PTB Letters (#37) My Mind is Occupied with Thoughts of Home

My Mind is Occupied with Thoughts of Home

As the Christmas holiday is now upon us, it feels most fitting to highlight P. T. Barnum’s letters home to his wife, sister, and daughter.  These letters were composed in the mid-November 1845 timeframe we have been exploring, when Barnum was in Paris.  In almost every letter, whether to family or business associates, we see the refrain that he anticipated sailing home to America in the new year along with Gen. Tom Thumb‘s entourage.  However, because the profitability of business was unpredictable, he cautioned that he might not return for some months to come.  Barnum hoped the General’s performances would be a hit in Paris, and more so in London over the holiday season, but after that it would be “wait and see” as far as planning another tour of the British Isles.  The downside to the potential financial success would mean staying overseas longer.

On November 12th, Barnum sat down to write a packet of letters home to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and to Washington, D.C.  There were three: one to his wife Charity, one to his sister Cordelia, and the third to his twelve-year-old daughter Caroline, who was away at school.  To Charity Barnum confessed that he had “never travelled in so much misery as I do at present—owing to home sickness.  I have got sick and tired of travelling and of remaining away from my family and my mind is occupied night and day with thoughts of home, and with my business in America.”  This was not the first time Barnum expressed intense feelings of home sickness, but living in the age he did, there were no solutions to ease the longing via Zoom or Skype.  He went on to tell Charity,

Still I grin and bear it, hoping that all is for the best, and feeling reluctant to give up a good harvest, for the sake of arriving a few months sooner in America.  However our faces are set for home, and we shall all feel uneasy till we get there, but the exact day week or month which we may sail, is not only undecided on but will in a great measure depend on our success in England.  So you too must grin and bear it.

Consistent in his inability to resist a little barb to Charity, he added, “Certainly you have the easiest part of it, –and it is for your good as well as for the children that I am continuing a ‘little longer’ to strive for the ‘root of all evil’ but every man’s desire—money.”  Had he known that his wife was pregnant he might have been gentler with his words.

Sharing more pleasant news, he told her that while in Paris he had made some purchases for a house they hoped to buy or build in the next year or so.  He wrote, “I made an extensive addition to our stock of furniture yesterday in the purchase of an ivory salad fork & spoon.  I have also bought a few colored pictures (prints) for the house representing Palais Royale—Tuilleries—Hotel des Invalides—Place la Concorde—Versailles & c. & c.”  These he would add to a crate containing some of the porcelain dinner service they had purchased at an estate auction in the spring.  For some reason, “box No 2” had been overlooked when arranging for shipping home in the summer, and as it wasn’t full, Barnum decided he might as well add a few more luxuries for their future home.

This was the extent of his news to Charity.  He had already written a letter to his sister, which she would share, and he therefore saw no need for redundancy.  Cordelia was one of Barnum’s younger sisters, and she had just lost her husband, John Benedict, to tuberculosis in June of 1845.  Left destitute after nursing him during his long illness while also caring for their infant son, she did not have the money for a proper funeral nor even clothing for it.  An uncle informed Barnum of her poverty and he sent Cordelia money.  He also suggested she live with Charity and their daughters to save up the little money she would earn as a tailoress, and the letters bear out that she did so.  Cordelia seems to have been a more reliable correspondent than Charity, though she mentioned to Barnum that it was a “task” for her to write due to her poor spelling.

His reply contained something of a lecture to her on the importance of good spelling, and he expressed surprise that she had not learned to spell in school.  Since she was a full decade younger than he, it is not that surprising that he knew little about her schooling, and his remark implies a comparison to his own lack of opportunity.  “Of course I care nothing about bad spelling in any letter which I receive—but still you ought to spell well.  Indeed I thought you had had tolerable good opportunities for education, and never knew before that you had not well improved them.”

He went on to refer to bad spelling as a “shameful fault” and “one so easily remedied [it] is worth removing.”  His solution was for Cordelia to devote one hour per day, every day, to learning to spell, as he was sure she could learn in six months.  Given that she was trying to earn a living and care for her young son, devoting an hour a day to this “improvement” would not have been so easy for her.  Explaining the reason for his older brother tone, Barnum wrote,

Understand me, I am not grumbling about receiving letters with bad spelling—for I had much rather receive them than none, but I am writing for your good.  A person without education cannot command that respect in the world that one with education (all other qualities being equal) can, and there is nothing which more readily exposes a persons bad education than bad spelling.  Your spelling is not very bad and therefore is the easily remedied.

You may recall from an earlier blog (A Mountain of Worries, June 12, 2020) that Barnum had made a point about bad spelling in his reply to Caroline’s letter asking permission to attend a masquerade ball.  Barnum refused her in no uncertain terms, and then proceeded to admonish her for misspelling a couple of words.  Now we see another example of his correspondence to Caroline, and though less harsh than the September 13th letter, the tone is not as affectionate as one might expect.  In fact, Barnum’s letters to Caroline contrast with his doting expressions of concern for her little sister Helen.  In every letter to Charity he begs to be informed of Helen’s health, which at times seemed precarious.  To Cordelia, Barnum wrote

I am in hopes that Mrs Bs [Barnum] health is better, and I am rejoiced to hear that “old pojjy” [Helen] is well and fat again.  Don’t for mercy’s sake let her be exposed to the cold, for you all know how liable she is to take cold, and how cruelly she suffers when she does so.  I really fear I could not survive her loss.  I hope if those lumps are still on her neck, some good physician is attending to them.  If her mother has neglected that  do . . . set Dr Middlebrook at it, at once.  Don’t delay another single day.

A moment of humor (for us) arises when he writes Cordelia that, “Helen must have a new spelling book and not read in one that has such naughty words in it!  I hope she learns her book.”  Was that old spelling book one that had belonged to Caroline?!  Barnum’s young protégé, Charles Stratton (a.k.a., Gen. Tom Thumb), was only two years older than Helen, and he watched over Charlie’s education with concern as well.  With glee he told Cordelia, “The General has begun to learn like a little witch, and he likes his book (he never did before) so if Helen dont look out he will beat her.”  Charles was 7 ½ years old at the time.

Since Barnum’s own formal education had been so minimal, he wanted nothing so much as his children should receive the finest education possible.  Caroline being at an age when girls of well-to-do families were often sent to boarding schools—what some call “finishing schools”—Earlier in the fall Barnum had accepted his Uncle Alanson Taylor’s assistance in choosing a school for Caroline where she would learn French through immersive experiences.  He was adamant that she learn to speak, read, and write the language fluently.  We eventually discovered Caroline had been sent to a school in Washington, because Barnum later mentioned to Charity that they would visit their daughter there as soon as he returned.  I wondered if there was a way to find out the name of the school Caroline attended, and I’ll talk about that in a minute.  Barnum begins his letter to Caroline telling her,

I am glad to hear from your mother that you are attending a good school at Washington and that you like it, and feel contented.  It is much better for you to attend a school some distance from home, as it learns you to do things for yourself—at least I hope it has that effect—for it is very necessary.

He followed,

I hope to be home this winter and shall go almost immediately to Washington to see you, and I hope to find not only that you have improved in your French but also in your other studies.  Now is the very time of life for you to learn—you can now learn double in the same length of time that you can when a few years older—and as you do not want to be cooped up in school all your life—the faster you learn the better—for you must have a perfect and thorough education before you leave school.

Much like Barnum’s “challenge” to Helen—conveyed through Cordelia—to make good progress and not let Charles beat her in reading and spelling, he remarked to Caroline that, “The General has picked up a good deal of French, and he sings a French song.”  Barnum also expected her to hop on the train in Washington and visit Uncle Alanson, who had recently become a co-owner of the Baltimore Museum.  He asked her to write to him and find out “if he will meet you at the Rail Road” on her first visit, but advised her with subsequent trips to “engage a cab to take you to the Museum & there you will either find him or his address.”  He thought she could manage to do this on occasional Sundays, every six or eight weeks, and while visiting she should “consult him and take his advice about what studies [to] pursue.”

Engraving showing a passenger train of the early 1840s used on the Long Island Rail Road, probably similar to the train Caroline would have taken to visit her uncle in Baltimore. (Original source unknown, included with new text on

I must say I was surprised at the expectation that a twelve-year-old girl would travel on her own on the train, the only concern being that she not go out when it was very cold, for fear of getting sick.  Perhaps this is why Caroline had considerably more pluck than her mother when it came to travelling to new places; as a teen, she accompanied her father on some of their North American tours, and even kept a journal.

Now to the quest to identify the school.  Knowing only that Caroline was at a boarding school in Washington, D.C. in 1845, and that the school had a strong focus on French,  I turned to newspapers of that location and time, especially late summer issues when ads for schools most often appear.  It was common for schools for “young ladies” to include French among the subjects taught, but I hoped to find a school in which French was integral to the curriculum, as Barnum had desired for Caroline.  A lengthy ad in the August 14, 1845 issue (and other issues) of the Alexandria Gazette announced that Mrs. Mary L. Eliason would open a Boarding and Day School at her residence “for the instruction of a limited number of young Ladies, in the several branches of a thorough English and French education.”  Noting also that the “French teacher will reside in the family and the pupils will be taught to speak accurately as well as to read and write, the French Language” this one seemed promising.  The ad was aimed at “Members of Congress who have daughters to educate.”  However, further research revealed that Mrs. Eliason was a member of the long-standing Robert “King” Carter family and descendants who were considered the “aristocracy” of Virginia with their extensive plantations.  Mary Eliason herself is included as an owner of enslaved people on the 1850 Federal Census – Slave Schedule.  I wondered if that situation would have been acceptable to Barnum, and if Caroline would have felt out of place with the daughters of Washington’s elite.

Print showing a mid-19th century “female seminary” in Nashville, Tennessee. Mrs. Burr’s “large and commodious home with ample grounds” may have looked something like the left or center buildings here, either of which may have been the original part of the school. (Library of Congress)

Scouting for school ads in another Washington paper, the Daily Union, turned up one that seemed aligned with Barnum’s views, and is actually quite different from most school ads.  (That said, it was Barnum’s uncle, not he, who was tasked with researching schools.)  The ad was placed by a Mrs. David H. Burr (Sophia A. Howell Burr) and ran from May 1845 to late fall of that year; as far as I can tell, that was the only year she advertised.  The ad announced that “Mrs. David H. Burr’s French and English seminary for Young Ladies, corner of E and 9th streets, Washington city” was a house “large and commodious, with ample grounds and other facilities for amusement and recreation.”  Mrs. Burr herself was a native of France, “and conversant with the best and easiest modes of imparting to her pupils a perfect knowledge of that language . . .” Further, the ad notes that “pupils who reside in the family have the peculiar advantages of hearing and conversing at all times in the French language,” which was certainly Barnum’s goal for Caroline.

Following a description of the course of instruction, it is stated that, “The discipline is mild and affectionate, yet decided, and is maintained by appeals to the affections and conscience of the pupil; it is designed, by a proper development and cultivation of the better qualities of the heart, to bind more affectionately the pupil to her teacher, and by it to secure obedience.”  In addition a student could attend whichever church her parents selected, or attend the Episcopal church with the Principal.  Although I can’t be certain Caroline went to Mrs. Burr’s Seminary, the perspectives Mrs. Burr conveys in her advertisement seem to be a good match for the “perfect and thorough education” Barnum sought for his eldest daughter.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator