The Grand Agent of Yankee Showmen

The Grand Agent of Yankee Showmen

Perhaps the thought has recently crossed your mind, “What has Tom Thumb been up to lately?”  As I have continued reading Barnum’s letters from France, currently perusing correspondence from the latter half of November 1845, it dawned on me that over the last several weeks the blogs have said little about General Tom Thumb—even though he and his entourage were the reason for Barnum being in France.  In fact Barnum’s “recent” letters have focused on other facets of his business, but now, drawing to the end of the month, the career of his young protégé, Charles Stratton, has come to fore once again.  “The General” had arrived in Paris, with only about three more weeks until Barnum intended to conclude their tour of France and return to England.  He would need to have profitable engagements ready to go in London.

To his credit, Barnum had not procrastinated on the preparation work, but things hadn’t fallen into place as readily as he’d hoped.  He’d left the south of France in late October to make a brief trip to London with the plan to book Egyptian Hall, a multi-purpose exhibition space, for the General’s day and evening appearances called “levees,” while also ferreting out other opportunities.  For example, he wrote to theatre directors to suggest that an appearance by Tom Thumb would be the perfect addition to their Christmas pantomimes, the traditional theatre fare during the holiday season.  These pantomimes, generally having only a loose “plot,” were easily adapted to include another actor, or in this case, even the “equipage” of miniature carriage, coachman, footman, and ponies.  Barnum was certain they would be a hit.  But almost a month had passed since those letters were penned, and it seems Barnum realized he would need to hire an agent to make headway in confirming engagements for the holiday season.  On November 19th he wrote from Paris to a Mr. Fillingham, addressing him familiarly as “Fill.”  Barnum must also have thought that flattery, infused with humor, would help his cause; it is laid on thick at the beginning and end of the letter.

Dear Fill
Inasmuch as you are and no mistake, at present the only great and true Representative of the Yankee Showmen’s interests in London—or in fact in England—I as a member of that humble but honorable profession, at once hasten to engage you services in the cause of the Illustrious Genl  Tom Pouce.

We intend to arrive in London about the 19th December, and perform twice a day, or rather once a day and once in the evening at Egyptian Hall—finishing the evening performances at 9 o’clock—and we wish the General to perform each evening in a theatre, either in the Christmas Pantomime, or any piece which the Managers choose to put him in—always understanding that he begins at 9 & finishes at 10 ½ o’clk. 

Barnum wanted Fillingham, acting as his agent, to negotiate for the best possible arrangements.  He had been optimistic in thinking they could earn £50 a night but found that was a non-starter with directors and had revised his thinking on the matter.  He realized he might have to accept half the amount.  “In consideration . . . that it will not interfere with [Tom Thumb’s] evening performances at Egyptian Hall, we have concluded to take £25 per night, but wish you to try very hard for £30.”

Egyptian Hall (also called Bullock’s Museum) in Piccadilly, London, as it appeared in an 1847 engraving by Albert H. Payne, after an image by Thomas H. Shepherd. General Tom Thumb gained widespread fame in London as a result of his appearances at this popular exhibition hall. (Wikimedia Commons)

The timeframe in which Barnum was dealing with London theatres is quite interesting from an historical point of view, as the early decades of the 19th century disrupted many of the traditions and practices of the theatre world.  London’s population was burgeoning at that time, and the demand for entertainment exceeded the capacity of the existing theatres, which had always been highly regulated.  Generally speaking, theatre entertainment at that time fell at two ends of the spectrum, serious or seedy, the latter often being for rowdy crowds and sometimes held in places where prostitutes regularly found customers.  Licensing laws had limited which theatres could offer “serious” works, such as Shakespeare, and the seasons during which certain theatres could operate.  But these laws began to change.

In addition, the ways in which plays and other entertainments were presented to audiences rapidly evolved in conjunction with redesigned interiors and the construction of new theatre buildings.  According to Jacky Bratton, author of the article Theatre in the 19th Century, published on the British Library’s website, Parliament changed a law in 1843 (just two years before Barnum’s letters) to allow all theatres to present serious plays, an effort to try and “educate the new urban masses.”  As a result, theatres began springing up in the West End of London, though most were not offering the quality entertainments that members of Parliament had hoped would be the case.  Musical entertainments, farcical plays, burlettas, comedies, and melodramas were the popular choices.  This was the highly competitive, hustle-bustle world in which Barnum was making arrangements for Gen. Tom Thumb to perform.

His first choice was to have Charles perform at the respectable and elegantly-appointed Princess Theatre on Oxford Street, which had been converted from a diorama building to a theatre in the 1830s.  Barnum had written to the lessee-director, John Medex Maddox, with a proposal.  Now he wanted Fillingham to “call on him for his answer.”  If Maddox was not agreeable to £30 per night, he advised, then agree to £25 provided he would engage “for 8 or 12 nights certain” and allowed the right to appear at other theatres on evenings when not engaged at the Princess.  Barnum added,

Detail from the Egyptian Hall print, showing a banner in which Tom Thumb’s name can just barely be made out. In addition, a closer look at the full view shows part of a large billboard at the far left, on which there are several figures that may possibly represent Tom Thumb posing in his various character roles.

