Names and Illusions
It’s a thrill when a little historical detective work pays off, and this week I’ve had the good fortune to find the identity of the “Mr. Miller” with whom P. T. Barnum corresponded in the winter of 1846. And—like magic (+ research)—this opened the door to another storyline: Barnum’s connections with illusionists! Since Miller is a common surname, I had not been optimistic that I could learn the identity of Barnum’s correspondent, but I did have a few clues from Barnum’s letters of February 1st and March 7th, 1846. From these it was apparent that Miller was located in Glasgow, that he was in some way connected to a theatre, and that Barnum had hired him as an agent to keep tabs on the family with two exceptionally large boys whom he proposed sending to America costumed as Scottish Highland brothers. Barnum had directed Miller to have a large advertising banner painted, to be mounted outside the American Museum, and that he teach the boys to perform a “Mesmeric” trick so they could also entertain audiences. Putting those bits together with a few new clues discovered among the out-of-sequence February letters furthered my quest, and has led to a better understanding of Barnum’s network.
First, a few words about names and identities, which form a sub-theme to this story. I have been surprised several times to learn from Barnum’s letters that he did not know the full names of the men with whom he was conducting business. Did people not have the equivalent of business cards to share? It seems odd to me that someone as business-oriented as Barnum would not have asked a man’s full name upon engaging in business, and likewise in the case of the lawyers who tracked him down after the accident in the Airdrie theatre. In several cases this oversight has caused wasted time and aggravation because Barnum was unable to obtain Postal Orders (money orders) and have them sent to people whom he needed to pay; the post office would not make them out with only a surname. This was also the case with Miller, whom Barnum had directed to give money, as needed, to the mother of the “fat brothers,” a modest sum Barnum was providing to support the family until they sailed for America in April. Barnum’s work-around to the predicament was to have a Postal Order made out to his “Secretary & advertiser,” a Mr. Sheffield, who was in Glasgow at the time and could thus get the money to Miller. As Barnum told Miller in a postscript to his February 4th letter,
I have just sent to the Post Office and they will not give me the order because I could not give the whole of your christian name. I was obliged therefore to get the order in the name of our Secretary Mr Sheffield—so when he comes he will take it & hand you the three Pounds.
Alas, Barnum was not certain of Sheffield’s first name either, but thought it might be Thomas and so he had the order made out that way. He wrote to Sheffield,
I send enclosed a P. O. Order which I wish you to get cashed and hand the Three Pounds to Mr Miller. I am not sure of your name, but you must sign it Thomas Sheffield (no middle name) as that is the name I have given.
As it turns out, Sheffield might not even have been the man’s real last name, for in Barnum’s March 8th letter to Fordyce Hitchcock, he responded to information from Hitchcock by putting Sheffield’s name in quotes: “Thank you & Titus for your hints about our advertiser ‘Sheffield’—I thought as much.” No more is said, so Mr. Sheffield’s story (and true identity) remains a mystery for now.
Then there is the four-page contract Barnum was preparing for the mother of the Scottish Highland boys to sign. Barnum had written a first draft and sent it to Miller to review and add the necessary legal language at the end, the unfortunate parts that state what would happen should either or both of the boys become ill, incapacitated or die, during their U.S. tour. There is a good deal to be learned from the contract; we’ve already discovered that Barnum would be paying for all the expenses of the family, not only travel, lodging and board, but also for their laundry. The contract also tells us that should a tour outside of New York necessitate leaving the toddler sibling behind, he would pay for the child’s care while the mother was on the road with the older boys and her baby. Interestingly, it states that “under the direction of [Barnum’s agent],” the mother was to “keep said Children Infant Boys properly washed cleaned fed and clothed and in fact shall do all in her power to render their exhibition neat clean and respectable.” Although it might not have been rare at that time to state a standard, this implies that the family was not accustomed to regular bathing and having clean clothes, due to their impoverished circumstances. Barnum therefore wanted to ensure he had a “respectable” exhibit given his investment in costumes, advertising banners, newspaper ads, and of course the trans-Atlantic crossing and commitment to a year’s salary and expenses. This was not to be “street-quality” entertainment in the way the boys had been exhibited by their mother, rather, it was to be worthy of admission to a museum or hall.
Beyond those details, and getting back to our “names” discussion, we also learn from the contract that the boys were not named Alexander and Charles Stuart (a.k.a, Stewart) at all; these were stage names Barnum created for them. Barnum seemed uncertain even of the mother’s name, referring to her in some portions of the contract as Mary Oscroft and in others as Mary Osgood. He did realize that she was widowed but he did not know her late husband’s name, and he wondered about the boys’ names being Philip and Michael Cusack—were they from a previous marriage? He left the sentence defining her relationship to them incomplete, and the names of the younger child and baby are not mentioned at all, despite the fact that they would receive benefits under the terms of the contract. However, Barnum generously directed Miller to “make any alterations or additions which she [the mother] may desire (if they are just)” and return the draft to him, whereupon he would have the contract prepared by a lawyer.
So, who was Mr. Miller? It turns out he was David Prince Miller (1809—1873), a man with quite an interesting life story who wrote about his struggles and achievements in a book titled The Life of a Showman, first published in 1849 with subsequent editions. At the time Barnum was corresponding with Miller, he was the owner of the Adelphi Theatre in Glasgow. He was born in England, but grew up in difficult circumstances and by 1825 he was on the road performing “illusions,” or magic. He arrived in Glasgow in 1839 and was very successful in shows at the Glasgow Fair and at other locations as part of a traveling show; he worked hard and scrimped to save enough money to build a theatre in Glasgow. The first was the Sans Pareil in 1842, which held 1200, and then he built the Adelphi, which was unusually large with a capacity of 2500. It catered to the working class and poorer people. He may have had a hard time keeping his businesses afloat, because one of Barnum’s letters to Miller politely declines to “consistently lend” him £50, as much as he held Miller in the highest regard and thought him perfectly trustworthy. (“[I] would trust you with untold gold.”) Undoubtedly Barnum realized he and Miller had much in common: they were just a year apart in age and both had entered the school of hard knocks in their youth and been forced to make a living starting in their early teens; sheer grit and perseverance took them further than most people could have imagined. Despite setbacks, both were determined to climb the rungs to success. (Of note, Miller sold his Adelphi Theatre in 1848, two years after his work with Barnum, and just a few months after that the theatre burned.)
When Miller was in his early thirties performing illusions at the Glasgow Fair, at the very same time a rival by the name of John Henry Anderson (1814-1874) was also performing at the fair. Anderson was a native Scotsman, five years younger than Miller, and he had been orphaned at age 10. By the age of sixteen, he joined a traveling dramatic company, and the following year he began his career in magic. At age twenty-three he performed at the Castle of Lord Panmure (William Ramsay Maule, a Scottish landowner and politician) and received his endorsement, which encouraged him to start his own traveling company. (This was in the time period when he and Miller were performing at the Glasgow Fairs.) Apparently Miller did better financially than Anderson at that fair, despite Anderson’s heavy promoting, and maybe that led to an unfriendly relationship. Anderson disbanded his group by 1840, went to London and opened the New Strand Theatre. Two years later he married a woman from Aberdeen, which may explain his return to Scotland where he opened the City Theatre in Glasgow in 1845, a rival to Miller’s Adelphi.
That investment proved catastrophic, however, as Anderson’s theatre burned just four months later. Whether Barnum ever saw Anderson perform we don’t know, but a letter indicates that he met him in Aberdeen in early 1846; Anderson went back to London at some point that year, and then went on to tour in Germany, Sweden, and Russia. Barnum was surely aware of Anderson’s extensive self-promotion and advertising, and of his moniker, “The Great Wizard of the North”—but perhaps he had also heard some less enchanting details of Anderson’s personal reputation from Miller or others in Glasgow. For whatever reason, it appears that Barnum did not like Anderson and had no qualms about scheming to diminish his reputation and potential financial success on an American tour.
All this is background to understanding Barnum’s February 6th letter to “Friend Fill,” the Mr. Fillingham in London to whom he wrote a lengthy epistle on November 19th, 1845, asking him to serve as his agent. Barnum’s purpose in writing was to ask “Fill” to mail the letter he had enclosed, written to an unnamed theatre owner or director in London concerning an engagement with Gen. Tom Thumb. But the majority of the letter to Fillingham is devoted to revealing a scheme that Barnum hoped he would be on board with. That portion of the letter begins, “The Wizard of the North has just told me that he goes to New York 1st of July next.”
Barnum’s plan was to get out in front of Anderson’s American tour and undermine him by sending another very proficient illusionist there first, thus making Anderson’s gig seem old-hat or imitative when he arrived in late summer. Barnum told Fillingham,
If Monsieur Phillippe now playing at the Strand Theatre is first rate, and has got a dashing apparatus, I would like to have him sail to America 1st of April or before, and come out there as the Great Wizard of the South, and perform all of Andersons tricks before he arrives. I could puff him there in papers 2 or 3 months in N. Y.[;] he could start off and go through the United States ahead of Anderson, and make a capital thing of it. . . . and when Anderson arrived all the public would say that he was an imitator of Mon. Phillippe.
So if you aren’t a student of illusionist history, you may wonder who was this Monsieur Phillippe? If you guessed that his name was not actually Phillippe, that’s a good start (and another reason for calling out the names and identities theme of this blog post.) He was born Jacques Noel Talon in 1802, near Nimes, France. According to a biographical entry in Magicpedia, Talon was trained as a confectioner in Paris, then went to Scotland and continued his trade, but turned to performing magic tricks to supplement his income. The source of that information about his early background was Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, known as the “father of modern magic”—whom Barnum knew from his time in Paris. Apparently Talon learned various tricks from Chinese jugglers, such as making a bowl with gold-fish appear from a shawl, and creating the illusion of solid rings passing through one another and then linking solidly, forming chains and various configurations. These have since become classic illusions. Among the reasons Mon. Phillippe’s show would have been desirable to Barnum was that his costume was quite distinctive, reminiscent of medieval sorcerers with the tall conical hat and long garb, thus any advertising imagery of him in costume would be eye-catching. But as Barnum had not seen Mon. Phillippe perform, he deputized Fillingham to attend a performance and judge whether the magician had potential for an American tour.
I would like you to see him perform, and if he is tip–top I would hire him to play in my museum for 2 or 3 months, and give him such a start in all the newspapers throughout the Union, that no other man could get, and he could coin lots of money in America in a couple of years.
Barnum admitted, however, “I could not stand a very high figure for him in my museum, [but] still I could do well by him, and give him a start in America that would be worth thousands to him.” He requested that Fillingham get a copy of the Tom Thumb booklet printed by Mr. Brettell, “and give [it] to Mons. Phillippe—the book contains a picture of my museum.” This, he thought, might serve as an enticement to come to America.
Barnum suggested another devious move to Fillingham, one that seems blatantly dishonest even by the standards of that day. He wrote, “We could get fac-similes of all of Anderson’s cuts [woodcut illustrations] and bills [handbills], and when Anderson arrived all the public would say that he was an imitator of Mons. Phillippe.” It is curious that Barnum suggested outright plagiarism of Anderson’s advertising when he was capable of putting out his own “puffs,” but such practices must have been common enough, and since he would not himself be present in New York to see to promotion, perhaps that tipped the scale toward the deceit. Barnum, as we know, was extremely competitive, but resorting to this level? It makes me think Barnum really did not like Anderson and that playing to Mon. Phillippe, who was unknown to him, was in some way getting even. In summary, Barnum told Fillingham, “Please see [Mon. Phillippe] perform & then if you think it worth while, show him this letter . . . .”
I looked for evidence in newspapers of 1845, 1846 and 1847 that Monsieur Phillippe went to America and I particularly wanted to see if he had performed at the American Museum in 1846, according to Barnum’s plan. While that does not seem to be the case, a newspaper ad in the November 5th, 1845, issue of The New York Herald reveals he HAD performed in New York City—but apparently Barnum was not aware of that. He was named as an assistant to Miss Mary St. Clair in a performance at Palmo’s Opera House on Chambers Street, and was referred to as “The French Necromancer.” No other ads from that year came up in my search.
But in 1846, there are several ads that indicate Monsieur Phillippe did indeed leave England on, or possibly before, April 1st, 1846, to go to America. However, he did not perform in New York City, and this time he was the star, not an assistant. The “celebrated French Magician” was performing at Carusi’s Saloon in Washington, D.C. An ad dated April 11th, 1846, announces a “Soiree Mysterieuse” of GRAND SCIENTIFIC ILLUSIONS beginning April 13th, and which was to be only three evenings, Monday through Wednesday at 8 pm. The illusions featured “various surprising Experiments in Chemistry, Pneumatics, Optics, Natural Philosophy, and Magic” and a “Band of Music” was to be in attendance. Admission was 50 cents, half price for children under 10. (That’s twice the price of admission to Barnum’s museum.) The shows, needless to say, did not end on Wednesday but continued on for another three evenings, Thursday to Saturday, April 16th – 18th, and so the ads run through April 17th.
The ads for the April performances appear in newspapers serving Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; and Alexandria, Virginia. The only reference I found to Monsieur Phillippe in a New York newspaper was buried in a long column of “Latest Intelligence by the Mails, from Washington,” which was printed in The New York Herald on April 21, 1846. Among the “Gleanings of the Week,” as they were titled, is a paragraph about amusements in Washington. Listed in the recent entertainments were Howe’s Circus with Dan Rice and equestrian Marie Macarte; a “splendid grand opening ball” in the new hall of the Odd Fellows; “the conjurations of Monsieur Phillippe at Carusi’s;” and the debates in Congress.
From this research, albeit limited, I am inclined to think that Barnum’s scheme to bring the magician to America did not work out, at least not in this timeframe. Perhaps, unbeknownst to Barnum, Monsieur Phillippe already had a contract already in place with Carusi. Unfortunately for Barnum, who was also seeking attractions for his newly acquired Peale’s Museum in Baltimore, he missed out on having Monsieur Phillippe perform there and in New York. Still, I have to believe Monsieur Phillippe would have done at least a modest tour in America in 1846, even though the newspapers I reviewed did not shed light on travels to other cities.
Barnum Museum Curator