PTB Letters (#68) Imitators & Followers will get Poor Gleanings

Imitators & Followers will get Poor Gleanings

February of 1846 was a busy month indeed for the Gen. Tom Thumb tour in Scotland, so there has been a lot to report on!  This week’s blog post is again based on Barnum’s letters from that month which were found out of sequence in his copybook —so we are still “filling in puzzle pieces” on a several intriguing storylines.  Barnum was frequently corresponding with agents and friends in London and in Paris at this time, not to mention keeping in touch with his American Museum manager.  This juggling act of the entrepreneurial showman required exceptional dedication, strategic thinking, and both tact and doggedness to ensure that plans were evolving as intended, which is to say, that people were doing what they were supposed to do and not behaving badly or defaulting on their obligations.  I envision P.T. Barnum at the helm of a ship trying his hardest to keep it on course in a sea that is never calm, and sometimes becomes quite choppy.  This week we’ll check in on Barnum’s projects in France, his plans for the General’s exhibitions in London, and wrap up with some endearing tidbits about the eight-year-old boy’s pet.

Barnum’s trusted friend and agent in Paris was a Monsieur Huet, who was responsible for following up on Barnum’s contracts and agreements, as well as fielding requests for costs of potential projects.  While in France, Barnum had commissioned an artist to make copies of two well-known paintings in the Louvre, which he chose for their dramatic subject matter: Cain fleeing with his family after the murder of Abel, and a grand and terrifying depiction of the biblical deluge.  From these February letters we learn that Barnum had eventually contracted with an American artist working in France, a Mr. Allen or Allan, not the art-student nephew of his museum naturalist whom he had first thought to employ.  We also now learn that the painting of Cain was in “the Gallery of the Luxembourg,” by which Barnum probably meant the gallery in the east wing of Luxembourg Palace.  It may seem odd to refer to it as a contemporary art gallery, but between 1818 and 1937, the Musée de Luxembourg was exactly that, showing the work of living artists.

Mr. Allen was now finished with his assignment, but since Barnum was not in France to view the completed paintings, he deputized Huet to visit Allen’s studio on Rue Rumford.  He instructed him,

I wish you to take a proper judge to look at his picture and if it is well done according to contract—pay him the balance, and have both paintings properly rolled packed and shipped through Mr Draper—directed as usual to Mr F Hitchcock American Museum New York.  If the painting is not pronounced to be well done, I hope you will not pay him more than you ought in justice to pay.

Barnum had an agreement to pay Allen 1000 francs for the copies but could not recall if he had already paid him 200 or 300 francs, and was relying on Huet to check the document.  Although Barnum had been advised by both Fordyce Hitchcock and Moses Kimball that opening a picture gallery of copied works was not likely to be successful, he expressed interest in having one made of a large-scale painting depicting a pivotal moment in American history.  However, Barnum did not think this was a job for Mr. Allen, to whom he tactfully wrote to say that his services would no longer be needed, citing Kimball’s remark “that the best copies in the world will not pay.”  Instead Barnum proposed to Huet that a French artist make the copy, and explained what he wanted done.

There is a large painting at Versailles representing (I believe) the introduction of Lafayette to General Washington.  I would like to have the French Artist Mr Rinaud see it and tell what he would charge to copy it.  If you could go to Versailles with him I would like it.  Perhaps Mr Nimms could also go with you of a Sunday.  If he can I would like it all the better, as he could give me a description of the paintings, and as I have not seen it, the more opinions I have regarding its merits—the better.  Of course all expences and charge for the journey are to go to my account.

(See blog post Do the Best You Can for Yourself, May 28, 2021, for an image of Auguste Couder’s painting in the Versailles collection.)  Barnum also hoped to make progress on his pet project to have statues made for the perimeter of the American Museum’s roof.  One Monsieur Jeanne had been his contact for this, though probably not the actual maker.  But since Mon. Jeanne could only write to Barnum in French, and Barnum had given up trying to understand his letter, Huet had to serve as translator and go-between. Barnum appreciated Huet’s efforts to write him a “long and interesting letter” in English, and commented “that if it was half so hard work for you to write in English as it is for me to write in French it must have been a hard job for you.”  In the same letter he added, “I hope Mr Jeanne will not forget to write about the statues.”  But thus far Mon. Jeanne was not as concerned about statues as he was that Mr. Sherman, tutor to Gen. Tom Thumb and an “antiquarian” with an appetite for owning ancient artifacts, pay him for what he had taken.

Generally speaking Barnum had little tolerance for people who failed to pay what they owed (or do what they promised), but in the case of Mr. Sherman, he seems to have understood this was part of the man’s idiosyncratic nature.  Barnum had previously stepped up to pay another of Sherman’s debts to Mon. Jeanne, and thought Jeanne foolish for trusting Sherman again.  Barnum told Huet,

If Mr Jeanne sends me a bill of particulars against Sherman I will try to collect it—but I may not succeed.  Mr J. did very wrong to trust Mr S. after I had told him his character and had once paid Sherman’s bill, to save Jeanne from loss.  Sherman has not yet paid me the amount I paid Mr Jeanne for him.  However I think I can collect the other bill for Mr. J. if he will send me the list of articles (& pieces) furnished to Sherman.  I will not show the list to Sherman if I can possibly collect it without doing so.

Barnum himself had just been bilked by someone in France, a man who was supposed to be working for him but had taken off with the money instead.  As he confided to his friend in London, Mr. Collins,

I recd a letter from France this morning.  My friend [probably Huet?] found that all the letters from there pretending sickness & c were lies—that they were intended merely to swindle to the amount of 500 francs—and that instead of their author being in Paris—sick as he pretended—he was and is 500 miles from there in good health—and enjoying himself in spending the 500 francs.  May it do him much good!  It is rich—is it not?

Barnum remained hopeful that business would be profitable in London, though it was not easy to feel assured of success, as he knew that many things would need to fall into place and some were out of his control, such as whether Parliament would remain in session and thus keep London busy.  He reported to Mr. Collins that business in Aberdeen was good; they were making £70 a day.  But that figure would drop significantly in the days to come.  Mr. Collins, meanwhile, had included in his letter to Barnum an advertisement for a “Spanish Dwarf” exhibiting in London, so that he would know of the competition that awaited him.  Barnum was already aware of an “English dwarf” exhibiting in London, whom he obliquely mentioned in his own ads as inferior to Gen. Tom Thumb.  Barnum assured Collins, “We’ll try to give the old Spaniard fits” and expanded on the same to Mr. Fillingham, noting, “. . . we will try to give the Spanish Dwarf and the English Tom Thumb fits.”  The latter was probably Richard Garnsey who as “Field Marshal Tom Thumb” publicly announced a challenge to “General Tom Thumb.”

Challenge to Tom Thumb_Wellcome Collection
Clipping from a London newspaper, dated 1846, announcing a challenge issued to Barnum’s “Gen. Tom Thumb” by English little person Richard Garnsey, whose stage name was “Field Marshal Tom Thumb.” Garnsey challenged Charles Stratton to appear and perform simultaneously with him at Egyptian Hall so that “their respective admirers may judge of their comparative merits.” (Public domain; image courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, UK)

Barnum does not sound entirely confident about beating the competition, but on the other hand he did not hold back in sharing his doubts about Professor Pinte’s recent investment in exhibiting a French dwarf.  (Pinte, you may recall, was a university-educated man and wannabe showman whom Barnum hired as a translator, with other duties, for the Tom Thumb entourage in France.)  Barnum shared his thoughts with Huet on the matter as follows:

Poor Pinte—he will find the dwarf exhibition the poorest speculation he ever engaged in.  There are no more Tom Thumb’s, and if there were, they could not succeed for the next twenty years.  I flatter myself that the harvest has been reaped by the original Tom Thumb, and that his imitators & followers will get poor gleanings.

Thanks to Mr. Brettell, another of Barnum’s London friends and agents, a space at Egyptian Hall was secured for Gen. Tom Thumb’s exhibitions and levees, though Barnum had been concerned about the timing.  Parliament might break up for a time, which would alter London’s entertainment market.  He told Brettell,

If there is any chance that Parliament will break up we should not like to be stuck with Egyptian Hall, for in that case it would be dull enough in London I expect.  If that event is not likely however, we would like to know as soon as possible what the Waterloo people decide about keeping the Room.

Brettell had a bead on the London scene, and apparently felt it would remain active, so he went ahead and booked the space with the proprietress, Mrs. Lackington.  Writing from Aberdeen, Barnum replied to Brettell with gratitude in his letter of February 4th,

Your favor concerning Mrs. Lackington’s letter & agreements was duly & thankfully recd.  I enclose one of the agreements signed, also my cheque for first months rent.  I wish Mrs. L. to understand that we are of course to have the little dressing room and also the upper room (formerly occupied by [George] Catlin) the same as before.  I hope also that she will allow a small transparency to go over the doorway—it shall be small neat and respectable.

