PTB Letters (#71) I Entrust You with a Small Secret

I Entrust You with a Small Secret

As we draw toward the end of P. T. Barnum’s copybook, it is fitting that there are several letters in which he discusses returning to America.  In true Barnum fashion, the plan had a twist.

After such a long time abroad, Barnum was more than ready to set foot on his home turf again, and this desire was amplified by continued worry about his wife Charity’s health.  As of April 3rd, Barnum still did not know about the arrival of their fourth daughter (Pauline, born on March 1st, 1846.)  He was rightfully upset that no one had written to give him any news; he should have received letters about two weeks after the fact.  Perhaps the absence of correspondence from any of the relatives prompted his decision to make the trans-Atlantic journey without letting them know; he dearly wanted to surprise family and friends, and decided to share the secret with only one person in America.  The trip home would only be a visit of a few weeks, however, not the conclusion of the European tour with Gen. Tom Thumb.

In letters read over the past several months we’ve seen Barnum give conflicting information about when he intended to go home.  Crossing the Atlantic in the depth of winter was a major deterrent, but even aside from the risk he wanted to avoid, it is clear that the lure of staying in England to make more money was also tugging at him.  The plan he finally came up with, to go home for a brief visit but keep it secret, was deployed on March 31st, 1846, when he wrote letters to Fordyce Hitchcock, his museum manager, and to the captain of the steamship he intended to go on.  Barnum’s letter to Hitchcock sets him up to remain unsuspecting of an imminent return, while the other letter gets the travel plan underway and reveals the deception to the captain.

Barnum wrote to tell Hitchcock that things were really going quite well in London.  “The General” was giving daily levees at Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, and at night he was performing the new play by Albert Smith, Hop O’ My Thumb.

The General’s new play has hit them hard here & we are engaged at the Lyceum Theatre till the 1st May & perhaps longer.  We give three performances per day at Egyptian Hall and go after 9 o’clock to the Theatre.  We average altogether £60 ($300) per day.  Not bad all things considered.

“Not bad” is right, and it appears that business skyrocketed in a matter of days.  By April 3rd  Barnum was reporting to other correspondents that he was bringing in $500 per day from the Egyptian Hall levees, and their share of profits from the performances at the Lyceum Theatre amounted to $200 per night, thus a total of $700 per day.  Further, Barnum noted, they were frequently turning away 500 to 800 people who wanted to attend the evening levees at Egyptian Hall.  Barnum swore to Mr. West, an editor of the New York Atlas newspaper, that these “statistics” (as he called them) were true upon his honor and could reliably be published in an article.  By comparison, Barnum’s March 31st recounting of financial success to Hitchcock seems modest.  Little did he know that he would be further tested by the desire to keep “piling up the tin” when he explained his conflicting emotions to Hitchcock.

Our business continues very prosperous, and I am ashamed to say the temptation here is now so great in a pecuniary point of view that we have almost resolved not to leave England till August, but God Almighty knows that if my life is spared you shall see us in New York before the 10th of September next.  I would not stay longer for the whole of England.  You cannot hardly imagine with what anxiety I await the arrival of the next Steamer which will bring me the news of my family.

In fact his plan was for Gen. Tom Thumb, his father Sherwood Stratton, and the entourage to remain in London continuing the performances, while he made the surprise visit home.  Barnum’s letter to “My dear friend Capt Matthews” requests berths on the SS Great Western.  Reading between the lines hints at how Barnum was making his absence acceptable to partner Stratton, who had expressed displeasure even about the few days Barnum was absent from France when he went to make advance arrangements in London.  The letter to Capt. Matthews begins,

I wish to engage two of the best berths in your ship for the 11th April for Mrs Stratton (the mother of General Tom Thumb) and for her brother.  She goes to America on a visit.  The General himself does not go till August.  She wants a lower berth in the middle of the ship down below.

He went on to say, “The gentleman wants an upper berth in the best part of the ship wherever that is—and I leave it for you to select it.”  Then he burst out with the truth that the brother of Mrs. Stratton was fictitious.  “By the way, for fear you may not select the best, I’ll tell you the truth who it is—it is myself.”  Explaining the pretense he continued,

I thought at first that I would not tell you that I was going, for I want to take our folks in America all by surprise, and I was fearful that you would mention it and the news would get over to America by the Steamer of the 4th.  But I beg you will not mention it for I want the fun of surprising our people the other side of the water.  So please keep dark.

Barnum would thus be accompanying Cynthia Stratton on the voyage.  We can imagine she was as anxious as Barnum to see family and friends again, and since her husband would not have wished or allowed her to travel alone, Barnum’s presence remedied that issue.  She and Barnum would leave London and start for Liverpool on Thursday night, April 9th, the day before Good Friday, and the steamship would depart on Saturday.   Barnum would also be bringing new Chromotrope views for Hitchcock to use in the American Museum, but deceived him by saying only that he was sending them on Great Western “[which] leaves 11th April & will arrive about the 26th I suppose,” failing to mention that he himself would also be on board.

Portrait of Steamship Great Western, 1838, an aquatint engraving by Henry A. Papprill after a painting by J. S. Coteman. The double paddlewheel vessel was almost 235 feet (71 meters) long, and until 1840 she was the largest passenger ship in the world, with a capacity for 128 first class passengers, 20 servants, and a crew of 60. Barnum numbered among the passengers on the April 1846 voyage from Liverpool to New York. (Wikimedia Commons)

Great Western was a British vessel built between 1837 and 1838 for the purpose of making trans-Atlantic crossings.  Although she was only in service for a few years, she was famous for attaining record speeds in the ocean crossings, and averaged 16 days from England to the U.S. and about 13 ½ days on the return voyage.  Boasting four masts for auxiliary sails and two side paddlewheels, she was also the largest passenger ship in the world until 1840.  Her design by Ishmael Kingdom Brunel was so innovative that she became a model for other Atlantic paddle wheelers.  Barnum was thus looking forward to time aboard this “top of the line” vessel, which was very well appointed for first class travelers such as himself.  Barnum requested of Captain Matthews, “Please give me such a berth as you think will be most comfortable & if you are not full I hope I shall not have a partner in the state room—however if I must—I must.”

As far as Mrs. Stratton, Barnum had never before expressed any liking, much less admiration, for her, and in fact he poked fun at her foolishness, vanity, and seemingly willful ignorance.  But in a letter to Charity on April 2nd, written in part to mislead her about the timing of his return, Barnum remarked on the change in Mrs. Stratton.  He noted,

[She] has quite reformed in her temper & c. and now speaks of you in terms of the greatest kindness.  She says that when she comes home in July next she hopes to be able to visit with you and have you do the same with her. Indeed she has become so much improved in disposition that I shall not regret to see a reconciliation on her return.

More importantly he told Charity,

Words cannot express the anxiety which I feel in relation to your health, nor how slowly the moments pass as I think of home and of the 12 days which must yet elapse before I can hear from you.  God in mercy grant that you have got along well, and that you may speedily recover your health.  Whatever may be the event, I certainly can never forgive myself for so cruelly allowing anything to cause me to be absent from you on such a fearful occasion as that which I trust you have now safely passed.

View of the spacious area below decks for well-to-do passengers traveling on a sailing packet, ca. 1850. Illustration in Some Famous Ships and Their Builders by Richard C. McKay. (Courtesy of Smithsonian Libraries Archives)

Barnum also asked Charity to have his sister Cordelia, who was living at their home in Bridgeport, write at once to daughter Caroline at school in Washington, D.C., for Caroline had made a mistake in sending out her letters.  He relayed,

I got a letter from Caroline by the last Steamer, but unfortunately she was so careless in addressing her letters that she sent me one which she had written to yourself and Miss Susan Doane, and of course I suppose that the letter intended for me was sent to you.  However I heard from her and learned that she was in good health and spirits and that is the most important thing.

Uncle Alanson Taylor, having moved to Baltimore, had also paid a visit to Caroline at her boarding school.  Barnum appreciated his uncle’s effort, offering, “Many, many thanks for your calling on my daughter Caroline and the good report you give of her progress.”  As far as little Helen at home with her mother in Bridgeport, Barnum once again a promised to write his six-year-old, saying it would be a “magnificent letter” and that he would “send her some beautiful presents, by an acquaintance of Mr & Mrs Osborne’s who goes over by the Great Western.”  Not a lie, since he was the acquaintance, but clearly aiming to pull the wool over her eyes!

Moses Kimball, Barnum’s showman friend in Boston, was the one person in America to whom he confided that he would soon be returning to the States.  On April 3rd Barnum penned a letter to Kimball from Egyptian Hall in London, divulging his plan.  “I am about to entrust you with a small secret, and as no other person the other side of the Atlantic will know it, I have only to say I beg you not to hint or breathe it to a living being.”  The secret, he said, is this:

I leave here next Saturday 11th April by the Great Western, and with God’s blessing will be in New York about 25th or 26th inst.  I go only for a visit of 3 or 4 weeks, and hope therefore you will not fail to call to N. Y. & spend all the time you can.  I would not for a £50 note miss of taking Hitchcock & all our folks by surprise—so for Heaven’s sake be discreet.

He added that he still knew nothing about Charity’s “confinement” and the arrival of their baby, and would have to wait another three weeks until he was in New York to find out.  “I have not yet heard of my wife’s accouchment [accouchement] nor shall not till I arrive.”

Hitchcock, meanwhile, had been given instructions to “keep trying to think of everything which will be attractive to the Museum & write me speedily so that I can be providing it during the summer.”  Barnum advised him,

As I cannot probably get Hale the Giant—we must make as much noise as possible out of what we can get.  I have therefore shipped the fat children & hope that you will be able to make a big card of them.

1851 irish emigration vessel between decks may 10
Print of a scene “between decks” on an immigrant sailing vessel, showing the crowded conditions. Published by the London Illustrated News, May 10, 1851. (See source

Their trans-Atlantic journey would be far longer and more arduous than Barnum’s, for he noted that they had departed Glasgow on March 27th aboard Saracen with Capt. Hawkins, and “I suppose you may reasonably expect them about 15th of May—perhaps a little earlier.”  That’s seven weeks in contrast to sixteen days on Great WesternSaracen was among the many Irish immigrant ships bringing victims of the Great Famine to America, and though most of these vessels were very sturdy and made the crossing safely, conditions for the passengers were a far cry from the comforts (and speed) of a steamer.  Barnum had deputized David Prince Miller to manage the travel arrangements for the “fat children” and their mother, and one would hope he had investigated to learn if Saracen was a seaworthy vessel, with ample supplies for the passengers.

So, while Barnum, Cynthia Stratton, and the Scottish family were crossing the ocean, Gen. Tom Thumb would continue to “hit them hard” in London with the new play.  As Barnum made a point of telling West, “Genl Tom Thumb was never so popular here as at the present moment.”  He proudly declared, “We are going it after the biggest fashion . . . ” and asked that West let the American public know “that I am not staying here so long for nothing.”

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

Now more than ever, the Barnum Museum needs your help!  Please consider making a donation to help support our educational programs!  Donate to the Barnum Museum!

Become a Barnum Museum YouTube Subscriber and be the first to see all our new episodes!  Subscribe to our new YouTube Channel