Novelties and Schemes
These days especially, all of us are eager to hear some good news. It seems that P. T. Barnum was feeling much the same way through the summer and fall of 1845. During his tour of France with General Tom Thumb he had encountered so many difficulties, coupled with health, family, and business worries, that he confessed to trusted correspondents of feeling quite worn down and dispirited. Several of my blogs have shared his tales of woe, so I was pleased to discover that in October, Barnum had received heartening news from Fordyce Hitchcock, his good friend and the manager of his American Museum in New York. Let’s check in on Barnum’s copybook letters and see what had cheered him.
Barnum wrote to Hitchcock from Marseille on October 12th to acknowledge the recent receipt of his two letters dated September 15th and 18th, 1845. He exclaimed with relief,
Thank God! the news has in a small degree revived my spirits for truth to tell I have not been myself for more than two months. I am worn down with care and anxiety, continually kept on the rack by thoughts of all affairs on both sides of the Atlantic, by fear of the death of my little Helen, and by the most cursed annoyances incident to any man who tries to do business in France . . . . What is perhaps worse than all is that we are making no money, and that fact with ill health and other annoyances make me as miserable as any poor devil need be.
I had to smile when I read the next lines, for it points to a possible reason that, more than twenty years later, Barnum was so determined to purchase the Cardiff Giant, the 12-foot tall petrified man “unearthed” on a farm in upstate New York. (The farmer who master-minded the giant’s creation and “discovery” refused to sell his profitable hoax, so Barnum had a copy made, which leads to quite another story!) Barnum declared to Hitchcock,
The news from the Museum is indeed glorious, and to me it is more strange than glorious for I would not have admitted that petrified woman into the Museum if I had been there for I should have supposed that the very idea would have disgusted the public & drove them from rather than into the Museum. Now the result proves that I would have been devilishly mistaken, and that in this single case your opinion was worth several thousand dollars more than mine! I confess this candidly & believe the same will hold good in many instances, and I am very sure that I could not have worked the card to so good & profitable advantage this fall as you have done. Positively there’s no soft soap about this, but it is written from the fullest and most solemn convictions of my heart.
In fact, in a letter to Hitchcock just two weeks earlier Barnum had remarked, “I hope you are right in thinking the petrified human body will draw, but I don’t think so.” Clearly Barnum remembered the lesson from this, and years later recognized great money-making potential with the Cardiff Giant. Unfortunately we don’t know what Hitchcock had said Barnum about this “petrified human body,” nor are we likely to find out, since Barnum told Hitchcock that his practice was to burn the letters he received from him after they were read. However, looking through the 1849 Sights and Wonders in New York guidebook (which is actually about the American Museum), I turned up a couple of relevant descriptions, and one that may refer to the petrified woman. Page fifteen of the booklet states, “Here, also, is a human body found in 1814, at Glasgow, Kentucky, in a saltpetrous cave, nine feet under ground. A very curious specimen, and in fine condition.” It goes on to suggest that the saline properties were the cause of the preservation, and also mentions another display: “the foot and hair” from a human body, which was “found in a copperas cave, on the Cave Branch of Cumberland river, Tennessee.”
Regarding less grisly attractions, Barnum was constantly on the lookout for both living, animated, and static “exhibits” in Europe that he thought would appeal to his American audience. He had already shipped curiosities back to New York and engaged individuals to work or perform at the museum. But he continued to acquire and hire more when he could, though ever mindful of getting things at the right price. In a postscript to a letter dated September 28th, Barnum told Hitchcock, “I have written to Paris about the Trumpeters—but half think I shall not get automaton figures with the Trumpet Machine—for the figures will cost as much or more than the machine—I fear. However I’ll see.” Following up on the plan, he wrote two weeks later, “I shall be in Paris next week & will look at the trumpeters, & no doubt get some, for [the] museum.”
Barnum’s museum typically exhibited automatons, though apparently Barnum did not think all were worthy. Writing to Mr. Swift on September 29th, (this is the “Professor Swift,” whom Barnum met in London and hired to move to New York and set up the museum to show Dissolving Views, along with making other improvements), he remarked,
I don’t think so much of the Automaton Writer* as you appear to, and I hope you will not spend too much time in exhibiting it. You can be better employed and it seems to me a female at a small salary could always exhibit that & at the same time attend to winding up the other automatons.
After the proposed few days in Paris, Barnum planned a trip to London to make arrangements for General Tom Thumb to perform there in November. While in London he hoped to find a new attraction for the museum, implying in his statement to Hitchcock that it might be a live animal.
If I can pick up any novelty in London I’ll send it, for I fear the Ourang [orangutan, a great ape native to rainforests] is dead before this. You was very lucky in getting her. If she can live in a cold climate she will always be a good card (as long as she lives) at the Museum. I think she is worth more there than to go to other cities but of that you can judge best.
Procuring more durable exhibits such as “views” and panoramas was always on his mind. Though still on the fence about paying 8000 francs to have a huge panorama of Napoleon’s Funeral painted, he was ready to go ahead and commission a series of Revolutionary War views. Instructing Swift he wrote,
I now wish you & Hitchcock to make a selection of Revolutionary views giving a pictorial history of the battles by sea & land of the revolution & you send them to a proper painter in London & have them done at once—you at the same time give me the painters address & tell me about what I ought to pay him & I will send to my agent in London & have him paid & have the views sent to you.
Barnum seems to have had more enthusiasm for laughing gas entertainment than either Hitchcock or Swift, for he wrote to the latter, “Why don’t you keep up the laughing gas, at least 3 times a week? It always pleases.” A couple of weeks later Barnum directed his manager, “My dear fellow do try once more to find subjects for the laughing gas. If you get good subjects and try it for 2 weeks & are not satisfied that it pays & pleases well, I’ll never mention it again.” Observing people inhale nitrous oxide was not a brand new amusement in the 1840s and perhaps Hitchcock didn’t think the draw would be worth the trouble of finding “subjects.”
Keeping both the American Museum and the European tour profitable was no “laughing matter” for Barnum, however, and he continued to feel the pressure. Through his contact with Hitchcock, he was buoyed by information that the museum was making good money, especially since this would offset the disappointing losses from Tom Thumb’s tour in France. In his October 12th reply to Hitchcock Barnum reflected, “I am glad to see that you are in such good spirits, and when I say that I hope (& almost believe) that the old American will clear $20,000 this year, God knows that I hope it quite as much on your account as my own.” Then, relating the positive news to his wife Charity, Barnum recounted,
I learn from Hitchcock that the Museum is doing much better now than it ever was before in its most prosperous days. That’s encouraging and dont look much like running down in my absence. The receipts there for the last 2 weeks before he wrote were $3500—averaging $250 per day—and his expences are not so high as mine used to be.
Feeling a bit more uplifted by Hitchcock’s news, Barnum added a page to his reply the next day, explaining, “I have slept since writing the foregoing and the ‘blues’ are partially evaporated this morning—so I am scheming again.” At least for a time Barnum was back to feeling more like himself. I’m sure we’ll be exploring Barnum’s scheme (to acquire Peale’s Museum)—a plan he had shared with Hitchcock in previous letters—in a future blog, as that story develops.
Barnum Museum Curator
*Whether Barnum was referring to the Writer-Sketcher (Écrivain-Dessinateur) automaton he had purchased in Paris is unclear. That automaton, created by Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the master of magical knowledge, had won a silver medal at the national exposition in 1844, and one assumes it would have been a featured attraction at the American Museum