Last Letters from France
When we left Barnum last week, he was still in Paris busy writing letters, but was about to leave for England. This next “bundle” of letters we will explore from his copybook was penned two days later, on December 2, 1845, from Boulogne, France. For Barnum it was a day’s journey traveling from Paris to Boulogne on the northern coast; today the trip would only take about 3 to 3 ½ hours by car. After settling in at the hotel, Barnum sat down to write letters to various family members, plus one to his museum manager who was “like family” to Barnum, and another to the father of Gen. Tom Thumb, Sherwood Stratton, who was still in Paris. Taking the opportunity to write that day was smart as Barnum would be able to get the U.S.-bound letters on a steamship quickly, and because once he got to London, his time would be consumed with the arrangements for Tom Thumb’s performances. The family correspondence includes letters to his wife Charity, each of their daughters, his half-brother Philo, his niece Minerva, a message of instructions to his sister Cordelia who was then living with Charity, and—this is the first we’ve seen in the copybook—a letter to his mother!
I find that I gain greater clarity about Barnum’s relationships when reading letters that were all composed on the same day. They reflect his knowledge of things as they stood at that one moment in time, and his mood or “focus” on that single day, giving us a fairly level playing field to compare the content of the letters. It is interesting to me, for instance, that Barnum sometimes shares the same information differently (or not at all) as he communicates to several correspondents. The letters thus reveal both subtle and not-so-subtle differences in what he wants the recipient to know or perceive. Of course, some letters were bound to be passed around to other family members and friends, and knowing there could be those “additional” recipients may also have shaped his messaging.
The question of building or buying a home has come up several times since the summer of 1845 when Charity returned to the U.S. Initially, neither the town or city, nor the state had been fixed upon, but as the family was already renting a home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that seemed likely to take preference. Barnum mentioned other possibilities, such as Staten Island and Harlem. Later, Charity found a place she liked in Bridgeport and wanted to buy—at least at first—but her husband discouraged the purchase and suggested she wait until he was home again. Neither of Barnum’s November 30th nor December 2nd letters to Charity mention the subject of finding or building a new home, but curiously, his letter to half-brother Philo, written on December 2nd, tells us pretty clearly he was steering away from Bridgeport. He wrote,
I do not think I shall build in Bridgeport—it is too far off from my business in New York—There are some reasons why I should like to reside in Bridgeport and there are some reasons why I should not. The former may preponderate, after I return but it is doubtful.
One wonders that he did not communicate this to Charity. Since we know that the Barnums ultimately made Bridgeport their home for 45 years, something caused a change of heart between December of 1845 and their decision to build on the Bridgeport-Fairfield border in 1847. Very possibly the plans for the New York & New Haven east-west passenger train, which would have a stop in Bridgeport, made him reconsider the access to New York City. In fact the full rail line, terminating in New Haven, was completed in 1848, thus the towns that were miles west of New Haven were probably being served in 1847.
Another of Barnum’s correspondents among the December 2nd letters was also seeking a new “happy home” and wanted his opinion. This was Barnum’s mother, Irena Taylor Barnum, living in Bethel, Connecticut, about twenty miles north of Bridgeport. Charity had apparently informed her husband of the latest development in an ongoing situation, and probably suggested that he respond directly to his mother to put any question of his willingness to help to rest. He wrote,
I have just recd a letter from my wife in which she says, you think of building a house more to your mind than the one you now have, and of selling yours, and that you want my advice. Now my advice is to have you do just what you think will make you the most happy—and that you can judge better than I possibly can.
He continued with assurances that he would support her decision financially, whether by giving her the money she needed to build a new house,
or if you prefer . . . take the money you get for your present house and put it out to interest and I will furnish all the money to buy land and build a house just such as you desire and where you please, and will give you the whole rent free as long as you live, and will also provide you with all you want to live on and make yourself happy during the remainder of your life.
That certainly sounds like Barnum was open to supporting whatever his mother wished to do. But his next comments, expressed with some exasperation, suggest the subject had come up time and again, and he was weary of it.
This will be a pleasure to me and if you will permit me to enjoy this pleasure you have only to say so without any ifs or an’s about it. If I did not wish to do it I should not offer it. My wife & Mrs. Hitchcock both know my feelings on this subject and will do anything you desire to carry out your wishes. I do not like to urge this matter again, and again, for by this time I think you ought to know my feelings and desires on the subject and to no longer hesitate as if you did not believe me.
Signing off, Barnum may have chosen certain adjectives to tease his mother, who had perhaps voiced fears about her son’s character in times past using those words. “Please give my respects to all friends & oblige your affectionate but of course very wicked and wayward son, P. T. Barnum.”
There’s another line in the letter that is interesting, concerning a piece of land that was connected in some way to the business Barnum had once operated in Bethel, a general store. He told his mother, “I had rather keep my half of the garden to go with my yellow store, but if it will help the sale of your house to put my garden with it then do so, and call my garden what you please.” This comment tells us that Irena was living adjacent to or in very close proximity to Barnum’s old “yellow store,” which was at the corner of Chestnut and Main Streets.
Irena was apparently not, at this time, living in the home at 55 Greenwood Avenue often referred to today as “Barnum’s home,” just a short walk from Chestnut Street. This attractive, front-gable structure replaced the colonial saltbox house where Barnum was born, which burned some years after he was grown. The house is a completely different style, a vernacular Greek Revival, reflecting New England’s changing tastes in architecture in the early 1800s. According to some sources, a portion of the original saltbox structure was not burned and is still on site. Whether there was a standing portion incorporated into the new structure, or whether intact posts and beams were re-used in the new construction is not clear, but it is certain that the date of 1768 on the home’s plaque only “applies” to the salvaged components, not the house as it appears from the street.
Different sources offer bits and pieces about the property’s history; the facts get a little fuzzy. One states that the fire occurred in 1835, others put that event in the 1840s. Another source says that the Greek Revival structure was built in 1843 and that Barnum’s mother later re-purchased the property and lived there until her death in 1868. That indicates she was not the person who built the new house. Armed with this information, I would say that the copybook letter tells us Irena was living on or near Chestnut Street in 1845, and may very well have been contemplating the idea of a new house like the one built on Greenwood Avenue, which probably wasn’t for sale at that moment. Perhaps, in time, her son made a dream come true, buying her the modern Greek Revival house situated on the old family property. Of note, Barnum’s young widowed sister, Cordelia Benedict and her infant son Charles, whom he and Charity had recently taken into their home in Bridgeport, would also move to the house on Greenwood Ave and live with Irena; their names are in the 1850 census.
Barnum penned another of the December 2nd letters to his niece Minerva, daughter of his half-brother Philo, who had become Bridgeport’s Postmaster. (Barnum also had a half-sister named Minerva; presumably Philo had named his daughter after his sister.) Minerva must have been several years older than Barnum’s own daughters, for he thanked her for her “short and sweet” letter, asked her to deliver his note to Helen, and also—rather slyly—instructed her to “tell the Postmaster in Bridgeport that three letters from my wife never reached me because he was careless and let them go off without the postage being paid.” To that he added, half-jokingly, “We will have him turned out of office if he dont look out,” then told her how much he looked forward to seeing her again, and signed the letter “Your uncle & friend, P. T. Barnum.”
Barnum doted on his five-year-old Helen, worried constantly about her health, and always sent her “kisses,” but he had a sterner tone when writing to his older daughter Caroline. To his youngest, Barnum proudly noted how glad he was to get her letter and to know that she was “learning so fast.” He also shared the news that although seven-year-old Tom Thumb would not be back home again for a while, he “thanks you for your card & says he will marry you—so that is settled.” Reminding Helen to be good and “mind your mother and aunt Cordelia,” he promised to bring the presents she had asked for.
Caroline, on the other hand, received letters from her father that are not so “cuddly,” and even sound a bit harsh considering she was only twelve years old. At this time in her life she was adjusting to being far from home; her father had insisted that she attend a boarding school where she would hear, speak, and read French almost all the time, and the chosen school was in Washington, D.C. Barnum wrote to his daughter,
I am on my way to London & thinking this letter might be in time [to be sent by steamship] I write a few lines. I shall not be home before February—perhaps not till March—so I cant bring you to Bridgeport [for] Christmas—but you must wait patiently till I come, unless some person of your acquaintance is coming from Washington to N. Y. about Christmas time. A few months longer will make no difference to you. There is no use in being babyish and wishing to run home so often—it only makes you more lonesome after being home on a visit. Besides if you stay 6 or 7 months away before going home, you have less chance (I hope) to talk English & thus become more perfect in your French. How do you get along with your French and other studies? I went with the General to visit the King again last week. The Genl got lots of presents & the King gave me 100 dollars.
Last week’s blog focused on Barnum’s own homesickness, which was considerable, so it is surprising that he did not express some sympathy regarding Caroline’s longing to visit her mother and sister at home, and in particular, her desire to be at home for Christmas. He dutifully passed on the good wishes and “compliments” of friends they had made during the family’s time in England and in Paris, then bluntly added that Uncle Alanson was “not in Baltimore after all so you cannot visit his family there.” Barnum had previously suggested she might visit them, as he believed that his uncle was about to become a co-owner of Peale’s Museum in that city. After providing instructions where to write to him in London, Barnum used surprisingly formal language in closing the letter: “Hoping this may find you in good health and spirits I am your affectionate father in haste. P. T. Barnum.”
Finally, to Charity, Barnum made plain his reasons for not returning for the holidays, or in January. However, his reply must at least have given Charity some hope he would be home when the birth of their new baby was expected.
I shall be home in February or March—I wish to get home as much as you wish to have me, but for all that I am not going to make a fool of myself & run home like a little boy, with my business half finished—so you need not try to tempt me with oysters and shortcakes—pancakes—roast turkey and all that gammon. In England we can get roast-beef, plumb pudding, cake, & ale—and that is not to be sneezed at. If I am sea-sick in coming home this winter I will blame you for urging me to come.
Next time, we will find Barnum writing from London.
Barnum Museum Curator