“The Laborer is Worthy of his Hire”
Over the last several weeks we’ve gotten to know some of the key staff members of P. T. Barnum’s team at the American Museum in New York, by piecing together details from the letters Barnum wrote from France. Learning about their responsibilities and gaining insights into their personalities—at least, insofar as we can infer this from Barnum’s letters—has been an intriguing process. Among these high-ranking employees are Fordyce Hitchcock, the museum’s manager who had full decision-making authority while Barnum was away; Monsieur Guillaudeu, the museum’s naturalist and director of exhibits; Professor Swift, who was in charge of the visual illusions and re-vamping the “lecture hall” and other parts of the museum; and C. D. Stuart, who was tasked with preparing a guidebook—and was apparently good at writing promotional “puffs.”
This week we have the opportunity to learn about an employee in a less glorified, though still important, position: the ticket-taker and bookkeeper for the museum, one Frances Clarkson. The name “Frances” was mentioned in earlier letters in reference to a person leaving the museum, an incident that seemed to upset Barnum. Yet those letters gave no clue as to the role or identity of that individual. I wondered, was Frances a performer? And was Frances a man or woman?
Finally we have answers to these questions in a letter Barnum wrote to Mr. Francis W. Olmsted, the retired, wealthy merchant whom the penniless Barnum had convinced, back in December of 1841, to take a substantial risk on his ability to repay him for the purchase of the American Museum. Barnum’s long letter, dated October 31, 1845, and written in Paris while he awaited the arrival of Gen. Tom Thumb and his entourage, is full of information about that life-changing event. But his letter goes beyond a retelling of “the facts” of how he became the museum’s proprietor. As Barnum related his misunderstanding regarding Frances’s departure (n.b., this Frances is not Francis Olmsted), he also shared with Olmsted a confession and a poignant personal story. Indeed this letter is one among several in the copybook that open the window wide on Barnum as a human being, and reveal how the words and actions of family members (and others unrelated) shaped his own. And unlike many people, Barnum was willing to own up to at least some of his errors in judgment.
He began the letter to Olmsted by saying that he, Barnum, was a damned fool and could not feel at ease until he had made that confession in the first line of his letter. He wrote,
I was most particularly a fool for interfering with Frances & Hitchcock and I would not have done it if I had not supposed that he had perhaps offended her, and that she had thus lost what she considered a good situation, and that it would be pleasing to your feelings and beneficial to her, to have a reconciliation brought about & have her come back to her $5 per week.
Barnum had misread the situation, as he later learned from Hitchcock that there had been neither a disagreement nor offense given, rather, that Frances “had left of her own accord.” Having heard from Olmsted on the matter as well, he learned that “. . . were it not for the little extra profits of the Bar, she [had said she] should prefer trying to get a living in some other way.” Barnum feared he had taken a step that had resulted not only in Frances’s departure but also in upsetting Olmsted. He assured him that “the necessity arose for removing the Bar from the Museum,” and “had I . . . known [what the result would be] I should have been the last person to have interfered.” He went on to assure him, “I am anxious to retain your friendship and trust I shall always do so . . . .” It should be noted that Barnum did not owe Olmsted any money when he wrote this; he had—miraculously, he would say—succeeded in paying off his debt in the space of only about two years.
But for Frances, the $5 a week ($250 yearly salary) without extra income from the bar was not enough. Barnum was surprised that she had not wanted to keep the job, for at the time he hired her, “I knew then as I now do that there was and is 1000 worthy honest women in the city of New York who would jump at the chance for $200 per year.” He emphasized that he had chosen to retain Frances since she had been a loyal employee at the museum: “I said to myself, this is a friend of Mr. Olmsteds, Mr O has accommodated me, & though I am poor & liable to lose every shilling I possess (it being all mortgaged to him) if I don’t succeed, yet I must give the extra $50.–& I did so.”
Describing the sacrifices he had made in order to pay off his debt as quickly as possible, eating meager daily dinners of bread in his office, and asking his wife to make do with $600 for the family’s annual expenses, he added that,
During this [time] Frances had her $5 per week & poor as I was, she had an extra present occasionally for the holidays. Now suppose I had failed in that enterprize [purchasing the Museum], what would have been the result to Frances? Why I might have starved but she would have recd her $250 per year.
Going on to explain that his concern for keeping Frances employed had contributed to a decision he regretted as cruel, he related to Olmsted,
When I had paid for the museum I was no longer forced to keep Frances but I chose to do so for 2 reasons, and the very
First was to please you, to whom I felt & shall always feel grateful.
Second, because she has always been faithful & I felt a delicacy in discharging her although I knew she was receiving $1 per week more than I would have been obliged to pay others equally honest & faithful.
Finally my good feeling for her and her welfare, as well as my desire to please you led me to do a cruel and foolishly ridiculous act, viz, the discharge of the Albino Lady.
He went on to explain what he had done and what had led to his poor judgment.
It was cruel because the Albino lady was poor, and had strove hard to lay up a little at the museum—she paid me punctually all I demanded and yet I let Davidson & others poison my ears till at last I did a cruel deed—I discharged her. It was foolish because, she had really done no wrong, and because she was truly a good and gratuitous attraction to the Museum. I gave the bar to Frances for less than the Albino was paying me, and thus lost some $50 per year or more by the operation, besides at least $200 more in the attraction of the Albino lady.
These were not the only reasons for Barnum’s feelings of regret. The other was more personal: because of keeping Frances in her job, he had failed to assist his impoverished sister in the way that would have helped her most, employing her. She, having borne the responsibility for the care of her consumptive husband for several years, as well as their young child, had been reduced to poverty. At one point she pawned a valuable watch just to buy bread. When her husband passed away, there was no money to pay for the funeral, nor for proper clothing. During those terrible years of deprivation, she had never asked her brother for help; it was an uncle—probably Alanson Taylor—who had alerted Barnum to her distress when the husband had died six months ago, and Barnum responded right away by sending her money. His sister “wrote back a letter overflowing with gratitude” and said that she would now be able to put her needle skills to work as a tailoress and earn $3 per week, though she would welcome an opportunity for a better paying job. As Barnum told Olmsted, “. . . if there was a chance for her to earn more in the Museum she would [have been] very thankful for the situation.”
Barnum characterized his sister as “intelligent, young, healthy and competent.” Yet he had declined to employ her, and instead offered to keep a roof over her head by living with his own family. His reasoning at the time was that,
“. . . I supposed that Frances considered it a privilege to retain her situation & [so] I wrote to my sister that I could not give her that situation, but she might go and board gratis with my family & thus save her $3 per week to clothe herself and child. She is now boarding with my family, and would feel it a great privilege to have Frances’ situation with her wages.
He summed up his case for his actions concerning Frances by declaring to Olmsted, “My only excuse for this long letter is that I have tried to show you that I am governed by reason and justice in this matter, and hoping if I showed you this, that you would acquit me of all blame in the matter.” He added,
If justice or reason demanded an increase of wages for my friend Miss Frances Clarkson, she should have it—but as I feel that she is and always has been getting (to say the least) all that she earns I cannot consent to augment her salary. She is honest & faithful and has respect & for this reason I have given her the preference, but when the situation ceased to be desirable, there are those of my own blood who are poor and deserving who would be glad to have it, and we must not forget that “charity begins at home.”
Concluding with words that are particularly relevant today, while so many businesses struggle to survive in our covid-decimated economy, Barnum avowed,
I expect often within the next five years to see that Museum lose money, (indeed it’s a miracle that it has not already done so) and I hold myself ready to sustain and pay any and all of such losses, and I shall not expect in that case to cut down the salaries of those employed there. “The laborer is worthy of his hire” but he who would manage successfully, must look to the dark side of the picture occasionally, and while he metes full justice to all whom he employs, he must also see that their demands are not so great as to hazard the success of the enterprize.
Barnum Museum Curator