Tell Me Plainly What You Think

Tell Me Plainly What You Think

Once in a while I come across remarks in the letters in P. T. Barnum’s copybook that are quite disconcerting to read, sometimes heart-sinking.  For instance, in the December 11, 2020, blog, I shared a story of Barnum’s proposed collaboration with artist George Catlin to bring Ojibwa people to Europe to be exhibited to royalty and the curious public.  And though not mentioned in Barnum’s letter, research revealed that the Iowan people who’d recently been brought to Europe by Catlin for the same purpose had suffered multiple losses of family members who succumbed to disease, and they were largely denied the opportunity to mourn in the ways they were accustomed.  The knowledge of the tragedies only months earlier made Barnum’s proposal to bring another group of Native Americans to Europe seem even more insensitive and exploitative.

This week I feel compelled to share another uncomfortable truth about the showing of human beings as curiosities.  This came up in the same November 1845 timeframe as the proposal to Catlin, but warranted a separate discussion, as it concerns the exhibition of people with notable physical differences.  To be sure, this topic is a difficult one and not one I would hope to be writing about.  Certainly it is more upbeat and exciting to explore Barnum’s family and business relationships, or learn about his purchases of novelties for the American Museum, but this series of stories wouldn’t be an honest sharing of the 1845-1846 copybook if I skipped over the difficult stuff.  After all, we have embarked on a deep-dive journey to discover the man P. T. Barnum as he was in his mid-thirties.

Like most people, Barnum’s thinking did evolve as he matured.  And of course the times changed too, and in the nineteenth century more rapidly than ever before.  It goes without saying that people’s attitudes and decisions are greatly influenced by the society and time period in which they live, and Barnum was no different.  Thus it can be hard to put aside our own perspectives as we try to understand the motives and behaviors of people from another time period.  But it is helpful to keep in mind that even within our lifetimes, there are many examples of changed standards concerning what is acceptable or unacceptable in the treatment of our fellow humans.

As deplorable as the exploitation of Native American peoples feels to us in the present day, they did have some degree of choice in their decision to embark on Catlin’s and Barnum’s European tours.  (Granted, it can be argued that such decisions were made wholly or in part to escape the terrible living conditions that had been forced upon Native peoples in the U.S.)  This week, however, we will be considering a situation in which the “human curiosity” Barnum wanted to show had no agency whatsoever, no say at all in the matter of being exhibited.  This person was an infant, and a very young one at that—just three months old.  Frankly, Barnum’s excitement about the money to be made showing a baby who was born with extreme physical differences felt distressing to read.  (I couldn’t quite filter out that visceral response.)

Thankfully the letters suggested that the baby’s parents were not willing to accept Barnum’s offers, and Barnum himself thought it would be a longshot to get the family under contract because he was competing with French physicians.  The family would likely have preferred to stay in France, if they wanted to engage in any kind of “medical curiosity” exhibition or study of their baby at all, which we do not know—at least not yet.  Nevertheless, Barnum crowed to his Boston showman friend Moses Kimball and his museum director Fordyce Hitchcock about the thrill of his “find” as well as his confidence that there were large sums of money to be made.  In fact he had calculated not just to exhibit the infant for a few months, but throughout childhood, expecting this might be a period of ten to sixteen years.

I was also struck by the contrast to the relationship established with little person Charles Stratton (a.k.a., “Gen. Tom Thumb”), who was not quite five when he was introduced to Barnum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  His barely-scraping-by parents had promptly put him under contract at the American Museum in New York.  Mr. Stratton, it is said, had been embarrassed by his unusually tiny son, but here was a way that he could make money—and become quite wealthy, as it turned out—so he was not averse to exhibiting his son even before the boy’s talents were known.  For his part, Charles was a bright and precocious child who took to acting and singing like a duck to water, and was readily able to engage audiences of adults; to his credit, Barnum regularly increased the family’s weekly salary as their son’s success brought more and more visitors to the museum.  But the idea of exhibiting a baby, who is not a performer and is simply presented as an object of curiosity, is quite different.

On November 11th, Barnum wrote to Moses Kimball from Paris,

I saw here 2 days ago (twice) the most stupendous curiosity the world ever produced—a living healthy pretty child with two perfect heads!  It is 3 months old & eats with both heads!  I cant yet succeed in getting it and d—dly [damnably] afraid I never can.  Would it draw more than any living thing or not?  What think you?  By God I think it would!

The day before, Barnum had written to Hitchcock, “I have seen twice within the last week the most stupendous curiosity which God ever permitted to exist and which will make our fortunes in double quick time if I can get it into the Museum—of which however there is very little chance and therefore there’s no use to fret about it.”  He added, “ . . . I fear we shall never get it at all for there are a dozen French Doctors trying to hire it.”

focus15488f1 (002)
In the nineteenth century, France was considered the leader in the study of medicine. French physician André Feil (1884-1955), through his medical school thesis (1919),
challenged long-held theories about people with physical deformities, such as the idea of “monstrous births.” He believed that no matter how someone looked, he or she was fully human. Feil’s thesis was built in part on the earlier writings of French scientist and natural philosopher Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844). In the 1913 photograph above, André Feil is shown standing, at left. (See July 2016 article by Belykh, Malik, Simoneau, et al in the Journal of Neurosurgery.)

In the copybook Barnum drafted three proposals for what he would pay the family, crossing out the first and second ones.  The third, on page 342, does not have an “x” drawn through it so presumably Barnum felt that one was satisfactory.  It is worked out in French currency, and begins with a gift of 500 francs and a note that the board, lodging, and travelling expenses of the parents, infant, and one other child would be covered.  The salary would start at 200 francs per month for the first six months, and increase by 100 to 200 francs at six-month intervals.  In year four, the family would receive 1000 francs per month, and in year five 1200 francs per month.  The next notation is not clear, but indicates raising the salary to 2000 per month at some point.  Figuring that at the age of majority (16 years) the child would be receiving 24,000 francs per year, Barnum noted that he would have paid the family a total of 384,000 francs, plus their living and travelling expenses.

After working out his own calculations, Barnum asked Hitchcock for his advice on what the museum could afford:

Now tell me what you think of this—for I may be mistaken in my opinion about it, which is that it would draw a cart load of silver every week.  I have offered the parents 60 dollars per month for 1st year–$100 per month for 2d year $150 per month for 3d–$200 per month for 4th $250 per month for 5th and 400 per month for 1 or 10 years following—besides I pay wage & expences of parents from the word go!  They laugh at the offer (although they are poor) and say they will not at present make me any offer.  But I am going at them again.  Now suppose I gave $100 per week & all expences for one year—could we afford that for the Museum?  Could we afford more?

There is no closing with this letter, and the top lines on what seems to be the last page of the letter pick up mid-sentence on the subject of the baby’s appearance.  Interestingly, the broken sentence follows what looks like a small circular scribbling at the end of the prior page; however, a close-up view of the scribble reveals that Barnum had sketched a tiny picture of the infant before he nearly obliterated the image with ink.  The partial description at the top of the next page reads,

lap, like 2 babies—they are fine & healthy looking.  As they are uncovered and laying on their back, two little legs are seen dangling down, and upon turning them over one more leg is found with 7 or 8 toes on it!

He continued to Hitchcock,

It does not strike me as an offensive sight.  Tell me plainly what you think of it, so that if my notions are too high I can curtail them before it is too late.  Guilladeau [Guillaudeu, the museum’s naturalist] will of course say—touch it not—for it is a monstrosity, but we care not for that, we go for dollarstrosity.  The child is a female I was told, for I saw nothing (nor need the public) to indicate the sex.  Here think of it & write.

Although Barnum refers to the baby in the singular, today she would be recognized as two girls, whose rare condition was a type of partial twinning called dicephalic parapagus or parapagus dicephalus.  Most such twins do not survive long after birth, and it is exceedingly rare for them to reach adulthood.  Later on in Barnum’s lifetime, Italian twins Giacomo and Giovanni Battista Tocci were born with this same condition and were exhibited until their twenties (not by Barnum); the Toccis lived unusually long lives, passing away in their early sixties in 1940.

Over the years Barnum’s American Museum employed a number of people with notable physical differences, such as those who were extremely tall, large, thin, or small, and some, like giantess Anna Swan, became very well-known.  Others who were already famous were hired for short-term engagements.  Today many people associate the conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker (the “Siamese twins”) with Barnum’s museum but in fact they had found their own way to fame and fortune starting in the 1830s, and with their wealth chose to become plantation owners in North Carolina.  In 1860 they did a brief stint at the American Museum, but otherwise they were only represented there by a wax likeness.  Likewise, conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy, who were born into slavery in 1851 and promptly sold to a showman, then several years later found by their parents, were already famous when they contracted to perform in conjunction with Barnum’s circus in the 1870s.  Known as the “Carolina Nightingale,” Millie and Christine did what Charles Stratton had done years before: visit Queen Victoria and other European royals and establish themselves as celebrity performers.

We may never know what happened with the twin girls Barnum saw in France, but these letters reveal mindsets ranging from fascination, curiosity, and perhaps genuine medical interest, to excessive greed, and to revulsion of a so-called “monstrosity.”  That the parents of the girls resisted Barnum’s efforts to hire them for his museum despite their lack of money, feels heartening in light of knowing that the Strattons, Toccis and other parents like them were not averse to capitalizing on the distinctive bodies of their children, and showmen were eager to seize the opportunities.  Different times indeed.  But let’s keep striving to make our world kinder.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator