yet complete.  Alanson Taylor, the rather exasperating, set-in-his-ways uncle to whom Barnum demonstrated patience and concern while exercising caution in regard to business and money matters, had apparently taken steps to acquire (Rembrandt) Peale’s Baltimore Museum.  We had a hint that something was up with Taylor several weeks ago when, it appears, Charity had alerted her husband that Taylor might not in fact be applying himself solely to the cloth trade as he had led them to believe, and so Barnum had asked Hitchcock to check that out and let him know.

Watercolor of Rubens Peale’s Museum
Watercolor of Rubens Peale’s Museum in New York City, at 252 Broadway across from City Hall, in 1825. Illustration in The Great Bygone Museum Tour, a blog post by Lissa Rivera at the Museum of the City of New York. (blog.mcny.org/2013/12/03/the-great-bygone-museum-tour/) (Collection of the Museum of the City of New York)

Barnum’s letter briefly informed Charity, “I have bought Peale’s Museum & expect before this that the Baltimore Museum has also been bought, and if so Uncle Alanson is there, but the whole is bought in my name and will be under my full direction, and I shall put a proper person there with uncle Alanson.”  Barnum then responded to Hitchcock,

I sent off my letters to you from Newcastle 2 days ago, but have this morning recd yours of Dec 15th.  Sorry to hear that the Ourang [orangutan] is dead—but it paid well.  I hope that the Baltimore Museum business may be correctly arranged.  If Taylor has bought it, I suppose he expects me to be an equal partner with him, which is all right, but the title had better remain in my name, and indeed I shall expect to have a faithful man there with Taylor to represent my interests.

Barnum wisely decided to clarify his view of managing the situation, and continued,

These few lines are intended for no eye but yours—and they are written merely to show you that I shall do business with Mr T. in a business manner, the same as if no relation existed, that in fact being the only proper way for friends or enemies to get along correctly.  However I do not wish to say much upon the matter till I hear from him and get his ideas on the subject.  I recd no letter from him by this Steamer, but hope by the next to have the full detail of his plans and expectations, and trust that they will be such as I can coincide with.

Regarding the outlay of funds, Barnum reassured Hitchcock, “You have done perfectly right in advancing the money to purchase the whole in my name, for if worse comes to worst, the stock will be worth the cost, though I hope to be able to make it pay well when I get my guns to bear, so as to make Am [American] Museum attractions tell there & as you say that will lessen their cost to us at our museum.”

His mind was already racing ahead to the challenges and benefits of managing attractions at two museum venues separated by 200 miles.  Barnum had related in a previous letter his attempt to purchase a model of Venice for £50; now the asking price of £100 no longer seemed a deterrent.  He explained, “Under consideration that I have now a finger in the Baltimore Museum, I am sure soon to buy the Model of Venice, even if I give the £100, for its actual cost was £2000–& it’s worth more than the £100 to the 2 museums.”  This musing was followed by a cascade of ideas:

Had I not better buy a pair of lanterns for dissolving views & send [them] so that Taylor could use a part of our views in Baltimore?  Will it not be best to send Foster, so that we can spare him to the Baltimore Museum in case we dont want him at our own.  The moment that I know that the Baltimore is nailed that moment I think I shall buy a pair of lanterns, more views & send Foster.  We might sell our Physioscope that Swift made, to Balt. Museum.  I will have Jefferson & Liberty send to Paris for the Trumpets.

In fact Barnum was realizing he needed to pay more attention to documenting the costs and expenses of the novelties and attractions he had been sending to the American Museum, telling Hitchcock, “I have made no minute [i.e., account] of them . . . .”  To offset his apparent negligence he made a point of saying, “Indeed it’s a blessing to you that I am in this country, otherwise novelties from here would be hard to get & cost a heap when they were got.”

The same letter also contains a reference to the partially conjoined twin infants in France whom Barnum hoped to bring to America; before leaving Paris, Barnum had tasked translator Monsieur Pinte with persuading the girls’ parents of the exceptional opportunity he offered.  Barnum himself had failed to convince them but perhaps a native Frenchman could do so.  His comment to Hitchcock suggests sad news—the failing health of the twins—but that his strategy to have Pinte meet with the parents might have succeeded: “The 2-headed living child is not very likely to reach America, but if it does I’ll risk its taking like a house a fire.”

Portrait of Rubens Peale
Portrait of Rubens Peale, 1807, by his brother Rembrandt Peale. Both brothers operated museums modeled on the famous Philadelphia museum begun by their father, artist Charles Willson Peale. (Collection of the National Portrait Gallery)

Today if someone said they were purchasing a museum, we would probably take that to mean the whole kit and caboodle, the building and collections.  In Barnum’s time, purchasing a museum primarily meant the purchase of the collection and displays.  Thus, when Barnum bought the American Museum in December of 1842 he was only buying the contents, not the building, which Francis W. Olmsted continued to own.  Only three years later, Barnum would become the owner of the former Peale’s Museum in New York and the collection thus acquired was to serve both as a back-up to be kept in storage in case his own was lost to fire, while portions of it would supplement or be used to rotate the items on display at the American Museum.  When Rubens Peale gave up his museum a few years before, a man by the name of Seaman took over and sold stock to investors with the idea of turning the museum for a profit.  Several of Barnum’s letters to Hitchcock in the summer and fall of 1845 mention his concern with Seaman’s asking price.  Barnum was on the fence about the maximum he’d be willing to spend—maybe $7000?  $8000 was too high, he thought.

As usual, he had advised Hitchcock to use his best judgement and do as he wished.  Eventually a deal was worked out, and Barnum wrote to Hitchcock on December 21st, 1845, to say,

I am rather glad that you have got Seaman’s Museum, for it will not bother me any more to think about it.  Pray what is he going to do with the building?  Make some kind of show I’ll warrant.  I hope you will not fail to make a feature of having bought & added the New York Museum to our American Museum, thus forming one of the most perfect collections in the world, and quite the most extensive in America.  Crack up the National Portrait Gallery added to museum & c & c.

Returning to practical matters and the ever-present danger of losing everything to fire, he added, “Had you not better increase Insurance on the museum say $5000, in consideration of Peales?  Just as you please.”

All this and a judgement against him pertaining to some years past when he worked with a merchant-importer named Horace Fairchild were keeping Barnum “in a state.”  The situation appears to have been an attempt at extortion as Barnum was certain he had fully paid off what he owed years ago, and bitterly declared it had been done at great sacrifice to his family.  Fairchild was supposed to have paid his share too.  He told Hitchock, “I lost all that I had on earth by H. Fairchild besides losing several years valuable time by being engaged with [that] rascal.”  Once again, trusted museum manager Hitchcock was asked to intercede to resolve the thorny situation, with Barnum’s guidance—proof that life in the past wasn’t as “simple” as we often tend to think.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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