Searching for Monsieur Guillaudeu
Curiosity got the better of me after reading another of P. T. Barnum’s letters in which he mentioned the Frenchman who worked for him at the American Museum (and with a third spelling of his surname), plus a letter directly to him responding to concerns about his salary. I had already learned a few things about this gentleman that made him a “person of interest” to me: 1) he was the taxidermist for the museum and its chief naturalist, a significant job considering the vast number of specimens on exhibit and the rarity of many, not to mention the live animals that sooner or later died and needed to be mounted; 2) Barnum appeared to like him personally; and 3) Barnum trusted him enough to suggest to his wife Charity that she ask for his help in finding a French girl of daughter Caroline’s age who would board with her at school, Barnum’s idea being that this arrangement would help Caroline become proficient in the language.
I was interested to see what else I could learn about this man, who was to become the museum’s longest employee, having worked there from the time it was Scudder’s American Museum until Barnum’s American Museum was no more in 1868. But what, exactly, was this gentleman’s surname: Guillaudeu, Guilleaudu, Guilladeau, or Guilledeau? I had seen various spellings in Barnum’s letters, as well as references to Emile Guillaudeu in books about Barnum, noting his very important role at the museum—which despite today’s popular notion that it was all about faked objects and hoaxes, was actually dominated by natural history specimens, art, and historical items. Serving as the director of the natural history exhibits was thus a key position, and I discovered that even a historical novel published in 2011 had fashioned one of its two main characters after Barnum’s naturalist, “Emile Guillaudeu.” (What a great name for a character in a novel!)
Trying searches with the different spellings turned up even more variants of the name, but little useful information. However, I did find two records pertaining to U.S. passport applications under the name Emilie Guilledeau. Though I was certain Emilie was a woman’s name, it was worth investigating because one never knows when a name might have been misinterpreted or misspelled. In this case, both the first and last names were likely candidates for errors. An extra “i” slipped into the fairly common French man’s name Emile would become Emilie, and as I had already discovered, there were multiple spellings of the surname.
Upon clicking to the first record, a very audible exclamation was heard throughout my house. What luck! Here was a passport application letter dated January 8, 1844, listing not just “Emilie Guilledeau,” but also P. T. Barnum, Sherwood E. Stratton and his wife Cynthia, Charles S. Stratton, alias General Tom Thumb, and George Ciprico. This was documentation of Barnum’s preparation for his first European tour–in fact his first trip abroad–with General Tom Thumb, the very trip we are learning about in the copybook letters! The first document is a simple, unsigned letter requesting passports for those individuals, and was probably written by or for Edward Curtis, head of the Collections Office in New York at that time. This I determined after seeing the second document, the “Register of Passports granted by A. P. Upshur, Secretary of State.” Curtis’s request was received by the Secretary of State’s office on January 11, 1844, which was only a week—yikes!–before the group set sail for England.
In the Register of Passports, the first four columns record the name and title of the person making the request (in this case, Curtis), the date received, the passport number assigned (sequentially), and the person to whom the passport was sent. Here we see that Barnum was issued passport number 1801; Mr. and Mrs. Stratton were issued a single passport, 1802, as was the custom when a wife was traveling with her husband; and Charles Stratton received his own, number 1803, which seems odd considering his youth and the presence of his parents. “Emilie Guilledeau” was issued passport 1804. The absence of a number for George Ciprico indicates he did not get his own passport, since 1805 was assigned to the next person, who was not part of the Curtis request. According to Barnum in his 1855 autobiography, George Ciprico was Charles Stratton’s tutor (though he seems to have been replaced by a Mr. Sherman during the period of the letters we are reading.) Ciprico may therefore have been accounted for through Charles’s passport; according to the National Archives it was common practice in that era to do this for servants traveling with their employer.
As thrilling as it was to find documents directly related to Barnum’s first trip to Europe, my excitement escalated when I saw that physical descriptions were included in the Register! The year 1844 was, of course, long before durable forms of paper-based photography were in use, so personal identification took the form of a detailed description of the individual. The information needed to be more than the basics of hair and eye color, height and weight. Ten columns are thus devoted to describing individuals by Age, Stature (height), Forehead, Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Chin, Hair, Complexion, and Face (shape).
Remembering that the name listed was written as “Emilie Guilledeau,” not Emile Guillaudeu, I looked for confirmation of gender, but curiously, the Register did not include a column to record male or female. I thought the Stature column might help identify, if not prove, that “Emilie” was actually a man, but with a listed height of 5’ 4” it seemed uncertain. While that is an average height for a woman, it is certainly below average for a man. At age 44 “Emilie” was eleven years older than Barnum, and is described as having a prominent forehead, dark hazel eyes, an ordinary nose, medium mouth, round chin, black hair, dark complexion, and oval face. To me, the prominent forehead and black hair (as opposed to being described as dark brown) sounded more likely to be masculine features, though not necessarily so. And, it would make far more sense that Monsieur Emile Guillaudeu, not a female “Emilie,” accompanied Barnum and the Strattons on this important trip. In fact, referring again to Barnum’s autobiography (Life of P. T. Barnum, p. 246), I was able to confirm that Monsieur Gillaudeu did go on this voyage. Therefore, Curtis or his staff member had penned the name with errors first and last, which were then repeated on the Register of Passports.
As the man in charge of all the natural history displays at the American Museum, Monsieur Guillaudeu would gain opportunities in London to acquire new specimens for the collection, and perhaps even return with an exotic animal or two. And how could the Frenchman not visit Paris while abroad? In fact he went on ahead of Barnum and the Strattons, as is mentioned in a brief story in the autobiography (p. 261), wherein Gen. Tom Thumb was pleased to tell the Belgian queen that he would be meeting Monsieur Guillaudeu in Paris (she had expected him to say the King of the French, who was her father!). But we know he did not continue on with Barnum through the countryside of France, because there are short messages for Guillaudeu included in some of the September to October 1845 copybook letters as well as one letter written directly to him. He must have returned to New York well before then. Being a trustworthy individual known to Barnum, perhaps he accompanied Barnum’s wife and young daughters on their voyage home in June, when Gen. Tom Thumb’s entourage was ready to leave Paris and move on.
In a letter dated September 28th to American Museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock, Barnum asked to be remembered to “friend Guilladeau” and promised he would “send that dictionary & birds eyes—or bring them by & bye.” On October 12th he let Hitchcock know they’d been sent, noting, “The birds eyes for Guilleaudu were put in case No. 8 . . . .” In the same letter he recommends that Hitchcock consult with Guilleadeu on the matter of Peale’s Museum and what amount they felt best to offer, a suggestion that certainly indicates confidence in his judgment. Undoubtedly Guillaudeu’s years of experience with natural history collections and purchasing specimens for the museum were valuable to Barnum. On the matter of trust, I should note that back in 1842 when Barnum asked Guillaudeu to assess the FeJee Mermaid he planned to rent from showman Moses Kimball, Guillaudeu told Barnum it was manufactured, despite the lack of evidence of artifice. Asked why he thought so, he flatly told Barnum it was because he did not believe in mermaids. Imagine how that sounded with his French accent!
Fast forward to 1845, when a letter from Barnum to his Uncle Alanson Taylor on September 27th tells us that Guillaudeu had returned from Europe to an upgraded workspace at the museum. Barnum explained to Taylor that the reason the museum’s profits were not higher during the summer was only because of “expences being great” for Swift, who had been hired to carry out projects such as “arranging Dissolving Views, [a] Camera Obscura [on the rooftop] & building a new shop for Guilledeau.” Guillaudeu must have described these changes to Barnum, whose reply to “My good friend Guillaudeu” on October 12th says, “I am glad to hear so good a report from you regarding improvements in the Museum, and if my life & health are spared I shall soon have the pleasure of seeing for myself . . . .”
As to the matter of salary that Guillaudeu had written to Barnum about, Barnum assured him that Hitchcock had been given the authority for handling such matters while he, Barnum, was in Europe. He wrote,
I would advise you to speak to him candidly and lay all the facts before him—and then he as my agent will increase your salary if he thinks that it would be just & right for him to do so, acting as he is between man and man. I want no man’s services for less than their real value, and he knows it, but he must in my absence be the sole judge in the matter. Please speak to him at once.
Barnum closed by thanking him “for [the] French paragraph. I understand it perfectly but my dear fellow I cant speak French much, and I dare not try write it at all.”
And now, I’ve no doubt you would like to know about the physical descriptions of Barnum and the others as described in the Register of Passports, so here goes: Barnum, age 33, is listed as 5’ 10 ¼” tall, with a medium forehead, dark eyes, prominent nose, small mouth, round chin, brown hair, a light and florid complexion, and oval face. Of Mr. and Mrs. Stratton, only he, aged 33, is described. At 5’ 8 ¼” tall, his forehead was high, his eyes dark, his nose rather short, his mouth ordinary and chin round, his hair dark brown, complexion dark and florid, and face oval. The description of the couple’s son Charles is abbreviated, giving only his age, height and weight. His listed age (12) is consistent with Barnum’s advertising that claims his age at six years older than he actually was in order to make his diminutive stature seem all the more remarkable. In reality, Charles had just turned 6 on January 4th, four days before Curtis’s application letter was written. His height is noted as 1’ 10” and his weight as 15 pounds 2 ounces, which seem reasonably correct—as best we know—for that time in his life. George Ciprico, his tutor, was 22 years old and stood 5’ 9 ½” tall, with a medium forehead, chestnut eyes, straight nose and well-proportioned mouth, round chin, dark brown hair, dark complexion, and oval face.
So, I confess, this week my “search for Monsieur Guillaudeu” has turned into a sidebar for the Barnum copybook letters. That said, I am certainly happy to have come across the documents relating to the 1844 voyage preparations. And what an unexpected bonus they provided with the physical descriptions of Barnum and his fellow travelers! As for the misspelled Emilie who led me there, I can only say “she” is proof that appearances can be deceiving!
Barnum Museum Curator