PTB Letters (#66) My Character and Peculiarities So Correctly Portrayed

My Character and Peculiarities So Correctly Portrayed

Discovering last week that a “bundle” of Barnum’s February 1846 letters in the copybook appear after the letters written in March was a surprise, rather like finding that a large handful of jigsaw puzzle pieces have been separated from the box, and then realizing the gaps in the puzzle you’ve been assembling could have been filled in weeks ago had these pieces been in the box.  The situation suggested the need to take a look back at several storylines in past blog posts and update them, so to speak.  This may a few weeks but will be worth it, given the newly found content.  These February letters, a total of thirty-five dating from the 1st to the 21st, answer a number of questions, and reveal more about the Gen. Tom Thumb tour activities in Scotland, as well as Barnum’s plan for their return to the London scene.  They also provide insights on Barnum’s angst and anxieties, such as his concern about getting the new play for Gen. Tom Thumb.  A couple of letters offer helpful documentation about the “Anatomical Venus” Barnum had commissioned for his American Museum.  And one letter, on a completely new topic, will likely entertain you as it did me.

Barnum’s agent in Paris was a Mr. Huet, and over the course of several months there have been a few other letters to him in the copybook, though with the salutations “Friend Huet” it was hard to be certain what the relationship was.  Now, within a letter of instructions Barnum sent to the proprietors of a shipping company on February 1st, we have confirmation of Huet’s role as Barnum’s agent.  That same day, Barnum wrote Huet from Abroath, Scotland, with directives to complete the payment and finalize the shipping arrangements for the Anatomical Venus that he had commissioned.  This particular letter provides more information about the venus’s “origins” than we had gleaned from Barnum’s letter to Fordyce Hitchcock in which he offered abundant advice on the proper presentation and advertising of “Mademoiselle.”  (See blog post Mademoiselle Venus, June 25, 2021.)

Barnum told his agent that he had just heard from the wax modelmaker in Paris, and learned that his venus was now or very soon to be completed, by February 4th.  Barnum thus directed Huet, “I wish you therefore to get a proper person to examine it, and if it is finished according to agreement, then I wish Mr Ainé to pack it in the very best manner, for which he is to be paid according to the treaty [contract] which you hold . . . .”  Barnum had agreed to pay 2500 francs, and was thrilled at this discounted price; when he first investigated the possibility of having a venus made in Paris, he reported to Hitchcock that the maker’s usual fee was 4500 francs.

View of the Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine, 2012. This very old, short street in central Paris is where the studios of both Guy Ainé, the maker of Barnum’s Anatomical Venus, and another well-known anatomical wax modelmaker, Vasseur-Tramond, were located, in close proximity to the School of Medicine’s amphitheatre. Today this is home to a museum devoted to the history of medicine. (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Mbzt)

Monsieur Guy Ainé’s waxworks was located at No. 4 Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine (Road of the School of Medicine) in Paris.  Of note, Ainé’s location was in close proximity to the studio—or what would soon become the studio—of anatomical modelmaker Monsieur Pierre Vasseur, at No. 9.  (It is not clear whether Ainé’s and Vasseur’s studios existed at the same time.  Vasseur established his waxworks in the mid-19th century, but as an exact date is not known, it could have been slightly later than Ainé’s.  His son-in-law Gustave Tramond joined the firm in the late 1870s, and the studio Vasseur – Tramond became well-known for the quality of their work.  I have not been able to learn anything about Ainé’s reputation.)

Since Ainé knew how best to pack the venus to prepare for shipment, he was to receive an additional 75 francs, or thereabouts, for that service, which Huet was to pay and charge to Barnum’s account.  Barnum had also decided to purchase an additional item, a wax model of a human fetus that was larger than the one made for the venus he was purchasing.  Barnum advised Huet on the matter, noting,

The Venus contains a feotus [sic] some 2 months old—but I wish you also to buy from Mr Aine another feotus which he has much larger so that it can be seen, in the same apartment with the Venus, but not belonging to the venus.  The extra feotus I suppose will cost 60 to 100 francs.  Whatever it is please pay for it & charge me—have it packed in same box with Venus.  [“Foetus” not “feotus” was the common spelling in the U.K.]

Barnum also wrote to Messrs. Draper & Co. with whom he had done business before, having them ship items he purchased in France to America.  He advised them,

The bearer [of this letter] is my friend and agent Mr Huet of Rue [du] Monthabor [Mont Thabor] 24.  He will see to the Anatomical Wax Figure for me, and if he says that it is properly finished I authorize you to pay over the 2500 francs to the maker Mr Ainé, according to your receipt to that effect which Mr Aine holds, and will give up to you on your paying him the amount.

I then wish you to ship the case to New York, and direct it to “Dr Tuttle care of F. Hitchcock  American Museum  New York” and send the bill of lading to Mr Hitchcock.

It should be shipped with the utmost care, for a slight knock would ruin the whole of it.  Ship as soon as possible.

Eighteen days later Barnum wrote again to Messrs. Draper mainly concerning another business issue, but again he stressed the imperative that his Venus be shipped “with the greatest care”.  As if this needed further explanation he added, “. . . if Mademoiselle should happen to get her nose broken or her eye gouged out on her passage across the Atlantic, she would be received with no favor by our New York bucks.”

It is hard to imagine how such a delicate and complex item as the wax figure with its equally delicate components could make it across the Atlantic in a sailing vessel without sustaining damage, especially during a winter crossing.  Barnum was clearly concerned about this risk, but we do know that if any damage did occur in transit, it did not “ruin the whole of it” for the American Museum was advertising the Anatomical Venus exhibition in the New York Tribune by May 18, 1846, and for at least two years after.

On a different subject, you may recall that Barnum had penned an uncharacteristically short and seemingly brusque note to his friend and agent Mr. Brettell in London.  Weeks had passed and he still had not received the second act of Albert Smith’s new play for Gen. Tom Thumb.  His note of February 21st remarked, “It is really too bad that the General does not get the new play.  It will be many pounds out of our pocket if he dont learn it before arriving in London.”

Earthenware phrenological bust made in London by J. DeVille, 1821, probably for teaching purposes. Presumably the numbered sections would have been keyed to a chart listing the 37 “mental and moral faculties,” though words are visible in some of the segments. Areas of the head were defined by character traits such as secretiveness, acquisitiveness, destructiveness, benevolence, self-esteem, spirituality, and many more. (Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Wellcome Images, Wellcome Trust (UK))

The plan was for Smith was to get his manuscript to Brettell, who would print it up and send to Barnum while the tour of Scotland was in progress.  This would give young Charles Stratton the opportunity to learn his lines before the entourage’s return to London, where the play would open.  Barnum was quite frustrated that they had only received a portion of the play and his note to Brettell almost implied that he might have failed to print it or to send it.  But in this “bundle” of February letters we find one written to Albert Smith on the 4th that clarifies where the fault lay, and it was not with Brettell.  Barnum was frank in his letter to Smith,

We have never recd the whole of Act 1st yet of Hop o’ my thumb.  Mr Brettell writes me (Jan 31st) that he has only just recd the balance of Act 1st from you.  The General will open for the last time in London on the 5th or the 10th March, and I want very much to have him up in the piece before we arrive in London.  He is perfect in all that we have yet recd.  I hope you will push the thing ahead as fast as possible.  I shall be in London myself in about 3 weeks from to day.  Please employ the proper person to arrange the Music, of course you will be so good as to arrange with him about the price—as I have no disposition to be shaved.  We shall be glad to get the property-man of Drury Lane Theatre (Mr Bleymeyer) to make the properties, but he cannot do so till he takes the measure of the General after we arrive.  Please bear in mind the Yankee motto “Go ahead” & much oblige.

Perhaps to keep Smith in good humor and encourage his prompt attention to the matter, Barnum added the cheerful postscript,

The General begs you to remember that he is a “brick.”  He is very proud of your compliment.  He sends his little love.  He is really “first rate.”

And now for a bit of light entertainment, let’s enjoy a letter Barnum sent to one Mr. John Boyd, Esquire, of Aberdeen.  The letter was written on February 8th, the last day of the entourage’s stay in that city.  Apparently both Barnum and his young protégé, and perhaps others in the group, had been to see Mr. Boyd, a noted phrenologist.  Phrenology is a pseudoscience that “studies” the bumps and depressions on the human head, and based on their size, shape, and location, the phrenologist determines the character and mental capacity of the individual.  Having a “reading” done by a phrenologist was a popular pastime in the 19th century, especially in America.  Barnum’s letter to Boyd begins,

I have read your written Estimate of Character of General Tom Thumb, and have great pleasure in stating that it is wonderfully correct in every particular so far as my knowledge extends, and I have been with him continually since his first introduction to the public more than three years since.

As it turns out, Barnum not only got his own Estimate of Character from Mr. Boyd of Aberdeen, but reveals that he had had many others done before, to which Boyd’s conclusions compared favorably.  He told Boyd,

I am also constrained to add that although my own head has been repeatedly examined by the Messrs Fowler of New York, and several other Phrenologists at various places and periods, I never before heard my character and peculiarities so correctly portrayed and explained as they have been by you to whom I was a total stranger.

He closes his letter with a line I have not seen used in any other of his letters, “I have the honor to remain with sentiments of the highest Respect and Esteem . . .” indicating that he took Boyd’s Estimates of Character seriously.  Lorenzo N. and O.S. Fowler, the “Messrs Fowler” to whom Barnum refers, had their office at 131 Nassau Street, near the American Museum, and they were very well known in their day.  The two brothers, and Lorenzo’s wife Lydia Folger Fowler (one of the first female doctors in America), gave lectures around the country and taught the “science” of phrenology. The Fowlers are credited with greatly expanding the popularity of phrenology.  Even so, one of the brothers, Orson Squire Fowler, is today more often remembered for advocating that people build octagonally-shaped homes; he explained this in The Octagon House: A Home for All (1848) and A Home for All: The Gravel Wall and Octagon Mode of Building (1854).

Many men who were far more famous than Barnum in the 1840s had their cranial bumps “read,” so he was certainly not alone in his curiosity and apparent belief in phrenology.  Interestingly, the American Museum advertisements of the mid-1840s regularly advertise a “Madame Rockwell, Fortune Teller,” though I suspect Barnum did not take her predictions as seriously as Boyd’s Estimates of Character!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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