PTB Letters (#63) The Lion, the Mummy, and the Museum

The Lion, the Mummy, and the Museum

Upon Barnum’s return to London from Scotland, he found an unusually long letter awaiting him from his American Museum manager, and sat down to reply immediately. Barnum’s response comprised “the usual” eight pages to Fordyce Hitchcock and while we don’t know the number of pages in Hitchcock’s letter of January 7th, 1846, Barnum could not resist pointing out that its length was as good as telling him their winter business was sluggish.  On Barnum’s end, there was no shortage of news, advice, opinions, and personal reflections to share with Hitchcock in his letter of March 1st.  Some of the latter have already been included in recent blogs, however, there is so much more to extract from this letter.  The bulk of it concerns novelties and attractions, some issues with employees, plus a variety of business dealings, even an investment in half a lion.  Yes, a lion.  Oh, and Barnum was also debating whether to purchase a guano-mummified man.  Have I said these letters are never dull?

Hitchcock’s spare time would soon vanish as the novelties from Europe began arriving and required set-up and promotion, and as he learned what he would have to prepare for the next batch being shipped.  Since there are quite a few new things to talk about in this letter, I will hold back on the updates to attractions previously discussed in past blogs.  First first, we’ll see what’s up with Barnum’s business affairs and then explore a few of the new topics.

Barnum was already becoming frustrated with his uncle Alanson Taylor, who was now his partner in the operation of the Baltimore Museum.  Much as he loved his uncle, Barnum was keenly aware of the man’s shortcomings and past failures of judgment.  But perhaps most upsetting was the discovery that Taylor had NOT used the money Barnum had loaned him months earlier in the way he had said he would, to become a partner in a “cloth business” in New York City.  Not trusting his uncle’s investment savvy in the world of “show business,” Barnum had thought the cloth business was a safe bet to ensure Taylor’s financial stability.  As it turned out his uncle had also decided to simply take $500 of the money for his own use.  Barnum was perturbed and relayed his feelings on the matter to Hitchcock.

I never before knew that Taylor did not invest the $5000 with Wheeler’s, and he had better have thrown the whole into the sea, than to have thus appropriated $500 to himself, while he was telling me that the whole was to be invested in the cloth business.  “Straws tell which way the wind blows,” and one dishonest act will open the eyes of a man of the world, to watch for others from the same source.

Thus alerted to the need for additional caution in the new partnership with his uncle, Barnum advised Hitchcock, “Do your business with him, friendly, but firmly and strictly.”  Offering more specific instructions, he noted,

Try to keep your account with Taylor plain & distinct, so that I can settle correctly with him on my return.  See that an eye is kept on the interest which he must allow me for all money which he has of mine.  Of course I am to pay one half the cost of Baltimore Museum & he allows me interest on all money which I pay for the other half as well as all money which he has heretofore had really or pretendly to invest with the Wheeler’s.

As a further precaution he added,

I hope Taylor will send you the Title & Insurance policy of the Baltimore Museum.  I do consider it “very important” that you have the papers—it would be unbusinesslike, if not unsafe, to leave them in Taylor’s hands.

The matter of hiring employees for the Baltimore Museum enterprise also raised Barnum’s ire, and he expressed no little disgust that his uncle had gone and hired a man at the rate of $50 per week.  He commented, “It was very wrong and stupid in Mr Taylor to give that Nelson $50 per week.  I could hire the same thing here for $10—and would not give it.” In a postscript, Barnum suggested the possibility of hiring the son of Mr. and Mrs. Collins, who had been sent over from England by his parents and needed employment.  Finding work as a saddle maker seems not to have panned out, at least as far as Barnum knew at that point, and he assumed the young man was trustworthy and could be instructed in managing tickets and keeping accounts.  If he could get him set up at the Baltimore Museum, he, Barnum would have a little more control over what his uncle was up to. He explained the idea to Hitchcock, thusly:

If that youngster has not got work yet & you cannot well give him a chance in the museum, I think you had better write to Taylor that I wish him to take the tickets & see to the account of receipts & expences of Baltimore Museum.  Let him give him $3. per week and his board & washing to commence on, and after Taylor agrees to this arrangement, let the chap go on, and before going . . . instruct him that I wish him to keep a close eye on his business to know & take every ticket that passes the door, & c.

On the positive side, Barnum was very pleased with the way Hitchcock had managed the transaction with Rembrandt Peale (seller of the Baltimore Museum collection), as well as his cleverness in dealing with “Old Seaman” who was selling the New York Peale’s Museum collection.  Though Barnum does not offer sufficient clues for us to understand that negotiation triumph, his response to Hitchcock raises an eyebrow: “That Gas fixture dodge with Old Seaman was capital, & reflects great credit on your perception & tact.  It was a glorious joke—though a sorry one for Seaman.”

Barnum retained a keen sense of competition with his entertainment rivals despite being abroad for two years.  He had newspapers sent to him, and as we know, he kept up with many correspondents.  So when he learned that someone else was making a “first-to-show” claim which he felt rightfully belonged to the American Museum, he was anxious to jump in the ring and challenge it.  Not that he minded having an excuse to “make a noise” as he put it, because controversy of most any sort was a good thing in his business.  He told Hitchcock,

I observe in the Atlas [newspaper] that at somebody’s Concert (I think Kings) at Niblos [Niblo’s Garden, or Niblo’s Grand Saloon] or the Apollo [Apollo Saloon, or Apollo Rooms]—the Harmonium was announced as a new & splendid instrument & c—now if that is not our Harmonium, you should come out in the newspapers & Bills & make a devil of a noise about it, tell the public that the American Museum was the first to introduce it in America, that it is played every day & c and thus work up a big excitement on the subject.  The people would wonder what all this noise was about and would go & see.  Such excitements pay, depend on it.

A French-made, foot-pumped reed organ by Jacob Alexandre. Alexandre Debain patented (and named) the Harmonium in 1840; as is the case with many inventions, his patent greatly improved upon early models developed by others. Barnum’s claim to have been the first to show it in America could be true, since he opened his museum in January 1842. Behr Photography (Courtesy Encyclopedia Britannica)

Barnum was no doubt thinking back to the FeJee Mermaid “stir” in 1842, a controversy he himself engineered.  He was also pleased to hear that another strategy he and Hitchcock had implemented to attract visitors was proving successful: offering daily afternoon performances, not just on Sundays.  Barnum understood that his audience had options in choosing their “amusements” as they were called, and entertainment venues, and New York City tourism was coming into its own at that time.  Just as today’s tourists visiting the Big Apple often plan a marathon schedule of shows and activities, Barnum realized that some of his Museum visitors would welcome the opportunity to attend performances both in the daytime and evening.  For many reasons, offering afternoon performances would prove to be a win-win for the American Museum, for example, by also attracting more women and families to visit.

I am sure you are right about afternoon performances.  They more than pay on the long run, and every year would pay better and better for when the public get to know that they can see the exhibitions every day in the day time, many will do that in order to go elsewhere at night & thus give us more room for others at night.  I believe in day performances the year round & am sure you will find it pay well on the long run.

The story of Barnum’s unprecedented success in bringing Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, to America in 1850 is well-known; his promotion of both her angelic voice and generous spirit caught the public’s imagination, and sparked Lind-mania during her North American concert tour and she remained a beloved “superstar” for decades after.  Though Barnum had taken an enormous risk, both he and she were more than amply rewarded.  So it was interesting to find in Barnum’s letter of 1846 an idea that foretells his crafting of the Jenny Lind tour.   As he explained to Hitchcock,

There is a Miss Reynolds here who has been five years in America, as a singer & she performs some.  She says you sent to propose an engagement with her once.  She is the same girl that went from England with Yankee Hill.  She has played & sang at the Chatham.  She made some money in America—owns a house in Mercer Street New York in which her mother now lives.  She will soon be singing at the Haymarket here—and will return to America in about a year.  Would she be attractive?  And if yes what could I afford to give her for 6 months or a year to sing in both Museums, and give concerts elsewhere in connection with somebody else?  Inquire into her merits & let me know.  Dr Oatman knows her & I suspect in more than one way—but perhaps not.

Miss Reynolds was, in her time, quite popular.  As Barnum said, she had performed at the Chatham; a benefit performance there is announced in the June 27, 1844 issue of the New York Herald, and it seems that was her regular venue.  But only six months later the Herald noted that she was “late of the Chatham Theatre, [having] been compelled to withdraw from the profession.”  The cause was “continued severe indisposition.”  She did in fact recover and perform again—though the Herald remarked that she had been reported dead several times—but had returned to England.  Her performances at the Haymarket (London) are mentioned in the Foreign Theatricals column of the Herald in 1847 and 1849.  Whether she was ever persuaded to return to America is not clear, though of course Barnum came to realize that Jenny Lind was the one to pursue; in 1849 the English were “crazy” to see and hear Jenny and he was certainly aware of her immense popularity with the public there.

Turning to a very different kind of attraction, Barnum was thinking he might replicate the success—which had surprised him but not Hitchcock—of the petrified body displayed at the American Museum, human remains that had been found in a cave in Tennessee.  Referring again to its profitability in his March 1st letter, he asked Hitchcock for his thoughts on the purchase of an unusual petrified or mummified man he had recently seen.  The body, he wrote,

. . . was dug from the guano bed at Icaboe [Ichaboe Island, off the coast of Namibia].  There is no mistake about it and the fellow has the first scientific patronage in England.  He has asked the British Museum [for] £500—but has offered it to me for £300.  I may possibly be induced to give him £200—($1000) but guess not.  It is indeed most curious. The flesh has become absorbed, the skin, muscle and bone are preserved—the muscles are a little soft, but the whole body is perfect, and on the whole not of an unpleasant appearance—no more so than a mummy nor in fact so much so.  What think you about it?

It is possible that the remains Barnum saw were that of a man named Christopher Delano, whose identified body was found on the guano-covered island and brought to Liverpool, England, by a Captain Wethers.  Guano is bird or bat excrement, and as it accumulates on the rocky surfaces where these creatures live and nest, it hardens and becomes an excellent fertilizer, rich in nitrogen and phosphates.  Mining guano from sea islands (and caves) became highly profitable in the 19th century, akin to a gold rush, and the global trade in this valuable commodity escalated to become a fiercely competitive market.  In the early 1840s a company in Liverpool gained the rights to remove guano from Ichaboe Island, which was a fine rocky habitat for certain seabird species, but completely inhospitable for human life.  Since the guano covered the island at a depth of about 23 feet (7 meters), this was an immensely valuable though tiny island of 16 acres.  According to Kristina Killgrove, author of the January 9, 2017, article for, How the Global Bird-Poop Trade Created a Traveling Mummy Craze, perfectly preserved bodies—including animal remains—were sometimes found buried in the guano on these ocean islands around the world.

Print from 1844 depicting the removal of guano from Ichaboe Island off the coast of Namibia. The print was produced for publication in an English newspaper or news magazine, and was probably copied from a painting or sketch done on-site. (Wikimedia Commons)

Curiously, Barnum wrote that the muscles were a little soft, but other descriptions of the period suggest the guano bodies seemed petrified, likening them in appearance to stone.  Whether Barnum saw the remains of Delano or some other unfortunate person who died on Ichaboe Island, is unknown.  We may yet find out in letters ahead.  Delano’s body went to the British Museum and then toured the UK, so if we learn that Barnum did purchase the remains he had been offered, they probably were not Christopher Delano’s.

Now about the lion.  Long before Barnum’s well-known circus enterprises, he was involved in traveling menageries.  As you may recall from the blog, A Jolly Lot of Brother Showmen (January 15, 2021), his network included a number of the circus and menagerie “pioneers” of his day and he had had opportunities to socialize with them while in London.  In the March 1st letter to Hitchcock, Barnum inquired about the status of various investments, ending with the amusing comment that, “Bell ought to sell his half of that Lion at the same price I paid Titus for the other half.”  This conjures up the humorous notion that one half of a lion could become more (or less) valuable than the other half.

Lewis Titus was among the first circus men to show under a tent, in upstate New York, not far from Barnum’s hometown.  Titus and three other men had formed a company to acquire exotic wild animals, both for their own shows and to sell to others.  Barnum’s question to Hitchcock suggests he had loaned Titus money to purchase a lion, but the transaction might only have been recorded as a scribbled note, little better than a gentlemen’s handshake.  He asked, “Has Titus paid that note?  If not you had better let him give in exchange another note properly drawn—for if I recollect right that was not properly drawn.”  Barnum had learned some hard lessons on that score, and would continue to do so in the years ahead.  But just as this letter abundantly reveals, he always had his “eyes on the prize.”

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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