Will you let me know whether the Gaz fixtures and platform are up in the back room same as when we had it—if so perhaps we may begin there on the 5th perhaps & afterwards remove into the front room.

This question about when the front room would be available explains why Barnum told several of his correspondents that Tom Thumb would start either on March 5th, or the 9th or 10th.  If the Waterloo people decided not to vacate the front room space before the 5th, he would have to decide whether they should wait til the 9th or 10th, or begin on the 5th in the back room and then move to the front.  “The back room” had been quite a concern of Barnum’s a few months before, as he expressed in his October 31st letter to a Mr. Clarke, who knew the proprietress Mrs. Lackington.  He asked Clarke to consult with her about the availability of space and rental costs, but also added,

One thing is very certain viz: no respectable exhibition will ever open in that back room up stairs until it is renovated decorated and put in order.  If I owned the Egyptian Hall I would not allow that room to be seen till it was properly arranged for its appearance is an injury to the character of the Hall.  I have several fine exhibitions in [from] France which I hope to exhibit in Egyptian Hall before shipping them to America, but too much pains cannot be taken to have the saloons appear neat & respectable.

Remodeling must have been addressed over the winter since Barnum noted to Mr. Collins, “the back room upstairs is to be used as a picture Gallery.”  Barnum thus seemed willing to consider the back room as a space to start off in March, if need be.  He informed his advertiser, Mr. Sheffield, “We have Egyptian Hall engaged from the 5th March to the 10th May . . .”

Young Charles Stratton must have been anticipating the return to London with excitement, for it would mean seeing his special pet again.  We first get hints about this in the closing sentences of two of Barnum’s letters to Sherwood Stratton, written in autumn of 1845.  But the meaning remained a bit fuzzy.  Barnum fondly referred to Charles as “the coon” in many of his letters to the boy’s father, so it was hard to know if his mention of the “monkey-coon” referred to an animal, or the boy’s favorite toy, or even if it might have been a nickname for another child who was part of the entourage; Barnum enjoyed assigning funny names.  “Give my compliments to the coon and the monkey-coon & all the rest,” he wrote on October 31st.

The Monkey Who Had Seen the World, 1827, by Edwin H. Landseer (1802-1873. Charles Stratton’s monkey was well-traveled though he might not have “seen the world.” Monkeys were popular pets in the 18th and 19th centuries because of their amusing antics and mischievousness, though they could also be very destructive. Charles, who was well-known to be a mischievous little boy, may have appreciated that character trait in his pet.

It turns out the monkey-coon was indeed a real monkey, and it had travelled with the entourage through France.  But when the group returned to London and then decided to do a tour through northern England and Scotland, the monkey had to stay behind.  The Collins family stepped up to the plate, or rather, Mrs. Collins did.  As Barnum phrased it in his February 6th letter to her husband,

General is rejoiced to hear his monkey is well—but I am not.  I always shall feel that it was an imposition to make your wife monkey-keeper—even to Tom Thumb.

Mrs. Collins may have developed a liking for the monkey while she took care of it, and she certainly knew Charles was very fond of it.  Barnum’s March 2nd letter to Sherwood Stratton suggests that she looked forward to seeing the boy and his pet reunited.  On the return journey from Scotland the entourage, minus Barnum, had gone to Oxford and then Cambridge to perform while Barnum continued on to London, and Barnum thus wrote to Stratton with details about meeting the family when they arrived from Cambridge.

I shall meet you at the Railway on wednesday morning, and Mrs Collins will also be there. Please let the General have on his best bib-and-tucker, for Mrs. C. declares that you must all come to her house and stop an hour. She will have the General’s little monkey there to receive him. It is directly on the road from Cambridge Depot to the Great Western Railway.

It’s fun to imagine Charles’s jubilance at seeing his pet monkey again after the two-month separation, but wouldn’t it be great if a snapshot of that scene had been possible?  I envision Charles all dolled up in his bib-and-tucker, his face radiating with glee with the monkey perched on his shoulder (which would have been a tight fit)!  It may have been a rare moment in Charles’s childhood when he could experience the joy of just being a kid, without the pressures of his livelihood and fame.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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