PTB Letters (#56) Do the Best You Can for Yourself

Do the Best You Can for Yourself

P. T. Barnum was an inveterate letter-writer who had no trouble filling sheet after sheet to certain correspondents, and so his twelve-page epistle to Alanson Taylor, which we explored in the previous two blogposts, is not altogether surprising. This week we will explore a related long letter—a mere seven pages!—written to Fordyce Hitchcock, manager of Barnum’s American Museum. Dated January 25th, 1846, from Cupar, a parish of Fife, Scotland, Barnum began by informing Hitchcock that his letter to Taylor was enclosed, and that he wished Hitchcock to read it.  He should then seal it up and mail it so that Taylor would realize Hitchcock was aware of the contents.  Barnum’s strategy was to avoid misunderstandings and avert possible disagreements between the two men, who apparently were not compatible personalities; Hitchcock seemed to have a hard time tolerating Taylor’s “crusty” manner and entrenched attitudes.  Barnum reasoned, “Indeed [Taylor] may as well know that you have read it by my desire—then a full & mutual understanding will be maintained.”

Barnum was counting on their cooperation to make a success of the recently acquired Baltimore Museum—he being an equal partner with Taylor—which would provide another venue for new attractions at his American Museum.  The profitability of Barnum’s often-pricey purchases in Europe would thereby be extended since they could be sent to Baltimore after a good run in New York City.  Barnum also wanted to ensure that Hitchcock, as his financial manager, would know and fully understand his wishes, and the letter to Taylor would explain these.  He was sensitive to Hitchcock’s compulsion to carry out directives precisely as Barnum wished, whether family or business related.  The weeks between letters sent and replies received, and letters crossing in the mail, must have caused Hitchcock a great deal of worry, as Barnum hastened to assure him,

You have before this learned by another letter that all your anxiety about having missed my views in purchasing the Baltimore Museum was groundless.  I could not have foreseen that such a chance could have occurred but since it did occur I am rejoiced that you took advantage of it.

Curiously, Barnum responded a bit doubtfully to Hitchcock’s statement that if he, Barnum, regretted Hitchcock’s decision to pay $5000 toward the Baltimore Museum purchase, he himself would put up the money and become Taylor’s partner.  Barnum probed Hitchcock’s intent, saying,

. . . if you mean by that, that you prefer to give up your present situation & take half the Balt. Museum, I certainly can make no objection, provided Mr Taylor & yourself agree to that plan.  I by no means wish to tie you down to the Am[erican] Museum when a chance offers for your bettering yourself . . .

Considering Hitchcock and Taylor’s uneasy relationship, the idea of a partnership hardly seems likely, yet Barnum continued, “. . . if you think that such a chance is at hand, by your buying the Balt[imore] Mus. with Taylor, I wish you to embrace it, for I wish you always to consider that the world is open to you to do the best you can for yourself, without feeling under the least restraint on my account.”

Barnum had helped—perhaps even “rescued”—Hitchcock, who had formerly been a Universalist minister, by employing him as his museum manager; the two men must have had many soul-baring conversations in the past.  He advised, “Understand me, I do not believe . . .  you desire to change your present situation, still it may be that looking on the Balt[imore] Mus. as a certainty & your present situation as something of an uncertainty, the former might be preferred by you, and if so, I say with all my heart and soul “take it,” for I will never wittingly be in the way of your advancement & prosperity.”

While Barnum appears genuine in his desire that Hitchcock not feel under obligation, he also had his own business interests to consider.  Clearly, he realized that both for the sake of his museum and Hitchcock’s own mental health, it would not be possible to have his manager’s attention split between Baltimore and New York.  He emphasized,

It would be impossible . . . for you to devote your whole time & attention to the Am. Mus. if you was proprietor of the Balt.  In fact, in the latter event your personal attendance would be required in Baltimore; again I calculate that, that head of yours would crack & snap worse than it ever did before, if you got stuck with the management & ownership of two museums—it would therefore be to both our interests to have you abandon the old American to her fate—if you desire to have half of the Baltimore.

The men were close friends and Barnum wished to keep their personal relationship strong and even expand it to their families.  He knew of Hitchcock’s ongoing concern for his wife’s painful illness, possibly trigeminal neuralgia, and replied to him, “I am glad your wife’s face is cured,” then commented on his own health.

I am well once more except in heart.  I am dreadfully homesick—so much so that I cannot sleep nights.  So many women have died this year of child-birth that my wife is excessively frightened and so am I.  [Charity was nearing the end of her eighth month.]

Barnum also inquired about the young man from England, trained in saddle-making, whom he wanted to help find employment in America.  This young man, unnamed, was the son of a Mr. and Mrs. Collins in London; Barnum had mentioned them as friends of his and that this was a favor he was returning, but a brief clue in one letter indicates there was more to the relationship: Mrs. Collins was a sister-in-law.  We now learn from this January letter to Hitchcock that Barnum’s failure to identify the young man by name led to confusion, undoubtedly when someone from the Museum was sent to meet him disembarking from the ship in December.

You have probably found ere this that young Collins the Englishman is not named “Collins”—it was my mistake, that being the name of his stepfather and mother who is married to her second husband.  I hope the young chap is at work & prospering.  If by no possibility he can get any work—you or Taylor must try to give him something to do.

In November of 1845 Barnum had appealed to his half-brother in Bridgeport to help find the young man a job at his trade if he did not succeed in finding work in New York.  Barnum’s next comment seems to suggest that Englishman “Prof. Swift,” whom he employed at the American Museum, might train the young man for museum work if finding employment as a saddle-maker hadn’t worked out: “Swift might & ought to instruct some person in making gas & showing [dissolving] views, so that he could do it in Balt. Museum.”

This tact would support Barnum’s plan to offer more shows of the popular “Dissolving Views” and he intended to have additional glass slides made while in England.  He thanked Hitchcock for sending him pictures which would be the source for artists to create slides to use with the special lantern.  Aware that audiences might react negatively to seeing an idealized view of a familiar place when the reality was quite different, Barnum noted,

These views you have sent me are truly splendid & I may have some of them painted—but the N. Y. Park & other familiar scenes would look so much better in pictures than they do in reality, that I fear the people would lose their admiration of the other views (foreign) as they would think that they all looked better through the lantern than in reality.  If I had the Revolutionary land & water Battle Pieces, that objection could not apply, for the people do not know how the Battles did look.

However, Barnum’s next request suggests that improvements had recently been made to the Park: “Can you send me for Dissolving Views a good picture of the Park as it now is—with fountain & c.?”  He had also come up with an exciting idea to create a set depicting the American Museum from day to night.  Dissolving views typically showed a gradual transformation in a scene from dawn to dusk or vice versa, the change in light making the transformation more believable as well as dramatic.  Thinking about the success of the brilliant Drummond Light atop the American Museum, Barnum asked Hitchcock,

Could you not have a good picture drawn right size of [the] American Museum & have me get it painted with the change—first showing it in day time—then lighted up, with big lantern on the top.  It would not be bad.

As far as strengthening the museum’s bread and butter in daily ticket sales, Barnum was still hoping Hitchcock would reach out to the local Sunday schools, promoting the museum’s views of Jerusalem and other places of religious significance.  These would be presented with narration, thus having some educational value to the students.  A parallel goal in this plan was to sway the opinions of those who still doubted the “moral character” of his museum.  He was especially concerned about income during the dull season, and along with getting Sunday school scholars and teachers in the door he suggested, “Keep trying some cheap gag, to get out city people during the winter—at all other times we can do without them.”

Barnum also gave Hitchcock an update on the huge paintings he’d had copied, Girodet’s The Deluge, and Vernet’s Cain and His Family.  He was tempted to have another “very large & splendid” painting copied, this one depicting Generals Washington and Lafayette meeting on horseback and surrounded by the army, so he was told.  Though the other copies had cost him $200 each, this would be considerably more at $500 to $600.

Seige of Yorktown, 17 October 1781, by Auguste Couder (1789-1873). This grand scale painting in which Generals Washington, Rochambeau, and Lafayette are depicted was made in 1836, and it is probably the painting Barnum was interested in having copied. Collection of the Palace of Versailles. (Wikimedia Commons, image in public domain)

Barnum was equally intent on another type of attraction, bringing human “marvels of nature” to the American Museum, and was thinking ahead.  It is notable that in some cases Barnum (or his agent) was approaching such an individual (or parent or guardian) about exhibiting seriously for the first time, but in other cases, perhaps the majority of cases, the individual was already exhibiting him or herself, and Barnum thought he could attract the person to work for him under a more lucrative contract.  The “fat children” mentioned in the May 14, 2021, blog post may have done a modest amount of exhibiting.  Barnum was trying find a way for the mother and her several children to keep a roof over their heads until April when they could safely make the trans-Atlantic crossing to New York but during that time, but he did not want them to exhibit during that time.  The mother was anxious for a better opportunity for her sons to be exhibited but Barnum felt the delay until spring was necessary for their safety.  Though he thought the two “fat” brothers were “not quite so large as I should have wished,” he felt sorry for the mother and had offered her a year-long contract.

A very different situation is described in the case of an exceptionally tall man whom, it was reported, was already making plenty of money.  Barnum told Hitchcock,

There is a Giant in England named Hale, (Bennett saw him—I have not) who is universally pronounced the largest & finest Giant in the world.  It is said that he could not be hired for America short of £10 ($50) per week—as he is earning that now on his own a/c [account].  Would it do to hire him at that for a year?

Woodcut newspaper illustration, circa 1850, showing the English giant Robert Hales, whom Barnum learned of while on tour in the U.K. and later brought to his American Museum in New York. Hales was 7 feet 8 inches tall, and weighed about 463 pounds (210 kg). (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the Science Museum Group, U.K.)

The story may have been exaggerated, nonetheless it is of interest.  In  1848, one Robert Hales did come to America to work for Barnum for a couple of years.  To be clear, he was not “Hale,” the famous English giant nicknamed after the village near Liverpool where he was born.  That man, John Middleton, had lived centuries before, from 1578 to 1623.  Robert Hales—with an “s”—was born in 1820 in a village in Norfolk.  His parents and eight siblings were all exceptionally tall people, and as an adult Robert stood at 7’8”.  At the time Barnum learned of Hales he was traveling around in a yellow caravan exhibiting at fairs, and had also teamed up with one of his tall sisters and her husband.  Hales had taken up this itinerant life after being discharged from the Royal Navy due to his large size (he had joined at age 13 and was discharged at 17).  In 1840 he met Queen Victoria who commented on his resemblance to King George IV; very likely that memorable audience with the Queen helped launched his fame in England.  In America, Barnum billed him as “The Norfolk Giant”  and Hales also posed with Eliza Simpson as the husband and wife Quaker giants.  Hales returned to England around 1850, where he died in 1863.

Finally, I expect it’s safe to say all of us are curious to know what Barnum really thought about other people, and this letter to Hitchcock offers a couple of very biting comments about associates he has mentioned previously.  One was the artist George Catlin, who had brought Native Americans to Europe to display in conjunction with his paintings, and as Barnum had become acquainted with him in England in 1844, he wrote to him in the fall of 1845 to suggest they might work together, appearing to think well of him at that time.  In fact the Barnum and Catlin families had spent time socializing together, and in the summer of 1845 Barnum was saddened to hear that Catlin’s wife had died, leaving him with the care of their young children.  But in this letter, Barnum’s opinion of the man is stunningly changed.  He told Hitchcock,

Catlin is not the man he was.  I discharged him for bad behaviour.  He is the most unprincipled whore-master living.  Dont have him about the museum [supposing he had or might return to the U.S.]

The other associate he did not like was Charles J. Rogers, an English circus equestrian of renown who had gone to America.  Barnum had already written him off as a wind-bag when mentioning him to Moses Kimball.  In the January letter to Hitchcock, Barnum offered a more complex view of how to handle their association with Rogers.

Rogers is an ass, a man of some talent but all gab, a bragadocia & a drunkard.   His wife is a fine woman—daughter of Willmer of Liverpool & on her account only would I wish you to receive Rogers at all—she is a worthy lady & by pleasing her—her father will always help us in the Willmer & Smith’s European Times.

Next week we’ll find out about creating the famous “Happy Family” exhibition of birds and beasts as Barnum shares the secrets he has learned with Hitchcock, and asks him to begin.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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