PTB Letters (#74) I Shall Be Punctually at Spillman’s

Igniting Interest: Barnum’s Views on the Loco-Foco Party

Barnum returned to England in early summer of 1846 after a few weeks’ visit home.  For reasons we will never know, there is a considerable gap between the time of his return and the dates of the last letters his copybook.  But knowing as we do that Barnum was a prolific correspondent, that gap surely was not due to a lack of letter-writing, even though we find nothing from June or July, nor most of August.  He may have started a new copybook upon his return (and if so, it no longer exists as far as we know), or he simply didn’t use a copybook then.  Perhaps it was a quirk or out of habit that he thought to put the late August letters in his old copybook, using up the few remaining blank pages.  That’s Yankee thrift.

So, there are just two letters that actually date from Barnum’s return to England, and both were composed on August 20th, 1846.  Barnum was in Gosport at that time, an area of Portsmouth on the southern coast of England close to the Isle of Wight, a popular holiday destination.  Portsmouth is about 75 miles southwest of London, and serves as a port for the various ferries that cross the English Channel.  Perhaps August was a good time to be away from London, and Barnum had decided to book venues for Gen. Tom Thumb in towns near the coast.  The change of scene and sea air would surely have been a welcome break from the urban environment, and one hopes this time included a well-deserved rest for eight-year-old Charles Stratton.  His schedule of levees and nightly theatre performances in London had been grueling to say the least, though he seems to have tolerated the demands upon him quite well.

View of Old Portsmouth taken from the Spinnaker Tower, 2007. In August of 1846 Barnum and Gen. Tom Thumb and his entourage stayed in this town of medieval origins. The modest scale of the buildings even today gives us a sense of what Barnum would have seen. (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the creator, eNil of Portsmouth, UK.)

Having only the letters Barnum wrote from Gosport and none from other towns, we don’t know where else Charles may have performed, only that he was in Portsmouth and needed a supply of souvenir booklets to sell.  We learned that Barnum had approved an updated version of the booklet in early January while he was in Scotland, and wrote to his friend Thomas Brettell, a printer located in Haymarket, London.  Barnum sent him a “corrected & amended” copy of the booklet, and noted that Charles’ father was adamant that Barnum not be referenced as the boy’s guardian.  The senior Stratton had boldly declared, “By God it shall be took out, or my boy shall never sell a damned book . . . .”

Barnum also sent Brettell a new “cut” (woodcut printing block) so that he could add another illustration to the booklet.  He was sending this cut, he told Brettell, by way of his advertiser Mr. Sheffield who was making a trip to London.  He noted that, “. . . we want 3 more of them [so] I wish you to get 3 stereotypes so as to send them by [Sheffield] on friday if possible.”  On what seems like short notice Barnum requested, if possible, to have 1000 of the booklets sent; Sheffield would pick them up on Thursday night or Friday, a turnaround of three days at most.

Detail of a Map of London in 1868
Detail of a Map of London in 1868, by Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. When in London, Barnum often stayed with his friends the Brettells, who lived in the area called Haymarket. You can easily spot Haymarket in the lower left quadrant of the map. Thomas Brettell’s address was 25 Rupert Street, a street you can find just above Haymarket, one block over to the right. See the entire map of London by E. Weller here: (Image courtesy of, a philanthropic project featuring a map and plan collection online)

Undoubtedly several thousand booklets had been sold between January and August, so Brettell must have been accustomed to getting regular orders from Barnum.  Barnum’s August 20th letter simply stated, “Please send 1000 Books to Genl Tom Thumb at the Fountain Hotel Portsmouth.”  (That hotel, by the way, was already historic at the time Barnum and the Strattons stayed there; it began as an inn in the 1760s, became a hotel a few years later, was badly damaged during WWII, and was eventually torn down in 1971. There is today a Fountain Inn Hotel on the Isle of Wight that dates to the late 1700s.)

Barnum was clearly writing in haste when he contacted Brettell, explaining that although he had been in London he had not had time to call on him because his trip was so brief.  But, he added, “I expect to be in London the whole of next Sunday & will drop in & say ‘how do.’”  Barnum respected and appreciated the kindnesses and hospitality Mr. and Mrs. Brettell had shown him.  They were older than himself, and he and his wife Charity had developed a close friendship with the couple during their time in London.  Brettell was not only a printer and publisher, but also Barnum’s business associate in various other capacities.  But whether Brettell went along with a very unusual proposition Barnum made in his August 20th letter is a matter of speculation.

Barnum enclosed a copy of a letter, verbatim as he said, that he had received “from a lawyer of my acquaintance in America” and told Brettell, “. . . if you think it worth pursuing, you can make several thousand pounds by joining me in the matter, provided we succeed.”  The copied letter, dated June 29, 1846, had come from a lawyer in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a man named Mark[?] Moore.  In it he described a strange story, which prefaced Moore’s “statement of the heirship to the above one hundred and fifty thousand pounds.”

The story began decades before with the discovery of a Mr. Charles Ferguson, an American, who was “found dead near the Tower [of London] and one Hundred and Fifty Thousand Pounds in Bank notes was discovered sewed in between his ragged and filthy clothes, and a bundle of manuscripts in his own hand writing was found in his pockets up to the year 1808— and in his wretched hovel a valuable Library was found.”  The deceased man was 94 years old.  His only son, Charles Ferguson, had died in an accident, in Stamford, Connecticut, when a barn fell.  The son’s widow and daughter were living in Stratford, Connecticut, at the time of the accident but the widow left her daughter there and moved to Middletown, Connecticut.  The reason was not stated.  The daughter, Nancy Ferguson, eventually married and had several children, and in 1843 she died at age 72.  Reviewing additional “facts” as stated in Barnum’s copy of the letter reveals a foolish error in identifying the man who died in London.  The deceased was Henry Ferguson, not Charles; Henry was the father of Charles.  Henry was a stone-cutter who had worked in Middletown, Connecticut, but he had left America after his wife died.

According to lawyer Moore, William Dart had held the power of attorney to collect the money for some twenty years, and had been in London on that business many years before.  His relationship to the Fergusons was not explained.  But he believed that the money (£150,000) found in Charles Ferguson’s clothing had been left in the custody of the Court of Chancery, and at three per cent interest from the time it was deposited, this would now, twenty-eight years later, amount to about two million dollars.  If Moore and Barnum between them could pick up the trail and pursue this with papers that he, Dart, had left in London with the American Consul, Mr. Aspinwall, he would give them ten percent of the amount collected.

The information Barnum received seems to have lacked some key facts.  A review of contemporary historical records shows that Henry Ferguson’s date of death was October 17th, 1808 (New York Evening Post).  The New York Weekly Museum’s October 29, 1808, issue published a death notice for Henry Ferguson, and also stated that he was “a native of America, [who] died in London aged 94.  He was a beggar and was found dead near the tower with 15,000 pounds in his clothing.  Had a valuabel [sic] library.”  Interestingly, Barnum’s letter, or copy of Moore’s letter, has another zero in that sum, which certainly makes a big difference!  Records of Rhode Island Vital Extracts confirms that the amount of £15,000 was found in Ferguson’s clothes and notes that even “more remarkable” was the presence of a manuscript history of Arts and Sciences on his person.  Ferguson was described as a miser though his “wretched abode” was discovered to contain a fine library of books.  The curious circumstances of Ferguson’s death clearly made the news at the time, but lawyer Moore did not have it straight.

It seems a bit uncharacteristic of Barnum to pursue something of this sort, clearly outside of his interests and for the sake of money alone.  At the very least, he must have realized he could not take this on singlehandedly in London.  Taking Moore’s information at face value wasn’t wise; granted Barnum did not have quick ways to verify what was reported to him as factual, but £150,000 seems implausible for that time and should have raised an eyebrow or two.  Since Brettell was older than Barnum, he may have recalled the story, which was undoubtedly a sensation in London and the subject of various articles.  (Barnum was born in 1810, two years after Ferguson’s death, so would not have known the story.)  Was Barnum considering lawyer Moore’s proposition primarily because of its potential benefit to his friend Brettell, or was he caught up by the challenge and the lure of money?  It’s hard to say what he had in mind.  Concluding his letter to Brettell, Barnum wrote,

There, friend Brettell, you have the whole matter in detail. Now the question is—is the case one in which there is any chance of success? Are there not legal gents in London who are au fait at this kind of business and who would take hold of it on shares.  Please think of it & let me know your opinion. In the mean time if you think best to consult a 6/8 lawyer in the matter before I see you Sunday—do so.

Barnum’s next letter was to his friend and business associate “Fill,” his nickname for Mr. R. Fillingham, Jr., an American living in London.  Fillingham was involved in the entertainment world and seems to have known all the various showmen, menagerie men, lion tamers and circus performers, both American and European.  As Barnum said in a previous letter to Fillingham, “[you are] the only great and true Representative of the Yankee Showmen’s interests in London—or in fact in England . . . .”  His network was such that he could make connections for Barnum and at times acted as his agent.  As Barnum told Fillingham, as he had Brettell, that he planned to be in London “all day next Sunday.”  This meant he would be able to get to Spillman’s that evening and would meet Fillingham there.

Detail of a Map of London in 1868
Detail of a Map of London in 1868, by Edward Weller, F.R.G.S. “The Strand,” highlighted in yellow and bisecting the map diagonally, was a district of theatre and music hall entertainments in the 19th century, with many taverns, coffee houses, and dining clubs. Barnum liked to meet people at Spillman’s, a place that apparently catered to his fellow “Yankee showmen.” (Image courtesy of, a philanthropic project featuring a map and plan collection online)

According to Barnum, Spillman’s was considered “Yankee headquarters” in the area of London called the Strand, and presumably it was a social gathering place like a club or tavern.  In the 19th century, the Strand was a center for theatre and a type of entertainment called “music hall,” thus the many taverns, coffee houses, and dining clubs in the Strand catered to people in that business.  Barnum explained his absence at Spillman’s on the previous Sunday, telling Fillingham,

I could not possibly get to Spillmans earlier Sunday night, as I did not arrive till six, and that d–d old Faber kept me till 10.  I shall be punctually at Spillman’s next Sunday night at 8.

This would be a good opportunity for him to network.  The fact that Barnum was meeting people at Spillman’s provides a clue about a new venture he had engaged in, suggesting how it might have come about.  He confided to Fillingham,

The animal business seems to move slowly, but I think it will be stunning when it is ready, provided the devils who are laying claim to it will give up their claims, which they probably will this week—if so it will come out next Monday.  I hope that you can see it Sunday in the day or evening.  Stuart & Starr can tell you whether it is possible.

What was the “animal business” he referred to?  And who was laying claim to it?  Had an arrangement or agreement between showmen gone sour?  Barnum seems to have been unable to resist pursuing new ventures, which of course meant taking more risks.  Some things worked out and some didn’t.  I wish there were a few more letters in the copybook that could tell us more!

On a practical matter, Barnum’s instructions to Fillingham suggest he was preparing for Gen. Tom Thumb’s entourage to wrap up their tour and return to America.  He mentions shipping a number of items back to New York, care of the American Museum, and asked his friend to send the Bill of Lading to the museum manager.  But this was more than a shipment of new novelties as it also included Gen. Tom Thumb’s “little carriage & the Phaeton.” They were to be crated, and Barnum asked Fillingham to keep the cost of their freight separate.  Perhaps these were gifts from Queen Victoria to Charles, and Barnum thus expected father Stratton to pay for shipping them home.  From a historical perspective, it seems a bit curious that the carriages were being sent in August of 1846 because Barnum and the Strattons did not return to America for several more months, in early winter of 1847.  The miniature coach with its ponies, driver and footmen had evolved into the General’s “brand” and people would expect to see them.  It’s possible they had acquired another miniature carriage in England and were sending two home.

In any case, it is fitting that the last two letters in the copybook were written to individuals whom Barnum specifically acknowledged in his autobiography, remembering them fondly for their attentions and assistance.  Fillingham and Brettell were included among the people to whom Barnum stated he was “indebted for special courtesies while I was abroad . . . .”  Another of Barnum’s copybook correspondents, Mr. John Nimmo—whom I mistakenly referred to as Mr. Nimms in my blog posts—is also on that brief list.  Barnum counted Mr. Nimmo and his wife among his dear friends in Paris.   Thinking back twenty-five years to the early years of his career, Barnum wrote in the 1869 edition of Struggles and Triumphs, or Forty Years Recollections,

In London, two gentlemen especially merit my warm acknowledgements for many valuable favors.  I refer to the late Thomas Brettell, publisher, Haymarket; and Mr. R. Fillingham, Jr., Fenchurch Street.

It gives me pleasure to know that he had not forgotten the people who had helped him climb a few rungs on the ladder of success.  I also have the sense of satisfaction that the copybook letters allowed us to become acquainted with people whom Barnum chose to honor in his autobiography, recalling their generous assistance during a challenging period in his life, a time of trial and error as well as great achievements.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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