Averting a Lawsuit
Late February of 1846 was proving to be a difficult time for P. T. Barnum, as a group of uncharacteristically short letters reveals. An accident had occurred at the theatre in Airdrie, Scotland, a small town twelve miles east of Glasgow, where General Tom Thumb had performed on Monday, February 16th. Several people had been injured, some seriously, including one of the General’s entourage. Thinking back to the main dangers in theaters of past centuries, fire was the all-too-common reality, but the accident in Airdrie was a different sort: the floor had given way.
Barnum was, needless to say, greatly relieved that his protégé had not been hurt, though the incident surely must have terrified everyone present. As is often the case with Barnum’s letters, his relating of an incident or situation is not necessarily consistent from one letter to the next, and in this case, he tells one correspondent that none of his party was hurt, while in another letter he writes that one of his people was severely injured. In any case, the essential story is present and it is clear that Barnum was quite rattled by the accident, especially as it occurred when he was already feeling quite burdened with family and financial worries. Having to sort out this calamity just as he was wrapping up the tour in Scotland was a particularly unwelcome task.
We first learn of the accident in a letter to a Mr. Sheffield, written in Paisley and dated February 19th, three days after the incident occurred. In it Barnum said the entourage would “dash on according to your arrangement, & be in Rugby [England] on time,” and he followed this with a few brief lines that reveal why their schedule had been in question.
The floor broke through at Airdrie—one arm and one leg broke and 39 more injured. It will cost us a few hundred pounds probably. It was not at the Court House—but at the Theatre which I engaged for the 6d fellows. None of us were hurt.
Then he added, “We have done miserable business lately,” and listed their meagre take from performances in Paisley, Greenock, Glasgow, and Airdrie, ranging from £20 to £41. Barnum’s next letter sought legal advice from solicitor Mr. Moncrieff, a partner in the long-standing Glasgow firm Moncrieff, Paterson, Forbes & Barr. Barnum informed Moncrieff that the bearers of his letter were gentlemen from Airdrie who would tell him about the accident, and he asked that Moncrieff “oblige the father of Genl Tom Thumb and myself [by listening] to them and [advising] us what you think would be just or honorable in the matter.”
On Sunday, February 22nd, Barnum’s group departed Paisley and reached the town of Dumfries that evening. Barnum sat down to respond to the advice he had received from the solicitor and affirm his willingness to act upon it. He also wrote to the proprietor of the Royal Hotel Airdrie, asking for his assistance in locating the men who had spoken with him in Paisley. He explained, “Two gentlemen from Airdrie called on us yesterday at Paisley to know whether Genl Tom Thumb would feel inclined to give anything toward relieving some of the most needy sufferers by the late accident.” Since he did not know their names, he asked if the hotel proprietor could let the men know of his intent. He stated plainly, “I am now directed by General Tom Thumb to say that he will tomorrow send Twenty Pounds to the Chief Magistrate of Airdrie, which sum he wishes the Magistrate to distribute according to his own discretion among those sufferers who most need pecuniary aid.”
The next short letters address the mechanics of getting the £20 sum to the Chief Magistrate. (Barnum found he could not get a Post Office order, and had to ask the Post Master to be responsible for delivering the banknote.) A letter addressed to the Chief Magistrate himself informed him of the purpose of the forthcoming money and the hope that the “most needy sufferers” of the accident would be the beneficiaries.
Aside from the solicitor’s counsel to offer compensation to the injured, Barnum himself must have realized these were people who, for the most part, barely earned enough to get by much less pay for a doctor’s care, and if their injuries prevented them from working for a time, a whole family might starve. Nineteenth-century Airdrie was, after all, an industrial town of coal miners and cotton mill workers, many of whom moved there in the mid-1840s to seek non-agrarian employment as the Scottish Highlands potato famine decimated their life-sustaining crop. Providing restitution to the injured was a sticky situation, and as far as Barnum was concerned, the quicker things could be settled the better so he could finish the tour and get back to London. The manner in which the unfortunate accident was handled could hardly be more different than today when liability insurance, and potentially protracted litigation, would shape the outcomes. Barnum and others in his day had a lot to fear from lawsuits.
Upon reaching Penrith, England, Barnum received a letter from the Chief Magistrate, John Davidson, Esquire, though it was not what he had hoped to hear. Davidson’s letter had been forwarded to him from Glasgow, which tells us it was written before he had received Barnum’s communication about the £20 donation. The accusatory tone of Davidson’s letter is apparent in Barnum’s response, which begins with courteous and deferential language explaining that General Tom Thumb had sent £20 via the Post Master. By the third paragraph, however, he holds nothing back in conveying his indignation at the accusations. He began calmly enough, writing,
I hope that the remittance may prove satisfactory, though I cannot refrain from saying that I hardly think it would have been sent if your letter had been received in advance, for it would then have looked, (considering the indirect threat contained in your letter) as if fear and not charity prompted the act on the part of the General.
With escalating anger he went on,
Now I have to say, by order of the father of General Tom Thumb, that the former feeling never has nor never will enter into his brain nor heart regarding this transaction, and much as he should feel annoyed at litigation in this country, yet he would not give the millionth part of a farthing to avoid such an event in this case. The wholesale stories that have been got up about our being cautioned that the room was weak and would hold but a few hundred persons—that there was danger if too many were admitted & c is a tissue of the most palpable and ridiculous falsehoods ever concocted by selfish man, and such will they be proved to be if any men or their “agent” hope to extort money from the really injured party.
Further, he argued,
Who would be fool enough to believe that Mr Stratton would have risked the life of his son, and that we would all have risked our lives in a hall regarding the safety of which we had heard the least whisper or hint? The supposition is preposterous.
From this point to the end of the 3½ page letter, Barnum built his case, and we get a better picture of the contentious situation in which neither he nor the theatre owner would admit to bearing responsibility for the accident. As Barnum tells it,
The truth was we were assured in advance by the proprietor that the hall had held 1000 persons at a time, and could so do again, and it was repeatedly stated to him that our object in getting the hall was to get in more people than the other hall could possibly hold, and that we wished the people to be packed as thick as they could stand. This he agreed to and assured us that we could get in 1000 persons.
Barnum had revealed in his letter to Mr. Sheffield that he had purposely engaged the large theatre in Airdrie rather than the hall so as to attract the “6d fellows”–presumably meaning working people who could afford a 6 pence admission but would find the usual shilling too steep. Barnum would have calculated that in order to offset the bargain price, he needed to attract a very large crowd. But the letter to Davidson claims there were far less than 1000 in the theatre at the time of the accident, and that a portion of the floor, not the entire floor, broke under the weight of a relatively small number, and therefore he should not be blamed. He laid it out to Davidson thusly,
Now what was the fact? The weight of from 100 to 150 persons broke down the floor, for the remaining 500 persons escaped, and they did not affect that portion of the floor which gave way. By the merciful Providence of God, General Tom Thumb escaped, for had the accident occurred two minutes sooner there are 99 chances in 100 that he would have been killed. We were constantly urging the audience to approach the table where the General was exhibiting, to get as near him as they could & c. Should we have encouraged this extra weight to concentrate about him had we ever received the remotest hint that the floor would not have sustained as many as could have stood on it? At the time of the accident there was standing room for several hundred more persons, and we should have packed that number in, during the next few minutes, had not the accident occurred. And of course we should have done this without the suspicion of danger, for no man is fool enough to believe we would have knowingly endangered our lives and the life of the General, and we should have been doing it knowingly, if as has been asserted we had received the shadow of a caution about limiting the number of the audiences.
Barnum again emphasized that “Mr Stratton hopes . . . you are all satisfied with what he has done” and will drop the thought of a lawsuit, “but if such is not the case, he begs me to say that his attorneys are Messrs Moncrieff Paterson & Forbes of Glasgow, and that he stands ready by their advice to resist any attempt of any person or persons to extort money from him on account of the late accident . . . .” Barnum was undoubtedly voicing his own opinions on the matter, though he signed all of these letters as “P. T. Barnum, Secretary to General Tom Thumb.” The tact was similar to his identifying himself to French officials as General Tom Thumb’s “agent” rather than as his manager or the business partner of the boy’s father.
Barnum closed his letter to Davidson by offering sympathy to “those who suffered bodily injury” while also making the point that, “One of our party was seriously injured” though he did not elaborate on the extent of the injuries. His next point raises an interesting question of liability. Barnum stated to Davidson that “had Genl Tom Thumb lost life or limb by the calamity, there is no question that Mr Russell would have been liable to damages,” which suggests that it was customary for a proprietor’s liability to extend only to the performer(s) and accompanying individuals, not the theatre patrons.
Claiming there were other grounds to sue Russell, Barnum added, “At present he may thank his good fortune, and the dissuasions of Mr Stratton and myself if the man in our company who was so seriously injured does not institute proceedings against him for damages.”
At that time there was no liability insurance, so neither Barnum nor the theatre owner were protected from the cost of a legal judgment against them. In England, liability insurance (first known as employers’ insurance) only came about after the passage of the Employers’ Liability Act in 1880; stateside, liability insurance emerged a few years later. Industry-specific insurance products soon followed and by 1915, liability coverage for theatres was among them. For the town of Airdrie, the floor collapse was the most minor of many accidents that would occur there in 1846; in August and December there were fatal explosions in the mines, and between those months several other mine-related accidents resulted in the tragic deaths of individuals.
Nearly a week after the spate of accident letters, and having at that point returned to London, Barnum wrote one of his usual long epistles to Fordyce Hitchcock at the American Museum, though he refrained from sharing the whole story. Near the end of his March 1st letter he mentioned the accident just briefly, relating to his museum manager that,
We had a sad accident near Glasgow. The floor broke through wounding 41 persons—breaking arms legs & c. The authorities threaten to prosecute us for damages & therefore I send you no money this time. I have only $1500 (£300) and may want all of that to fight these devils in Scotland. However I guess not. If anything transpires before the 3d I shall drop you another letter—if not—not.
The aftermath of the accident was a humbling experience for Barnum, perhaps shaking his confidence that he could work things out on his terms or even that an unfortunate incident would be handled fairly by the parties involved. But he faced these troubles squarely, as he would do again in the future when his museums and circus winter quarters were consumed by fires.
Barnum Museum Curator