His Equipage, Coachman & Footman can appear in the piece—and a five score of Pantomime, in which they have played with the General can be introduced, in which a great deal of fun is made.   In fact the General would be “first rate” in the Christmas Pantomime, because he could be made to appear and disappear in such small places.

Fillingham must have praised a new theatre in a previous conversation or letter, as Barnum agreed it might be a good alternative should Maddox decline the proposal—but the name of that theatre was not mentioned.  Barnum knew that certain other theatres—Haymarket, Adelphi, and Drury Lane—had “finished their arrangements” for the season but speculated that “the Surry, or City Theatre, or perhaps the Adelphi would work him into their Pantomime, in case you dont arrange with Maddox or the new Theatre in your quarter.”  He advised, “Now old Fill, I hope you can convince some managers of what is really the fact, viz. that it will be much to his advantage to engage the General & boys for the holidays.”

Further, he added, “ If you can arrange with any theatre, I will come right over and see to getting up the piece, or the General’s part of it, and he himself will be able to rehearse from 17th Dec. to Christmas—or if necessary he can be in London 15th Dec.”  Barnum concluded the letter, “. . . I trust you will exercise your usual Generalship in this matter and thus prove yourself worthy of the Immortality which must in the ordinary course of nature attach itself to the name and office of the Grand Agent of the Yankee Showmen.”  (Interestingly, this letter to Fillingham also mentions Sands and Risley, two showmen described in the January 15th, 2020 blog, A Jolly Lot of Brother Showmen.)

Also on November 19th, Barnum primed Maddox, writing to him that Mr. Fillingham would call upon him for his answer.  He began, “As we are both men of business and like all men, look to our own interests, there can be no harm in trying once more to unite our forces, provided such an arrangement can be mutually beneficial.”  He also plumped his proposal to have Tom Thumb appear with his equipage in a pantomime, noting that the coachman and footman “could introduce, with the General, a splendid & laughable scene, which they have appeared in 87 times in Paris, Brussells—Bordeaux, Marseille, Lyon & c & c.”

Reading that number—even allowing for the fact that it might have been exaggerated—brought to mind a question that has nagged me for a while:  how did this seven-year-old boy ever get enough rest?  With plans for daytime and evening levees each day and late evening theatre performances, Charles would rarely have had any “play time” let alone adequate sleep.  The letter to Maddox does offer some bit of explanation: Barnum noted that if he, Maddox, agreed to the arrangement, “we should only lose our morning exhibition (from 11 to 1) so as to give the General a chance to sleep later in mornings.”

While making plans for London, Barnum still had a thorny issue to resolve in France.  He had signed “treaties” (contracts) with theatres in several other cities and needed to find a way out of the obligations.  At a minimum his reputation was at stake, but it was also possible he would have tangled with the law had he tried to simply leave the country with the entourage, not having done right by the theatres.  Barnum had already sent letters to his men instructing them that Charles should not under any circumstances play Petit Poucet after leaving Lyon, as Barnum would need to put forth the story that Charles was not well enough to meet the demands of performing the play, and that his delicate health would necessitate cutting their tour short.  His letter to the director of the theatre in the city of Nancy explained,

Owing to the cold weather and ill health of Tom Pouce, he is not able to play Petit Poucet any more this winter, and therefore we cannot fulfil the treaty with you.  I have given you legal notice to this effect & required you to send a medicine [doctor] to examine him if you choose.  We leave for England & America on the 12th December and shall probably not return to France within less than 2 or 3 years if ever.  We do not wish to have it said that we leave dishonorably.  It proves a great loss of money to us in not being able to fulfil the treaties in Nancy, Strasbourg & Bruxelles, Anvers & c—but of course we cannot control the health of the General.  The vaudeville has tried to hire the General to play Petit Poucet, but he cannot do it and will not play it again in France, on account of his health.

Barnum’s statement that they stood to lose a lot of money by not fulfilling the treaties was not true, or not likely to have been true, if one believes what he told his uncle Alanson Taylor in a letter dated November 24th.  He wrote, “. . . for although I don’t wish it known, I have made but very little with the General lately. . . .”  Barnum was, however, doing well enough that he could afford to buy some costly novelties and attractions for the American Museum, and also had said he would not prevent his wife purchasing an expensive house in Bridgeport, if that was what she really wanted to do.  Comparatively speaking, Barnum found that making a profit in France was much harder than in England, where he had quickly been able to “pile up the tin.”  Evidently Barnum was more than ready to return to London for financial reasons, but he also hinted to Fillingham that there were personal reasons, and he hoped “Fill” would find it “highly necessary” to insist that he come to London.  “You understand!” Barnum wrote.  What was the magnet drawing him there?  Another mystery for us to track!

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator