Plans Good and Bad

This week’s blog brings us up to date on several stories from recent weeks, such as the novelties Barnum had shipped from Europe to feature at his American Museum for the holiday season; advice to the Museum’s naturalist, Mon. Guillaudeu, about stuffed birds and beasts; and the decision of the parents whose infant girls were born with a twinning abnormality, and whom Barnum wanted to exhibit.  We’ll start with this last one.

Two weeks ago, the blog titled Tell Me Plainly What You Think (December 31, 2020) presented a difficult story about Barnum’s desire to exhibit infant girls, only three months old, who were born with dicephalic parapagus, a type of partial twinning that resulted in a shared torso with two heads.  Barnum considered the babies so extraordinary that he proposed a long-term contract with the parents, exhibiting the girls until their age of majority at sixteen.  His proposal was exceptionally generous, he felt, since the family would receive regular increases in their annual salary, plus have all their expenses paid.  Elated, Barnum wrote to both Fordyce Hitchcock at the Museum and his showman friend Moses Kimball about his “find” in Paris, though he noted that he might not be successful in convincing the parents.  If they did agree to exhibit their daughters, he thought it would likely be with a French physician.

This week I came across a letter to the parents—addressed just to the father—written on November 12th, only a day after Barnum had expressed his excitement to Hitchcock.  The location on the heading of this letter immediately raised suspicion, since it is not the same used on other letters of the same timeframe.  The first sentence confirmed that this correspondence was meant to appear as if it came from an agent of Barnum’s rather than himself.  It occurred to me that perhaps this was penned for Mon. Pinte to send to the parents.  Pinte, you may recall, acted as the interpreter—among various responsibilities—for the General Tom Thumb entourage, and they had just arrived in Paris from Lyon.  The baby girls’ parents were French, and since Barnum would need to communicate with them in their own language—and keep his offer confidential—translation would likely fall to Mon. Pinte.  One can either view the letter as being wholly deceptive in hiding its authorship, or interpret it as a “model” that Barnum provided Pinte in order to prepare a letter.  The fact that there are insertions and cross-outs and no closing line indicate that this letter was a draft.  It begins,

Dear Sir
I am very sorry to hear from Mr Barnum that you have written him a letter saying that you do not accept his offer, and that you also decline making him any proposition.

I regret this for your sake as well as his, for I am certain that he is the best man in the world to take charge of the exhibition of your children, and as I know him to be a liberal man, I am sure he will do better by you than you can do in any other manner.  Mr Barnum is wealthy and having been engaged for 20 years in the business of public Exhibitions he possesses the power and knowledge necessary to ensure success.  He has been several times before King Louis Philippe and the Royal Family—before the Queen of England—and is well acquainted with all the nobility and Foreign Ministers in Paris London & America.

Adding more puffery to the description of Barnum and his influence, the letter continued,

He is also acquainted with the directors of public journals and can use a greater influence towards getting permission from the police in different cities to exhibit than any other man you can find.  Mr Barnum is a generous and kind man, and he assures me positively that if you will arrange with him, he will use every exertion to make you and your family happy, and that you shall make more money with him than you can possibly make in any other way.

Describing further inducements to signing on, the letter assured the father,

Besides, he will manage the whole of it, so that you will have no trouble whatever and wherever you go he will employ a good female who speaks french and english to travel with you and assist your wife in taking care of the children.  I am positive that it will be to your interest to see Mr  Barnum with your brother and talk with him before you make any other arrangements.

Speculating that his protégé “General Tom Thumb” might possibly influence the parents and cause them to change their minds, Barnum added,

At Mr Barnum’s request I enclose some tickets for visiting Tom Pouce [Tom Thumb].  He is anxious that your family and your brothers should call and see the little Man[?] in order that you may judge of Mr Barnum’s capacity for conducting an exhibition.  I hope to see you at the Salle Vivienne, and I again repeat that I hope for your own interest you will see Mr Barnum soon and try to arrange with him to exhibit your children.

That’s the end of the letter, and possibly the end of that story.  Two days later, on November 14th, Barnum wrote to Hitchcock that “the General” had commenced operations in Paris the day before.  Barnum had “engaged the Saloon [Salle Vivienne] for one month, paying 4000 francs for it . . . .”  Adding to the letter on the 16th he noted that although the mail had just come in, there were no letters from America.  Realizing there was a chance on the New York side that Hitchcock was receiving some but not all of his letters,  Barnum often repeated critical information, as he did in this one.  In a couple of earlier letters we learned about the Mechanical Trumpets he had acquired and was shipping on the St. Nicholas, and he explained these were to replace the live musicians outside on the balcony of the American Museum.  Although Barnum had initially mentioned automata in conjunction with trumpets, we later learned that these trumpets were not operated by automata figures, and that a boy would need to be hired (and concealed) in order to keep the trumpets playing.  In this letter we get a good description of the trumpet mechanism, which seems to be exactly what one of our blog readers had suggested it might be: a type of organ.  (See and hear what might be a modern equivalent in this YouTube video kindly provided by our reader.)  Barnum advised Hitchcock,

I enclose directions in French for arranging the mechanical Trumpets.  I believe they are arranged very similar to an organ, the chief care being to play the tune out, before changing it for another—and also when you change, to have the notch at the end of the barrel, snugly fit in its place.  One barrel plays several tunes—the other plays one only—it being a long & splendid overture.  I have been told that the organ makers in N. Y. can make the barrels just as well as they can be made in Paris—if so it will save expense of transportation.  After the instrument arrives you can learn that fact & let me know.

He was not confident that the trumpets would arrive in time for Christmas, though New Year seemed more certain, but suggested Hitchcock “have a man on the look out, and he will be able perhaps to get it to the Museum in time for Christmas.”  It sounds like a delay in unloading cargo, not the transatlantic journey, was the anticipated hiccup.  Above all, Barnum instructed that when setting up the trumpets,

Don’t let the public know that a boy turns it—let them [the public] suppose it is wound up.  The boy must practice a little, so as to know how fast & how slow to turn it, before he tries it on the balcony.  Hambridge or any other musician can tell him how fast to turn it—after hearing the music played once.

As far as the Physioscope, a new kind of optical instrument Barnum had shipped from London, he advised that “full directions for using it” had also been sent.  Englishman Professor Swift, who had been responsible for setting up Dissolving Views shows at the American Museum a few months before, was now tasked with setting up the Physioscope in the Museum’s Lecture Hall (theater).  Barnum’s wry comment that the instructions would be found “in the box with the instrument—if he looks” suggests that Swift was not one for reading directions.

Also on November 16th Barnum penned a short letter to Mon. Guillaudeu, the man in charge of the natural history exhibits and the Museum’s taxidermist.  Guillaudeu had worked at the American Museum for many years, long before Barnum acquired it, and Barnum respected the elder man’s advice and opinions.  Barnum had agreed to deliver a few gifts to Guillaudeu’s sister while in the south of France, but apparently was unable to.  He wrote to apologize and explain the circumstances that kept him from staying in Lyon for more than a couple of days, and that the nephew he hoped to meet, an art student, was away at the time.

Continuing with business concerns, he instructed Guillaudeu,

I want you hereafter never to refuse any American Bird of Animal skin that you can buy for low or fair prices—for the only way to get good curiosities from the Museums in France are by exchange.  Eagle, Owl, & other American bird skins –also moose, fox, buffalo & other American beast skins, could be exchanged in Paris to good advantage.  I once sent you a list of some animal skins for sale in London—you sent word to get some if they could be got a half the price—I have lost the list—but if you will send me a list of what bird & beast skins we want and the price I’ll try to get them in London—in fact I shall be in Paris a few days in March next unless I sail in February for England.  Have you got any American skins now on hand to exchange?

The last line in the letter refers to a plan Barnum had described to Hitchcock on August 28th, 1845, for commissioning statues to be mounted on the roof of the American Museum.  To Guillaudeu, Barnum wrote,

If Hitchcock has not yet sent me the height of [the] Museum please have him do so—in order that I may know what height to have the statues which are to go on the top.

39_William_England_-_Barnum's_museum_New_York
Photograph of Barnum’s American Museum in 1858 by William England. The white “railing” above roof edge is where Barnum proposed to have the statues mounted. (Wikimedia Commons)

With its corner location at a spacious intersection, the marble building was perfect for an attention-getting exterior, and Barnum had already done a lot of “dressing up” of the facades on Broadway and Ann Street.  Barnum’s August letter had asked Hitchcock to supply the height of the museum from the pavement to the top of the railing around the roof, above the eave trough, so that a sculptor would be able to calculate the proportionate size for the figures.  Barnum noted to his manager, “When the museum was built, Guilledeau [Guillaudeu] will tell you that it was intended to place statues or busts at certain intervals on the top.”  Not having received the measurement two months later, Barnum again asked Hitchcock in his October 25th letter.

The statue plan does not seem to have come to fruition, however, and sounds far more ambitious than practical, which Hitchcock’s silence might have been hinting.  A review of period images, both artistic and photographic, does not show statues on the roof, and the 1850 guidebook, Barnum’s American Museum Illustrated, which describes “the alterations and  improvements of this magnificent establishment,” makes no mention of such statues.  Considering that they would have to be larger than life-sized to show well on a five-story building, and the material would ideally be marble or other stone, one can only imagine the enormous expense that would be involved in having multiple statues made, shipped across the Atlantic, and hoisted to the top of the Museum.  Hitchcock, who was a fastidious money manager, probably viewed the plan with trepidation.  As remarkably tenacious as Barnum was in carrying out his vision for the Museum and its attractions, the letters reveal that not every idea became a reality!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator