A Mountain of Worries
I suspect there is no time like our present situation to elicit sympathy for another person’s difficult times and worries about their family members’ health. This week I delved into a new “batch” of the letters P. T. Barnum wrote while in France and sent back to his family and business associates in America. While perusing these seven letters, somewhat out of order, it dawned on me that they had a different tone from the letters written in preceding weeks. No longer sounding buoyant, confident, and “on top of things” with a solution for every problem that arose, the letters from September 12th – 14th, 1845, possess a different kind of intensity. Barnum was writing from the heart, perhaps feeling particularly lonely at the time, and his letters covered the gamut of emotions; annoyance, disappointment, frustration, even anger, while also expressing empathy and love for those he held dear. Still, there seemed to be an undercurrent of other deep worry infused in this larger than usual outpouring of ink. (Fordyce Hitchcock, Barnum’s friend and American Museum manager, received a dense, eight-page letter.) Particularly striking were letters to his wife, Charity, and another to their eldest daughter. These really gave me pause—they sounded quite harsh. What was going on?
Apparently, a lot—one of those times when life just keeps slinging things at you. For Barnum, who at that point was travelling alone (he was usually a week or more ahead of Gen. Tom Thumb’s entourage), letter-writing had to be his outlet, while his solace was receiving letters and newspapers from home. He told his wife, “There is nothing affords me so great relief as to get letters from America.” Yet Barnum’s letters to Charity and Caroline at this time didn’t sound like ones they would have happily received.
Charity’s perpetual poor health was a constant source of concern to her husband, and her apparently “nervous disposition” and anxieties seemed to exasperate him. We do not know anything specific about Charity’s illnesses; Barnum’s letters to others tell us that she only infrequently went out in the carriage and otherwise stayed at home. His letter to her dated September 12th began with sympathy: “I was a little relieved to learn that Helen [their five-year-old daughter] was better, though I am in continual misery on her and your accounts. It is dreadful to have sickness when we are so far apart, but I hope it will all prove for the best.” Ending the letter, his words were less compassionate:
You certainly are surrounded with the comforts of life—you are in want of nothing except health, and as you have every convenience and are able to engage any assistance necessary I hope you will have courage and keep up your spirits till I return. There are none so unhappy as those who fancy themselves so. I am engaged every moment of the day & riding in the Diligence [coach] nearly every night—in fact the business is too hard for me, and I am determined hereafter to take it a little easier.
And referring to instructions he gave Charity in a previous letter, directing her to seek out land for sale in Bridgeport where they planned to build a grand home, Barnum bluntly tells her,
Your account about the places for sale in Bridgeport is woman like. First you say Orrin Sherwood will sell for $10,000, but you don’t say how much land so of course I can’t judge whether it is best to buy. Then you say Deacon Deforest will sell seven acres, but you don’t say for what price, so again I am left unable to judge what is best to do. However I know you was sick and felt bad, so I will not quibble at your unbusiness like letter.
Ironically—and no doubt to avoid worrying Charity further on his account—he merely hinted at his own health troubles, noting that, “I am homesick—have lost my fat, am losing the hair from the top of my head and begin to think it is time to get home lest I also lose myself.” But he revealed a much more serious health concern to Fordyce Hitchcock in a letter written the same day:
I ought to be permitted to enjoy the fruits of my labor if I live, which I much fear will not be the case, as I am sadly afflicted with some painful and I fear fatal disease which appears seated at the pit of my stomach. I suffer much from it, and as I am on my legs during the whole day & generally travelling by Diligence through the whole night I am getting worse—I have lost all my fat—I am now fast losing my hair from the top of my head, and if I don’t lose my life before I get home I shall be lucky.”
Continuing the next day in the same letter, he added, “My health is much worse to day—the disease of my breast whatever it is, is getting serious—it is very painful and if it continues to grow worse I shall be in America before 6 weeks are passed.”
With this in mind, we can perhaps forgive Barnum’s tone in his September 13th letter to daughter Caroline, one that may have caused the twelve-year-old to shed a few tears. Trying to play one parent off the other, she had apparently written to her father seeking his permission to attend a masquerade ball, but he would have none of that. He began by remarking that, “I was very glad to read the good news that [your letter] contained, viz: that your mother would not let you go to a masquerade ball!” In case his meaning was not abundantly clear he continued,
I am astonished that you would desire to go to such a place—where persons disguised and unknown could insult you with impunity. It is not a respectable or decent amusement, and although perhaps respectable persons may engage in it, they do it without proper reflection, and there doing so should be no excuse for your desiring to imitate them. . . . Don’t let your foolish desire for novelty, lead you into imprudences. Your whole soul at present should be bent upon one object—education. . . . I have no doubt your mother lets you go to quite party’s enough—there is no possible danger of your attending too few. For my part I would prefer that you never attend another till you are at least 18 years of age. So you see you get poor encouragement by complaining to me on that subject.
Pushing the point further, he noted that her spelling needed improvement; Caroline had spelled whooping cough without a “w” and affectionate with two “n’s.” He admonished her, “Children should not wish to go to party’s till they are old enough to spell.” Ouch.
A popular print such as this, showing characters at a masquerade ball,
might have inspired 12-year-old Caroline Barnum’s wish to attend such a ball,
thinking only that it looked like fun—an opinion not all shared by her parents.
Masquerade Ball held at the Argyll Rooms, an entertainment venue in London.
Engraved and published by George Hunt after a drawing and etching
by Theodore Lane, 1826. (Wikimedia Commons)
The next day’s brief letter to Messrs. Roux & Co., suggests another reason for Barnum’s verbal lashing and why he was feeling overwhelmed trying to manage business and family matters while feeling so ill. In letters to others Barnum referred to Roux as a scoundrel, so he clearly disliked dealing with the man. He was responding to Roux’s of the 10th about signing “treaties” (contracts) for Amsterdam and Mons. After declining to sign them, Barnum expressed his strong displeasure.
Indeed we do not wish to sign any more treaties at all. We are sick and tired of France. We have been altogether deceived regarding the country and could have made 100,000 Francs more if we had gone to England direct from Paris.
Both the unexpectedly long travel time between towns, and the high taxes and fees Barnum found he had to pay for Tom Thumb’s performances at each venue, had really worn him down. He was particularly angered at having been deceived in regard to the “poor laws” that levied taxes on luxuries such as theatre performances. In short, he was thoroughly fed up.
While it may be more entertaining to discover the things Barnum wrote concerning his business enterprises and grand plans, the appeal of the letters in this copybook is their wide range of recipients, which in turn reveal Barnum more completely as a person, struggling mightily at times, and living in an era when the threat of an illness turning fatal could quickly rise to front of mind. It is something akin to the fear we have been experiencing during the covid-19 pandemic.
We all experience periods in our lives when bad things seem to pile up in short order, and clearly mid-September of 1845 involved that kind of turbulence for Barnum; the letters from pages 144 to 159 (as numbered on the bottom scroll bar) reveal even more worries than those I have noted above. Barnum’s troubles were deeply felt, and of course he did not know, as we do, that he would go on to live a long life and achieve far greater successes than even he could imagine at that time.
Next week, in honor of Father’s Day, we will explore the “softer side” of P. T. Barnum.
Barnum Museum Curator