PTB Letters (#65) The Play is a Tremendous Hit!

The Play is a Tremendous Hit!

We are back in the United Kingdom again this week, focusing on Barnum’s latest activities there as he makes the final arrangements for the opening performances of Hop O’ My Thumb, the new play starring Gen. Tom Thumb.  Exciting times, and Barnum was all out to “hit them hard,” as he would describe the promotional efforts.  We will also check in on the preparations for the “Scottish Highlander” brothers Barnum planned to send to America in April, along with their mother and siblings, and on quite a different track, get an update on the continuing threat of war between the U.S. and Great Britain as their disputes in the Oregon Country escalated.

Photograph of actor Robert Keeley in 1864 at age 71. Keeley was a respected actor who often played female roles; similarly, his wife Mary Anne was also an actress and well known in her own right, and she sometimes played male roles. The couple managed the Lyceum Theatre in the mid-1840s when Charles Dickens’s novels were being performed there as plays. (MediaWiki image in public domain; original photo by W. Walker & Sons)

Sorting through these diverse stories I found myself in a conundrum this week while reading the copybook letters because suddenly the dates jumped backwards from the early days of March in 1846 to February 1st, continuing to February 21st.  Consequently in the next few weeks there will be “additions” to stories I have previously covered while Barnum et al were in Scotland.  Kind of wish I had known about these out-of-sequence letters, but there you have it—I’ve been going along reading a few at a time, and didn’t imagine Mr. B would throw this monkey wrench into my workflow!  Anyway, on we go.

While Barnum was busy getting things arranged in London, “the General” (Charles Stratton) was performing in Cambridge and Oxford for a few days.  In the role of advance man, Barnum was putting his eggs into the London basket, and he needed to build public excitement and anticipation of Gen. Tom Thumb’s arrival in that great city as well as ensure that his schedule was orchestrated for maximum efficiency and profitability.  Unlike today’s theatres that book performances far in advance, bookings at the theatres in mid-19th century London seem to have been handled much more casually.  Barnum had approached several theatre managers and directors about the new play, and had even gone to the trouble to arrange a meeting at the home of playwright Albert Smith.  Mr. Nash of the Surrey Theatre was to come there and meet Charles in person.  For some reason Nash failed to appear.  On March 5th in a brief but adroitly worded letter, Barnum let Nash know of his displeasure at being stood up while also mentioning his success with the Lyceum Theatre and leaving open the possibility of a future engagement at the Surrey should Nash change his mind.  Perhaps he gloated to himself as he enclosed a complimentary ticket for Nash to see a performance.

I was sorry that you did not meet the little General as agreed on, at the house of Albert Smith Esq.—However I judge by your not calling that you had changed your mind about engaging him—and I have now arranged with Mr Keeley of the Lyceum.  Should it be to our mutual interest hereafter to arrange—I shall be most happy to do so.  Please accept the enclosed orders to see the little General & believe me

As ever Truly & sincerely yours

    1. T. Barnum

(Of note, Robert Keeley and his wife Mary Anne, both actors, were the managers of the Lyceum from 1844 to 1847, and their eldest daughter would later marry Albert R. Smith, author of the Hop O’ My Thumb play.)

View of the Lyceum Theatre in central London, where Albert Smith’s play, Hop O’ My Thumb, starring Gen. Tom Thumb, opened in mid-March 1846. The theater has a long history dating back to 1765. Though the structure has been re-built at least twice, the grand portico seen here has remained since 1834, so was still relatively new when Gen. Tom Thumb performed there. (MediaWiki image in public domain courtesy of The Lud; photographed 2006)

On the same day Barnum wrote to an unnamed man, possibly a Mr. Horner or Honner, to let him know of his intention to withdraw Charles from a theatre.  He started the letter, penned a few lines and then started again at the top, which resulted in a jumble of sentences on the copy page.  But by dissecting the two tries, one can see that the first iteration informs the gentleman that he, Barnum, had engaged Gen. Tom Thumb at the Lyceum, where they were to bring out his new play as soon as possible.  The second iteration does not share that but simply states, “I think that at present that it will be impossible for the little General to remain after next week at your Theatre, and would therefore advise you go it strong—in announcing it as being positively his last and only appearance there previous to his final departure for America.”  Presumably it was a theatre unsuited for the production of Smith’s play, but at least the latter part of Barnum’s letter tells us about Charles’s act at that theatre.  Barnum suggested the gentleman “announce [Gen. Tom Thumb’s] performances as follows:”

He will appear and relate his history, sing a variety
of songs—represent the Grecian Statues—give imitations of
Napoleon and Frederick the Great, and dance
The Naval Hornpipe
in costume
He will also appear in his new and
Magnificent Highland Costume!
which has elicited the greatest approbation from the principal
Crowned Heads of Europe.
The General’s beautiful miniature Equipage consisting of an elegant small chariot, with pigmy Coachman and Footman, and drawn by 4 ponies will appear and
take the General off the stage.

Less than two weeks later, Barnum hastily scrawled a letter to his museum manager Fordyce Hitchcock letting him know that he and all members of the entourage were doing well and that they had been averaging £50 per day “including what we take at the Lyceum Theatre.” The play had only run for two nights at that point (March 18th) but Barnum emphasized that it had been “a tremendous hit” with all newspapers printing enthusiastic accounts.  He asked Hitchcock to see that the editors of the New York Atlas took note of the various London papers so they could copy the flattering stories in their paper.  True to style, Barnum knew how to play up his success on both sides of the Atlantic!

Now we’ll turn to a letter addressed to a Mr. Miller, dated March 7th, 1846.  I was puzzled as to Barnum’s connection to this man until several pages further on I came across another letter to Miller, but written five weeks earlier, on February 1st.  This contained enough clues to explain the relationship.  But we’ll start with the March letter first, in which Barnum was responding to Miller’s request for money.  He received many such letters (so he has said on several occasions) and thus developed a kind of formula response with a formal tone that seems excessively polite.  Typically he explains that while he wishes he could help all his friends and acquaintances struggling to stay afloat, doing so would jeopardize his own family’s needs, and his business concerns, etc.  That kind of language constitutes the majority of the letter to Miller, but the end caught my attention, as it was clear that Miller had been hired to work with the “fat children” Barnum was planning to send to America.

By the way, the word “fat” as concerns humans did not carry the stigma that it does today; in the 19th century, when a person had recovered from illness it was a good thing to say he or she was fat again.  “Thin” was not desirable!  Of course for Barnum and other showmen, persons of exceptional size were “natural curiosities” from which they could profit, but I suspect this wasn’t perceived as “fat shaming” in the way many people would see it today.  Barnum intended not only to show the Scottish brothers because they were large but also because the boys were to learn a special trick that would entertain people.  As we learn from the March letter, teaching them had been an uphill battle, and Miller’s plea for money may have been based in part on the extra time and effort he’d put in.  Barnum told Miller,

I much regret that the boys are giving you so much trouble in the Mesmeric way, & although I am anxious to pay you for all trouble you may have with them, still if you find them bother you too much I beg you will give over trying to teach them, and let me know it immediately in order that I may ship them off at once.  For nothing now keeps them but a desire on my part to have them learn the new dodge.

So, who was this Mr. Miller?  We learn in the February 1st letter that he was connected to the theatre in Glasgow and that Barnum had also hired him as an agent.  At that time, the relationship was rosier, with Barnum telling Miller,

I am rejoiced that you think they [the boys] can learn the Mesmeric part of the business & hope since they are now lying still in Glasgow you will find time to teach it to them.  That part will help me much.

He was counting on them touring them as performers, not having them stay long-term at the American Museum.  Barnum had previously expressed to Hitchcock his disappointment that the boys were not as large as he would have hoped, thus it follows that if their ability to entertain was cultivated, it could offset the paying public’s let down as to the boys’ size (not quite as “mammoth” as advertised!).  From other letters we know that Barnum had asked that the boys not be exhibited by their mother while awaiting the voyage to America, and he provided a few pounds to keep the family going.  That idle time, he felt, would best be put toward learning the mesmeric trick.  Barnum’s communications on these points must have been through and to Miller, and he was relying upon Miller to present a contract to the mother.  He told him he would soon have it drawn up and send it to him for her to sign, along with £2 or £3 for the poor mother to use, “on account.”

Miller was also tasked with commissioning a very large banner that would be used to promote the boys in costume.  To that end Barnum advised,

By all means get the painting done as you say, representing the Queen & Court, & let the Queen be in her Crown & Robes.  Let the boys features be preserved, but by all means . . . exaggerate some as to size & fatness.  Don’t let the painter shave us as to price.  Let the boys be represented in the Highland Costume & when I come to Glasgow I will get the proper costumes made for them.

As we know from a later letter to Hitchcock, several sets of costumes were made and the banner was nearing completion.  But teaching the boys the secrets of the “mesmeric” trick was proving to be a stumbling block and Barnum’s exasperation is evident in the March 7th letter.  We may learn more about how that was handled in letters to come; perhaps instruction was halted until they got to America.

Mr. Miller also had an interest in having Gen. Tom Thumb perform at his theatre in Glasgow, which Barnum referred to in his February 1st letter.  Cheerfully he told Miller,

I am much pleased at the punctual and business-like manner in which you have attended to my affairs, and am happy to say that I have so arranged matters as to be able to give you a turn with General Tom Thumb either on Friday [Feb.] 20th or Saturday 21st inst[ant].

Charles’s father, on the other hand, might not have responded to this idea with pleasure.  While on tour in another part of Scotland, Barnum was independently setting up a venue that Sherwood Stratton was unaware of.  Barnum clearly did not like working with his partner, but nonetheless had devised a plan to keep Stratton happy.  He shared the favorable arrangement with Miller.

To quiet the father who at present does not know that we are going to Glasgow—the General must perform [the] same night at the City Hall for 6d [six pence] admission, still I believe you can raise a full house—if you do so, then you pay half of the £10 (for the father)—but if you do not have a full house you shall pay nothing for the General, as I will pay the father myself.

Ironically, while Barnum and his British contacts and acquaintances were negotiating business deals in more or less friendly fashion, U.S. and U.K. relations were increasingly hostile and seemed headed toward war.  A previous blogpost (We Have Got Quite Territory Enough, February 5, 2021) discussed the issue of contested lands in the Northwest, particularly the Oregon Country, in the context of Barnum expressing growing alarm to several of his American correspondents.  Barnum’s March 3rd letters to his two closest correspondents, Moses Kimball and Fordyce Hitchcock, noted that news had just arrived in London that morning, and “the Britishers are beginning to threaten like fury.”  As usual, Barnum’s language with Kimball is the more colorful.  He abruptly extinguished his friend’s hopes for success with the cocked hat idiom, though offered a more optimistic afterthought:

By the way your splendid calculations of [your] new Museum are to be knocked into a cocked hat, for news arrived this morning that Jonathan [meaning, the U.S.] wont settle the Oregon question without a fight, and the Britishers swear they will “whop” us.  Well they’ll have their hands full if they try it—still I would rather we could have peace—this war is a bloody & foolish business.  I guess when you get the news of the Repeal of the Corn Laws—it will be all right and no fighting.

Thankfully, war was averted, though settling on the 49th parallel as the border between the United States and Great Britain’s claim in the Pacific Northwest would take a few more months.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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