Negotiating tactics: “The General’s expenses are very great”
P. T. Barnum’s extraordinary, enduring legacy overshadows the early years of uphill work before his fame—and that of his protégé “General Tom Thumb”—was widespread. Success was sometimes hard-won and certainly not guaranteed as Barnum would discover after leaving the adoring crowds in Paris to tour Tom Thumb in the provincial towns.
Barnum’s correspondence from the summer of 1845, preserved in a letter copy book, reveals that “stirring up the excitement” was an arduous process in places where people were not yet acquainted with the irresistible charms of Barnum’s “man in miniature,” Charles Stratton. Working as the advance man on the tour, Barnum’s own talents as a never-quit bargainer were often called into play to make the arrangements, which involved convincing mayors, theatre managers, and the like to permit him to engage a hall or theatre for two to three days of performances, agreeing on a percentage of the take, and arranging for lodging and board for the entourage. A particularly trying episode occurred in the town of Bordeaux in mid-August.
More often than not the sticking point in settling on the fees concerned a “poor tax” levied on luxuries such as concerts and theatre performances, as these could take a hefty chunk from the profits Barnum anticipated. A frequent complaint in Barnum’s letters was the amount of money he was required to pay “the Hospice people” at each of the towns where the General performed. Each town had its own Commission des Hospices Civiles responsible for raising money to offset the town’s cost of caring for the institutionalized poor. Apparently these Commissions had the authority to negotiate the tax rate on a case-by-case basis if they chose. While not opposed to the principle of the tax, Barnum was exasperated by rates he felt were exorbitant, and this came to a head in Bordeaux, when Léon Bézout, the director of the Hospice Board, refused to budge.
An infuriated Barnum penned off a letter to Bézout that—luckily for us—tells us more about Charles Stratton’s career and also details his expenses. Barnum threatened to pull the plug on performances in Bordeaux citing Hospice fees he claimed would cause Charles to lose money. Barnum argued, “He comes a great distance with his family in order to gain an honest livelihood. He has already paid about 7000 francs for the benefit of Hospice in France, and he is willing to continue to pay all that he can afford for the benefit of the poor, but when your demands are so exorbitant as to overreach his profits you not only deprive him of the ability of performing at all—but you at the same time deprive the Hospice from receiving any assistance from him.” Barnum cited other towns agreeing to 5, 7, 10, 20 or 50 francs per day, or a rate of 1/10 of the receipts, in contrast to Bordeaux’s demand for 1/5 to 1/4 of the receipts. He expected to bring in as much as 800 francs in that city, thus at least 160 francs would go to Hospice, and another 15 percent of his take would go to the theatre. He countered, “I very much regret that your demands are such as to render it impossible for Genl Tom Pouce to visit Bordeaux.”
Barnum was always careful to frame his negotiations as if he was Charles’ agent, not the showman in charge. In a letter to “Friend Huet” dated August 18, 1845, he confides, “I continue to be merely the simple agent of Genl Tom Pouce – and find that by that plan I save considerable expense.” Using that tactic, Barnum explains in his letter to Bézout, “The General’s expences are very great. He is obliged to travel with these Voitures [vehicles] a Poste – 1 Poste Chaise with 4 horses – a Fourgon [a long, covered wagon made to carry goods and supplies, or baggage] with three horses to carry his 4 ponies and little carriage – and another Fourgon to carry the baggage, and the accessories to his performances. He is also obliged to pay large salaries to his Interpreter, Precepteur [teacher], Musicians, and others in his employ, so that his daily expences average 400 to 500 Francs.”
Barnum bolstered his case by explaining that, “The General is not exhibited simply as a natural curiosity, for as a natural curiosity alone, he would not receive 100 francs per day. But the chief attractions of his exhibitions are his performances, which consist of the Poses Academiques [as well as] – dancing – singing – imitations of celebrated characters such as Grand Frederick & c & c. His exhibitions you will therefore perceive partake of the dramatic, and he is not therefore to be considered the same as a natural curiosity which by law gives the Hospital the right to demand a quarter of the receipts. The General is an actor, and a member of the Association des Artistes Dramatiques as you will see by the book which accompanies this letter.”
Of course Barnum was determined that the General would perform in Bordeaux. He was certain to gain popular acclaim there and it was hoped the receipts would make up for losses in some of the small towns. He therefore asked Bézout to reconsider the tax rate, and offered that if the fees he, Barnum, reported having paid in other towns were found to be false, he would pay one quarter of the whole receipts in Bordeaux. Clearly, things had been easier in Paris and England, for Barnum concludes, “If you are willing to do this then I shall be most happy to make arrangements for him to visit this city—but if you persist in demanding a sum which he is wholly unable to pay, then unfortunately his long and profitless journey from Paris to Potiers [Poitiers, the town where Charles was then performing] must be thrown away, and he must return to Paris and England where the laws will permit him to gain a livelihood without taking from him all that he can earn.”
Letters from Barnum to his associates on this subject continue over several days, each one describing his aggravation with the Hospice Board and the fact that he could not get things settled quickly. He informed Charles’s father, Sherwood Stratton, “As I expected, I have bloody bad work with the Hospice here . . . but I don’t give it up yet. I hope to get it [the rates] reduced.” Further venting his frustration he writes, “There is plenty of money here & we can raise the devil, but I don’t want to work altogether for the Hospice.”
So, who won the argument? Did the General get to perform in Bordeaux after all this trouble? Indeed, Barnum gives no indication he will give up or give in. Knowing his determined nature, I strongly suspect he will find a way to make a splash in Bordeaux, and for that story . . . stay tuned! (And if you wish to peruse the letters in the copybook in the meantime, you may always view them here.)
Barnum Museum Curator