My Success Has Been a Miracle

My Success Has Been a Miracle

One of the many “beauties” of P. T. Barnum’s copybook letters from 1845-1846 is that they provide insights into Barnum’s attitudes toward money just at the point in his life when he had become incredibly rich.  Partly because of the range of correspondents, we have the opportunity to learn about greedy family members and acquaintances, employees asking for larger salaries, “talent” who felt entitled to ridiculously favorable contracts, and even the financial aspirations of Barnum’s trusted manager of the American Museum.   Not surprisingly, many of the copybook letters touch upon money matters.  And while Barnum seems to have had a generous nature, the barrage of demands—some with merit, some without—was at times exasperating to him:  “ . . . were I to give what all relations and others think at this moment it is my solemn and bounden duty to give to them, I should this night be a Bankrupt for half a million of dollars!”

Of note is a long letter, largely about money, to Fordyce Hitchcock, Barnum’s manager of the American Museum.  In this correspondence, dated September 12th, 1845, Barnum reveals his own feelings about money as he responded to Hitchcock’s apparently unfounded expectation that Barnum would–perhaps soon–sell the museum to him.  In this letter and others Barnum makes clear his belief that there is virtue only by earning one’s wealth, and folly in accepting any large sum from another, since one would become beholden to that person.  We’ll delve into that letter in a minute, but first let’s turn to a family letter, in which we learn that 12-year-old Caroline Barnum had been telling tales to her father, repeating news which Charity had neglected—or chosen not—to tell her husband.

Apparently letters home were often shared with others, but regarding certain matters, Barnum warned that the extra page included with his August 25th letter to Charity was not to be circulated.   He prefaced it, “This leaf is for your private eye only . . . ,” and then went on to say,

Caroline writes that Uncle Alanson [Taylor] has set up his son in business, and lost all his capital.  I shall write him on the subject, but shall not tell him where I got my information.  He has given me such solemn promises, and such security that I feel confident he will pay me all that I have lent him.  But I shall lend no more to friend or foe without good bond and mortgage security.

In fact Barnum had been very careful in regard to managing family money matters in his absence abroad, instructing Hitchcock not to give money to anyone but Charity or his mother without his written order.  That instruction in itself had generated hard feelings when Uncle Alanson had stepped in to get money for a much-needed carriage for Barnum’s mother and Hitchcock flat-out refused the request, following the instructions he’d been given to a “T.”  Barnum found himself smoothing things over, assuring Hitchcock he appreciated his attentiveness to duty while calming his uncle, telling him that Hitchcock had only acted upon strict orders in denying the request, not because of mistrust.  To Charity Barnum explained, “[Hitchcock] writes me that he will always guard my money and not let a cent go without having documents to show for it, so that in case of my death, he could have everything plain and satisfactory.”

In the meantime ill feelings had been brewing among the relatives who felt they were owed a piece of Barnum’s riches.  In the private “leaf,” Barnum told Charity,

Caroline writes me that some person told her that I had ought to give a certain person half my profits.  If this is the feeling which some folks have, I think the best plan will be to build our house on Staten Island, or at Harlem or in some place up the North-River, and not build in Bridgeport at all.  You know who I mean.  If my relations begrudge me what I have worked so hard to earn, we had better get farther away from them, for I will not support them nor let them suppose that I shall keep giving to them, unless they are in great necessity.

A more explicit description of the incident is included in Barnum’s letter to Hitchcock: “. . . only 2 steamers ago I had the news that a certain child 10 years old told another child of the same age, that the former child’s father said that I ought to give him half I made on Genl Tom Thumb!”  The person making that demand was undoubtedly Philo Barnum, an older half-brother living in Bridgeport where the Stratton family and their remarkable little boy, who had stopped growing at six or seven months of age, also lived.  Accounts differ as to which of the two brothers first learned of young “Charlie,” but all concur that Philo had a hand in it, as he brought the boy and his parents to a hotel in Bridgeport for Barnum to meet the family in November of 1842.   At the time, Philo surely never imagined the fame and fortune his half-brother would eventually reap as a result of that meeting with the soon-to-be “General Tom Thumb.”

As for Barnum’s reaction, he told Hitchcock, “When I heard that, I was sick of the avarice & unreasonableness of the world, and sincerely wished that my family & every farthing of my property was this side of the Atlantic—in which case I would have taken a solemn oath never to live the other side.”

Other more distant relatives were also surfacing at this time, appealing to Barnum for a piece of the pie.  He had been sending money to his recently widowed sister, Mary, on a regular basis, and somehow word got around.  Again to Hitchcock he wrote,

The fact is if I have a poor widowed sister & give her a few dollars—[then] up start instantaneously 560 second third and fourth cousins [who] “wonder why I should not give to them as well as to my sister who is in good health & able to earn her own living.”  If I have an aged and [decrepit] mother and wish to remove a thorn from her dying pillow—the air is filled with sprites claiming a blood relation (and blood sucker like) the right to fill themselves to repletion from my effects.  It is absolutely enough to make a man turn Turk & disown his relatives and acquaintances forever!

Barnum's American Museum
Barnum’s American Museum on Broadway at Ann Street, circa 1850 – 1855, as depicted in a lithograph printed by George W. Lewis III of nearby Nassau Street in New York City. (Collection of the Barnum Museum)

Even mere acquaintances contacted Barnum with the hope of wringing money from him.  With indignation Barnum declared to Hitchcock, “One person at present in America has said that I ought to present him 20,000—another really thinks I ought to give him at least 1000 a year—another has repeatedly urged me to give him at least half the Museum . . . .”  Clearly the unreasonable demands annoyed him.

But to the point about Barnum’s own attitudes toward money and his rapid and spectacular increase in wealth, his comments to close correspondents are enlightening.  In a letter dated August 26th, 1845, Barnum had quipped to showman friend Moses Kimball, “I shall not be like Billy Gray—[and] want ‘a little more.’  I am determined to be content ——-one of these days!”  But as Barnum discovered, being content was not in is nature, nor many other people’s when it came to money-getting.  In his September 12th letter to Hitchcock he confessed, “I have once been like you in one respect—that is I have fancied that a man who had acquired $50,000 or $100,000, ought to be content, to give up all means he had of earning more, and indeed to spare a good slice from that already acquired.”

Barnum felt Hitchcock’s self-acknowledged avarice had its value, noting “I am glad to see it, and only hope that principle may govern you in everyday life, then you will do well enough.  But he also saw the need to recalibrate Hitchcock’s expectations of quickly acquiring a fortune, firmly advising him,

You must do away with one idea, and that is the comparison of success; making my success the standard of comparison.  My success has been a miracle, an accident, a wonder such as does not occur scarcely twice in a century—and it would be no more unreasonable for me to expect in 2 years to be an Astor or a Girard, than it is for you to expect to jump into the fortune which I did.  Such accidents do not occur often and it is wrong for you to expect it, –at least that is my opinion.

He went further, diplomatically expressing his concerns after reading Hitchcock’s letter:

I wish I did not fancy I saw a feeling of dissatisfaction expressed in your last letter.  If such is really the case I fear that dissatisfaction will necessarily be increased, for it is quite impossible (and you ought not to expect it) that you should get rich in an hour or a year, unless some person presents you with a fortune; which you ought not to wish, for you would be eternally that persons slave.

It had been agreed that Hitchcock would receive one-quarter of the profits of the museum for the first year of his service, thus creating an incentive for him to manage it well.  He had succeeded admirably.  Outside of that contract, Barnum had promised to put Hitchcock’s interests ahead of anyone else’s should he, Barnum, decide to “change the affairs of the museum.”  For some reason Hitchcock thought that change was on the horizon; Barnum, on the other hand, said no such promise had been made or even implied would happen in the space of a year.  Declaring “there is no probability” that he would sell in the foreseeable future, Barnum then extended his hand to his friend and manager, saying, “I am ready to have you earn an independence & a quick one under its branches, or I am willing to join you in purchasing another tree which may prove as good as this—or I will lend you money to purchase one on your own sole a/c [account].”

It’s interesting to see this side of Barnum, a man who became incredibly rich but also cared enough to help others succeed—so long as they were willing to do honest and hard work hard to achieve their goals.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator