PTB Letters (#72) Unexpected News

Unexpected News

I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that as we get to the end of Barnum’s copybook we are left with some mysteries, that is to say questions that linger and may be unanswerable. The copybook begins mid-letter in July of 1845, so there must have been a preceding volume, and it ends with a few letters of scattered dates between late April 1846, when Barnum was on a return visit to America, and August 1846 when he was back in the United Kingdom once again.  He probably started a new copybook at that point.  Though our copybook lacks a nice, neat beginning and the last letters leave us with gaps in time, everything in between has proven rich with stories and offers context for interpreting the end.

The paucity of letters from the summer of 1846 is due in part to Barnum’s return visit to America, but not entirely.  Since Barnum’s visit home was to have been a short one and he expected to sail in early or mid-June, he was probably in England again from at least July onward, though there are no letters dating from that month.  And despite Gen. Tom Thumb’s phenomenal success in London during Barnum’s absence, Barnum likely returned to England with a heavy heart in regard to his own family matters, which may account for the silence.  We can piece together some of the whys and wherefores, though certain facts and incidents may never be known.  Nonetheless we will do our best to investigate one of these “mysteries” in this week’s blog.

As we’ve heard repeatedly from Barnum, he was returning home in a state of great anxiety since he did not know if his wife had been safely delivered of their child, nor if the baby was healthy and had survived.  Astonishingly, no one had written to tell him.  I have to believe that once he was home, he promptly wrote to friends in England who also shared his concern.  If so, such letters were not penned into this copybook.  A letter of May 14th written to Charles Stratton (Gen. Tom Thumb) from Bridgeport, Connecticut, suggests Barnum might have sent such messages at the end of April or in early May, because he remarked, “I have not much news since the last Steamer left.”  The news he did share in his letter of the 14th says nothing about the baby, relating only that Charity had not recovered her health and vitality since giving birth on March 1st.  (In fact this brief letter is the last one in the copybook to mention Charity, and there are none at all mentioning Pauline’s birth.)  Barnum communicated to eight-year-old Charles in a surprisingly adult voice,

My wife continues in very bad health—she does not go out of the house except for a short ride in a carriage two or three times a week.  I think she will be in good health soon, and I shall come to London as soon as possible.  I shall probably start on the 1st of June, but perhaps I cannot go so soon on account of my wifes health, and my business here, but if not, I shall certainly start the 16th of June and arrive in London 30th June.

Charles was like a son to him, and he closed the note with the hope that the boy would “enjoy [himself] well, and study [his] lessons all the time,” adding, “I wish to see you very much.  I think of you day & night.”

Two and half weeks before this, while still at sea on the steamer Great Western, Barnum had penned a letter to his Uncle Alanson Taylor, telling him he expected to arrive in two days, on April 28th.  Taylor was at that point one of only two people aware of Barnum’s imminent return.  Since Taylor was living in Baltimore managing their new enterprise, the former Peale’s Museum, Barnum asked his uncle to be in touch with daughter Caroline, attending a boarding school in Washington, D.C.  He entreated him,

. . . have the goodness to write to my Caroline & say that I shall call in a few days to take her home for a fortnight holiday.  I do not know her address.

In addition to that message, Barnum once again expressed his worries about Charity, though without even knowing her situation he had determined that his visit home would be for only one month, and his time in Baltimore must therefore be limited to one day and one night.  Despite such a brief time, he hoped to “be able . . .  to fully comprehend your proposed alterations [to the museum building]” and he also asked his uncle to “draw up the frame of an article of agreement which shall hereafter exist between us.”  Once Barnum had this draft in hand he would take it to a lawyer in New York to “have the article properly prepared in duplicate & where also I will make over to you one half of the Baltimore Museum.”  Taylor was then to meet him in New York to sign the papers.  So that was the plan Barnum laid out, though it does not seem to have been executed—we’ll return to that point, since that is part of the mystery.

Barnum also related that he was bringing an exotic animal with him, a specimen he had purchased for the benefit of both the New York and Baltimore museums.  He told Taylor, “. . . you can have it no doubt within a fortnight if you wish.”  This ourang-outang, as he called it,

. . . is not quite so large I think as one they have had at my museum [which died], but she is a very fine specimen, and is at present in excellent health.  Still they are very liable to die, and I hesitated much about buying her, lest she should die before my arrival.  I have now great hopes that she will live several months, and if so, I think she will pay well . . .

Handbill advertisement for Barnum’s American Museum, dating to early January of 1845, in which an orangutan is prominently promoted. This is the first orangutan Barnum purchased for the museum. He acquired a second one in 1846, which traveled with him across the Atlantic when he returned to America for a visit. Source: Playbills and Programs from New York City Theaters (TCS 65). Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. (Wikimedia Commons; Image courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University)

He informed Taylor that the orangutan had cost him £120 or $600, but he had only paid £100 in cash, and the balance would be paid at the end of four months, but only if she was still alive.  Promoting her quickly would be key since she might not live long, and to that end Barnum used his knowledge of the newspaper business to help his uncle get some free advertising.  Sending him copies of the Liverpool Chronicle, “which I hope you will make the best use of possible with all your papers in Baltimore,” he explained, “The editors will all be glad to get the latest paper from England & will not therefore hesitate about inserting the paragraph about the Chimpanzee or African ourang-outang which I have on board.”

Another possible attraction Barnum offered his uncle was a play, “a very funny farce . . . called “Did You ever send your wife to Cumberwell.”  Since it was brand new and not yet published, he had paid a guinea to have the manuscript copied and was sending that to Taylor.  (Written by Joseph Stirling Coyne, the play first opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on March 16, 1846.  See reference here.)  Observing, “It has created more fun in London than any piece played there this 10 years,” Barnum acknowledged that it might not be “in your line” and if so, to send it back to the American Museum, where he would then “sell it to Mitchell of the Olympic [Theatre].”  Barnum had also purchased playbooks for a few other recent plays; since they were published, they had only cost him only sixpence apiece.  He would send or bring them to Taylor.

This letter validates Barnum’s commitment to making the Baltimore Museum a success, as well as cementing the partnership with his uncle, who had so determinedly gone about acquiring the concern, unbeknownst to Barnum.  But their endeavor had barely gotten off the ground when tragedy struck, and that event happened either while Barnum was still in America or soon after he boarded the steamship returning to England: his beloved, if contrary, uncle died.  The date of his death was probably June 5th, though one source says May 6th, and another source states June 6th, 1846.  The May date is highly unlikely since Barnum did not mention Taylor in his letter to Charles on the 14th.  The Congregational Church (Bethel, CT) records the date of Taylor’s death as June 5th, 1846, and his age as 44 years, 10 months, and 3 days, which would make his birthdate August 2, 1801.  He was only nine years older than Barnum, to whom he became legal guardian after Barnum’s father died.  Though the two had very different views on religion and doubtless on many other topics, Barnum remained loyal to his uncle, grateful for his support in lean times years before.  Despite moments of exasperation, Barnum always wanted him to succeed, and he was surely sensitive to his uncle and aunt’s losses, both personal ones and financial troubles.  Alanson Taylor and his wife Rebekah had suffered the deaths of three of their five children; two daughters both named Almira passed in 1832 and 1837 and their seven-year-old son Alonzo died in 1841.  Barnum once commented to Fordyce Hitchcock that his uncle “has been a disappointed and broken spirited man,” and so might be forgiven for his peculiarities.  That Taylor himself seems to have died quite suddenly must have been a shock to Barnum.  His uncle had last written to him on February 27th, and Barnum responded promptly on March 18th.  Since Barnum and Hitchcock corresponded as frequently as trans-Atlantic mail allowed, Hitchcock would undoubtedly have informed Barnum if he knew that Taylor was unwell and could no longer manage the Baltimore Museum.

View of the Second Meeting House, Congregational Church, in Bethel, Connecticut, built in 1842. Alanson Taylor and his family were members of this church and are buried in the adjacent graveyard. The first meeting house, built in 1760, eventually burned and this one replaced it. It is now the home of the Bethel Historical Society. (Photograph by Jerry Dougherty, featured on the Bethel page of

While I have been unable at this point to learn the cause of Alanson Taylor’s death, Probate Court documents about the settling of his estate offer insights into his financial situation at the time of his death.  Barnum’s name appears on one of these documents as a creditor, though not for the $5000 sum that he had originally loaned Taylor for the purpose of becoming a partner with Mr. Wheeler in “the cloth business.”  The earliest of the court documents is dated June 8th, three days after Taylor’s death.  A court order of June 15th states that Thomas B. Fanton, the Judge of Probate for the District of Redding, would be acting in the case since Edward Taylor, the Judge of Probate for the District of Danbury—which included Taylor’s hometown Bethel—was closely related to the deceased and thus deemed “incapable or disqualified by Law to act in this case.”  Edward Taylor and Oliver Shepard were appointed as Administrators of the “goods, chattels, credits and estate.” Timothy B. Hickok and George Clapp were thereafter sworn in as commissioners “to receive, examine, and adjust the claims of the several Creditors of the Estate.”  They were ordered to post notices on the public signpost in Danbury and in a newspaper published in Fairfield County stating when and where they would receive and examine the claims.  Six months was allowed for creditors to prove their claims, thus imposing a December deadline.

So, back in those days, the settling of an estate involved making a complete inventory of the deceased’s possessions as well as any real estate they owned or had an interest in.  Clapp and Hickok were appointed as appraisers to make the inventory and value each item or piece of property, and this they did on July 4th, 1846.  If you are not familiar with early household inventories, I should explain that they include virtually everything except items that were, for example, specifically owned by the widow, such as her clothing and items she brought to the marriage as part of her dowery.  Thus, coats, shoes, boots, hats, every piece of furniture, bedding, towels and tablecloths, dishes, utensils and cookware, water pails, fire tongs, and so on were all itemized.  Even broken and trivial seeming items are included in these inventories, though “chamber pots” don’t often appear, and undergarments are often excluded.  Compared to what most people own today, ordinary households of this time functioned with far, far fewer items, and people owned very little in the way of clothing.  Alanson Taylor, for example, owned one pair of boots and one pair of shoes, a cloak, an overcoat, two dress coats, two “thin” coats, and a frock coat.  He had one striped silk vest, a black silk velvet vest, another vest, and three pairs of black pantaloons.  And he had a hat.  Interestingly, he also owned a wig, a costly item that was valued at $4.  His most valuable possession—more valuable by far than anything else in the household—was his watch and chain, appraised at $60.  By comparison, his overcoat was valued at $6 and one of his dress coats at $8 while the other dress coat was just $1.50.  The total value of all household goods and clothing amounted to just $247.37 ½.

On April 1, 1847, the Court prepared an Order of Sale since it had been determined that the estate was insolvent based on the creditor claims.  That document stated that “all the estate . . . both real and personal and except the widow’s right of dower” was to be sold “either at a private sale for not less than the inventory prices, or at public sale.”  As noted, the legal right of dower gave some protection to the widow, meaning that a certain portion of the possessions were set aside for her.  Sadly, the majority of her familiar household items would be sold, in this case along with her husband’s valuable watch and chain.  So that’s what happened.  Among the court documents is a list of the items Rebekah was allowed to retain, and it was more generous than many such apportionments to a widow.  She was able to keep the bedding, and a substantial portion of the furniture, table linens, dishes, and household equipment, such as cooking and fireplace tools, and a washtub, plus her husband’s clothing.  She was also able to keep one large and one small Bible; Bibles were often used to record births, marriages, and deaths in the family so these could also have contained ancestry information.  The value totaled $157.50.

The real estate was sold on April 28, 1847, according to one of the Administrator’s expense accounts.  Alanson Taylor had owned half of the home and garden, his half valued at $1000, plus a barn ($50) and store ($150), and acreage in a couple of places.  The total of all real estate amounted to $1675.  For many people at that time all of this would represent a fair sum, but it was insufficient to cover Taylor’s debts.  As with the household goods, Rebekah received a widow’s right of dower in one of the properties, the small sum of $8.71 from five acres on Hoyt’s Hill valued at $50 per acre.

A list of the sums due from Taylor’s estate was presented to the Court on December 29th, 1846.  Barnum and one other man had brought claims for Privilege Debts, which as the name implies, supersede all other claims.  These were both quite modest, at just $16 and $8.  Seven individuals held notes against Taylor; Barnum’s was the largest of them at $1406.73.  Four “Book Debts” were claimed, and again Barnum’s was the largest at $742.25.  Following these there is another claim by Barnum, but the heading describing this single claim is difficult to make out: “Debt by Error in E____ment” is the best I can determine.  It was a considerable amount at $1011.34.  The total of all claims against Alanson Taylor’s estate was $4733.22, but the appraised value of the household items to be sold along with the value of the real estate amounted to just $1765.

Of course there must be more to the story of Alanson and Rebekah Taylor than court documents reveal, but the information they contain give us some insights into the lives of ordinary people in a New England country town, a world that Barnum had left behind in his hometown of Bethel.  Barnum’s family was not poor by the standards of the time, but the security of one’s “fortune” of any size, and life itself, were especially unpredictable then, as the death of Alanson Taylor and his insolvency demonstrate.  Knowing as we do from the copybook letters that Barnum often helped friends and family in need, I wonder whether he made it possible for Rebekah to stay in her home.  Certainly Barnum’s financial claims against his uncle could not have been met but the documents do not show how money was distributed to the creditors, although there are accounts detailing each of the administrators’ expenses.  Was it necessary for Barnum to submit his claims, though knowing of his uncle’s precarious financial state?

By 1860, when Rebekah Taylor was sixty years old, she was living with her daughter Julia’s family in Bethel.  Julia had married Jonathan B. Clapp and they had several children.  Her other daughter, Sarah, was married to William Hickok and they, too, lived in Bethel.  So Rebekah at least had the support of her immediate family.  Among the questions we are left with concerns the timing of Alanson Taylor’s death relative to Barnum’s visit home, and what happened with the intended document that would have given Taylor an equal interest in the Baltimore Museum.  If that had that been drawn up and signed, would Rebekah’s life as a widow have been different?

After Taylor’s death Barnum chose not to keep the museum in Baltimore and according to his autobiography soon sold it to the “Orphean Family.”  Considering how desirous he had been to own museums in various U.S. cities, the sale is a bit puzzling, although his return to England and his own domestic worries might have determined that keeping it was one too many irons in the fire, and a sad one as he mourned the loss of his uncle.

Adrienne Saint-Pierre
Barnum Museum Curator

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