Kings and Queens, and Talk of Many Things

Kings and Queens, and Talk of Many Things

This week’s blog, exploring a three-page letter from P. T. Barnum to Boston showman Moses Kimball, will highlight interesting new tidbits and provide updates to a couple of previous storylines, rather than focusing on one theme or topic. The letter is dated November 29th, 1845, and was written from Paris.

Barnum’s letters to his friend and competitor Moses Kimball typically have the flavor of a sit-down, spill-it-all conversation with a long-time friend.  The two hadn’t actually known each other more than a few years by the mid-1840s, but they must have quickly discovered theirs were compatible temperaments and interests, a kind of kinship between showmen; they developed a degree of mutual trust that would have been uncommon among competitors in that business.   The topics in Barnum’s letters are wide-ranging, covering a little of this and a little of that, with a bit of reminiscing and gossip, and opinions are freely shared with language that we don’t find in his letters to other people.

This isn’t to say that Barnum was entirely candid in his communications with Kimball—Barnum’s tone imparts one-upmanship at times, especially in regard to his European tour.  Apparently Kimball was reluctant to cross the Atlantic, or just not interested in visiting foreign countries, and Barnum liked to rub that in, taunting him with much rosier descriptions of the General Tom Thumb tour in France than he ever conveyed in letters to others.  He seemed to want Kimball to feel a tad jealous of his success.  (You may recall how often Barnum complained to others about provincial mayors and theatre directors, feeling he had been “had” more than once by their deceptive conduct or outright dishonesty, and he had revealed to a select few correspondents that the French tour had not been a financial success.)

Barnum began his letter by thanking Kimball for his of November 1st, which must have expressed great dissatisfaction working with a man named Rogers.  Since Barnum’s reply indicates he also knew this man, my guess is this might have been Charles J. Rogers—though I don’t claim to be absolutely certain.  Charles Rogers was an English circus rider who would soon become a partner with circus owner Gilbert R. Spalding in 1848; their circus became famous for its innovations.  Rogers had been in the U. S. at least since 1847 when he joined Spalding’s circus as a performer, but if he is the same Rogers then we know he was here in 1845 when Kimball encountered him.  Charles Rogers was seven years Barnum’s junior, so the “impudent puppy” remark might strengthen the case that he was indeed the Rogers in question.  This is how Barnum expressed his opinion of the man in his reply to Kimball:

I am very glad that you so soon discovered the windiness, and emptiness of that vain, conceited, jackass—Rogers.  I never knew such a self conceited arrogant, impudent puppy in my life.  He’s all gab & nothing else.  But I guess he’s carried his beans to the wrong market if he expects to pick up green uns about Boston to furnish cash against his sense.

Poster from 1849 by an unknown artist promoting “Spalding & Rodgers’ North American Circus.” The bandwagon, called an Apollonicon and pulled by forty horses, was among the innovations and extravaganzas that made this circus famous. Both of the owners’ names were at times shown with alternate spellings, as in this example with Roger’s name. At the lower left of the poster, Rogers is listed as the manager, using yet another variation. (Wikimedia Commons)

In last week’s blog we got a taste of Barnum’s political opinions, which have been rare so far in these copybook letters.  This late November letter to Kimball reaffirms the sentiments expressed to others that engaging in a war with England over the Oregon Country would be a big mistake for the U. S., and he also acknowledges that Kimball himself had recently gotten involved in politics.  Regarding the possibility of war, Barnum pleaded,

Don’t for heaven’s sake let your politicians get into a war with England.  That would be the d—dst [damndest] foolish thing ever known—for whenever we really want any territory in our vicinity it will always be an easy matter to take it—at present it would be more of a dr[ag?] than anything else–& a war would be ruinous to us—and no less so because it would likewise be ruinous to England.  John Bull thinks seriously of fighting—but he’d better not–& so had Jonathan.

John Bull was a character that had been used to personify the British people since the early 1700s.  The “Jonathan” Barnum referred to was “Brother Jonathan” the American character who mainly personified New Englanders or “Yankees” for their slyness and cunning, though to the English “Jonathan” represented the American people in general.  Brother Jonathan was characterized as shrewd and cunning, clever though not highly educated, and with a scrappy and crude personality that contrasted with the more dignified John Bull.  In his letter, Barnum spoke of Jonathan as if representing the American people, not just Yankees.  Of note, Barnum himself was quite proud of being a Yankee, and despite Jonathan’s unattractive traits, he was a beloved character in many ways, as Barnum’s voice suggests.

As far as Kimball’s foray into politics, Barnum advised,

So you are head & ears in politics hey?  Well go it while you are young—I went it in my younger days & spouted & printed myself into jail—soon after which I cooled down—turned stoic and concluded to let the country take care of itself & be damned—though upon my soul I feared it would go to the devil after I gave up attending to its affairs–& so every politician thinks.

Barnum was thinking back to his years between 1831 and 1834 when he was a newspaperman living in Bethel, Connecticut.  His weekly publication, Herald of Freedom (later, Herald of Freedom and Gospel Witness) triggered three lawsuits for libel, one of which landed him in the Danbury jail for 60 days during autumn of 1832.  His admission that the experience caused him to “cool down” is interesting as he does not relate that change of heart in his autobiography, and he did continue to publish his newspaper for another two years.  Even more fascinating are his next remarks to Kimball about preaching, a short-lived “calling” that is briefly mentioned in his autobiography.  To Kimball he recalled,

Well after that I used to preach sometimes & was mightily proud of the powerful arguments which I gave them and of the large “congregations” that attended my meetings.  But after a while I began to think with the other “preacher” Solomon that it was all vanity and vexation of spirit, so I gave up such profitless and vain callings, and went into the Joice Heth, Mermaid & Tom Thumb business and found it much more profitable—not to say honorable.  But it’s all in a life time & its well once in a while to take a turn at spouting—it gives diffident gentlemen like you & me confidence, especially when we get cheered at the end of our speeches—so go ahead my boy, and the Lord give you luck!

According to Barnum’s first autobiography, The Life of P. T. Barnum, during a period of various partnerships with traveling showmen in 1837, he left partner Z. Graves in Kentucky while he set off for northwest Ohio to re-engage a performer named Pentland (pp. 183-184).  While in Tiffan, a town southeast of Toledo, Barnum recalled,

I was a stranger in the town, but religious conversation at the hotel introduced me to several gentleman, who solicited me to lecture on certain subjects which we had discussed.  I complied, and the town school-house was crowded by an attentive congregation in the afternoon and evening of the Sabbath.  A gentleman from Republic urged me to deliver two lectures in that town on the evenings of September 4 and 5, which I did.

The year before Barnum had spoken from a pulpit after a minister had declared circus people lacking in morality; he felt compelled to vindicate the character of the people in his traveling circus.  Barnum also wrote that during this period of his life, he had gathered together his company of circus folk on many a Sabbath in order to read sermons to them. (Life of PTB, p. 179)

Pertaining to showmen’s “exhibitions,” Barnum followed up on a previous letter that had mentioned the infant girls with partially twinned bodies whom he had seen in Paris and sorely wanted to “sign” for a multi-year contract at the American Museum.  Though he had written to Kimball then with great enthusiasm, he was not overly optimistic that the parents could be persuaded.   We subsequently learned from a letter dated November 12th that the parents had refused the offer, though Barnum, posing as an agent, was trying once again to spark their interest.  In this letter to Kimball, we find that Barnum still had not given up hope, for he wrote,

I begin to think I can get the living child with 2 heads into my museum—if I can—it will more than raise hell.  That exhibition to be sure will not be quite as scientific as the petrified body—still it will do.—

You may recall it was Fordyce Hitchcock’s idea to exhibit a recently discovered petrified body, and that despite Barnum’s doubts about the public’s interest in seeing it, his museum manager had been spot on and the body had been an incredible draw for visitors.  Barnum acknowledged in a letter to Hitchcock that same day, November 29th, “I would as soon have thought of exhibiting a carrion, and thus I see I should have been mightily mistaken & you was right.”

Portrait of Louis-Philippe, King of the French, 1832, by Horace Vernet (1789-1863) (Wikimedia Commons)

No less proud of his own talents in promoting and exhibiting, Barnum penned a flurry of letters about General Tom Thumb’s success upon returning to Paris from the provincial tour.  Seven of the nine letters Barnum wrote on November 29th contain exuberant descriptions of entertaining French royalty.  (The two that do not mention this are brief notes.)  To Kimball Barnum boasted, “I was last night before the King & family for the 3d time & if you could (as I did) have seen & heard the Queen spat her hands and cry bravo General, bravo! as the General sang and danced & c—you would have cried—“’Vive la humbug.’”  His lively recounting of the evening to his other correspondents gives us a vision of that memorable performance.  To his London friend Brettell Barnum wrote,

Genl Tom Thumb visited King Louis Phillippe [Philippe] for the third time last night at St. Cloud.  The General was enthusiastically recd by the Royal Family and a large circle of distinguished personages including some foreigners of distinction, Mr Guizot [François Guizot, a conservative statesman and historian-author] was also there.

The King & Royal Family congratulated the General on his improved appearance, his improvements in the French language (he sang them several French songs) and declared that in their opinion he had decreased in size since his last visit to the Tuilleries [Tuileries Palace] in May.

Before leaving they literally loaded him with valuable presents, each person being desirous of presenting him with a keepsake, as he departs for England in a few days and soon afterwards for America.  He received presents from the King, Queen, Princess Adelaide, Count de Paris, Duchesse d’Orleans, Duchesse de Nemours & c.  These consist of diamond pins and rings, gold chains, elegant boxes, caskets and souvenirs inlaid with pearls and precious stones & c.

These treasures were added to those General Tom Thumb had already received on previous visits to the royal family, which included a large emerald brooch set with diamonds. The King and Queen were clearly quite taken with Stratton’s manner and performances, and their daughter had already seen him at Buckingham Palace.  According to Barnum, it was at the time of the General’s last audience before the King of the French, at St. Cloud, that he was asked to perform his impersonation of Napoleon Bonaparte, in costume.  This was done “on the q.t.” since Louis-Philippe was staunchly anti-Bonapartist, and Barnum has wisely sidelined that character role during the tour of France.  However the King had heard of it—perhaps from his daughter?—and was curious, so he requested that Tom Thumb do his portrayal of Napoleon, the only time that happened in France.

Moses Kimball being someone who knew Barnum’s opinion of Tom Thumb’s parents, Sherwood and Cynthia Stratton, Barnum followed the success of the royal visit with a related a story of yet another of their annoying and dull-witted behaviors abroad.  In this case it concerned their son’s visit to the King and Queen.  Stratton was often the butt of Barnum’s jokes, as Barnum had little liking or tolerance for a person who, lacking a formal education, still took no interest in “bettering” himself when the opportunities were before him.  Poking fun at Stratton’s manner of speech, Barnum gloated to Kimball:

Stratton was determined to go with his wife & see the king at the time the General went—for Stratton said “be jest wanted tu see what in hell king’s and queens was made on, and he liked tu have the old woman [Cynthia] say when she got hum that she had been before the kind & queen.”  I of course would not object to such a beautiful arrangement but merely mentioned that it would be quite unnecessary for me to go—as the king only wished to see the General & his parents—so they could do the exhibiting.  Strange to say they took the gentle hint & gave up going a king-seeing.

One last tidbit!  With a verbal wink and nod, Barnum “informed” Kimball that General Tom Thumb’s birthday was about a month away and he would be turning fourteen.  “By the way the General is 14 years old in January next!  He’s getting along you see.”  Though it was true that Charles’s birthday was coming up on January 4th, Barnum was actually keeping Kimball in-the-know about the boy’s “currently correct” age.  That is to say, he was continuing to promote the boy to the public as a full six years older than he actually was.  Barnum knew Kimball would applaud his clever deception (“Vive la humbug!”) to boost the wow-factor of Charles’s stature based on age, but frankly I find myself more impressed by a seven-year-old who was so talented and tireless!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator