Essays - Autumn 2016

Thine as Ever, P. T. Barnum

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A scholar offers three utterly fictitious letters he wishes the famous showman had written

Frontispiece to Barnum’s 1855 autobiography, after a daguerreotype by Marcus or Samuel Root

By A. H. Saxon

September 6, 2016


 

 

Most editors of other people’s letters, I suspect, are victims of a common obsession: the feeling that they have somehow missed certain significant letters their subjects must have written. I plead no exception to this apprehension. Although I have been systematically collecting the letters and other writings of P. T. Barnum for a good many years, initially for my edition of his letters, then for a biography, several aspects of his life continue to elude me—gray areas that might suddenly take on vivid coloration if only a pertinent letter or other document would spring to light. I wish I knew more about Barnum’s two wives, for instance, who apparently did not think their husband’s letters to them worth keeping. His children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren often did, with the result that I know more about several of them than I do about Charity or Nancy Barnum.

Then, too, there is the persistent feeling that if one’s subject did not write letters on particular topics, he or she surely ought to have done so, if only to confirm or refute certain rumors and beliefs that have received widespread acceptance. Some biographers and editors have been known to rectify these deficiencies by inserting into their works spurious documents of their own manufacture. The temptation is always there, and sometimes hard to resist, especially when one is recognized as an authority on the subject and has become conversant with the peculiarities of his or her style. If spoilsports insist on pressing for sources, one can always hide behind “anonymous” or “private collection.”

I freely confess to experiencing this temptation and to having only partially resisted it. Shortly before my edition of the showman’s letters appeared, I created a pastiche of three letters purportedly by Barnum on the subjects of the singer Jenny Lind, Jumbo the elephant, and “Champ,” the perennial monster of Lake Champlain. My original intention was to restrict this work to a small, select band of favorite institutions and friends—which I did.

But since Barnum’s name has been so often in the news of late—in connection with another showman who has far less in common with the original than is sometimes suggested—I now offer these forgeries to a wider audience, trusting that no future scholars or writers will take them as otherwise.


Barnum on Jenny Lind

One of the greatest coups of Barnum’s career was bringing the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind, to this country for a triumphal, highly lucrative concert tour in 1850–51. Like all his attractions, the Queen of Song was liberally puffed in advance of her arrival, and so successful was Barnum in engineering her reception that the nation was soon swept up in a Jenny Lind mania. The singer was mobbed wherever she appeared; tickets to her initial concerts in various cities went at auction for as high as $650 (with the successful bidders then turning their extravagance into publicity for themselves); and thousands who had never set foot in a concert hall or theater flocked to hear Lind’s renditions of operatic arias, peasant songs, and Bayard Taylor’s “Greeting to America,” the winning ode in a contest sponsored by Barnum for a prize of $200. Having shrewdly assessed the musical taste of the American public, the showman focused on promoting not so much Lind’s singing ability as her reputation for benevolence, religious devotion, and purity—and obviously hit the mark. Indeed, it was soon believed that the “divine Jenny” could do no wrong, an opinion that continues to infect many of her present-day biographers, who are often taken in by what they believe to be the candid reviews of editors and music critics who were privileged to hear Lind, but which were often the creations of Barnum himself.

Among Barnum’s contemporaries, however, were some who expressed dissenting opinions on Lind’s singing and “divinity,” and the manager himself had his problems with the singer almost from the day of her arrival in America. Eventually they parted company, less than two-thirds of the way through their contractual agreement for 150 concerts. In public, at least, Barnum continued to express the highest regard for Lind’s sterling qualities—after all, he could not very well destroy the legend he had labored so assiduously to create—but in private he sometimes painted a less flattering portrait. Writing to an unidentified correspondent after the breakup, while Lind was continuing to tour America on her own, he expressed his regret that the recipient “could not hear the strange lady, for she is one of them. However, I have not the slightest interest in her and do not even know where her address is. Nor do I ever expect to speak with her again.”

To the earlier legend must now be added the one dreamed up by the creators of the Broadway musical Barnum!—namely, that the showman temporarily abandoned his wife Charity to have a fling with the singer. I am certain no such thing ever happened, and that Lind, a true daughter of her age, was as proper a Victorian as they came. Yet there is some evidence that she was a heartbreaker; and taking my cues from these rumors, the musical, and the understandable desire to discover this paragon of virtue to be somewhat less than perfect, the following is the first of the letters I wish Barnum had written. I have chosen a date when the Lind troupe was on its southern tour, whose itinerary included Cuba. Moses Kimball was a Boston showman and close friend with whom Barnum often corresponded. Like Barnum, he eventually served in his state’s legislature.

To Moses Kimball
Havana, 14 January 1851

Dear Moses,

You may well say it’s a “golden business,” & yet I will tell you, in strictest confidence, that I have had enough vexations with Jenny to sink any other man ten times over. After all the notoriety about her benevolence, purity, angelic disposition, &c. &c. I have given her, it is sometimes all I can do to keep the reporters and editors who follow us at every step from finding out what the “divine Jenny” is really like. The other morning nearly all the guests were awakened by a terrific screaming coming from her hotel suite, and I later learned she was pulling the hair of the maid I had hired for her. The poor girl had been to the concert the night before, & upon being asked by Jenny what she thought of her singing, had replied that it was very fine, but not so good as that of Mrs. Arnn, the soloist in the church choir of her home town of Saugatuck!!!

Then, too, when she is not pulling hair or putting the touch on me to donate something in her name to local charities, she has the awful habit of getting engaged to whoever happens to be near her at the moment. She has already jilted at least half the members of the orchestra, and the other evening, in the presence of my daughter Caroline, she said that as we were going to be so long on tour, she thought it would be a good idea if we got engaged! When I jokingly remarked my Charity might have something to say about it, she tossed her head, said they do things differently in Sweden, and that if her mother had listened to such arguments, the world might never have been favored with the “Swedish Nightingale.” You may be certain I took my leave as expeditiously as I could & bolted the door as soon as I had reached the safety of my room!

So there you have it, old fellow, and if I live out this tour without getting engaged or Jenny’s being found out, I shall count myself among the fortunate. At rehearsal this morning we had a visit from the French ambassador, & as Jenny seemed taken with him, I think I am safe for the moment. If you & your lady should happen by Bridgeport, Charity will be pleased to see you. But for God’s sake don’t mention anything of this to her. My daughter is asking enough questions as it is.

Thine as ever,

T. Barnum


Wikimedia Commons Dumbo, the Children’s Friend (Wikimedia Commons)


Barnum on Jumbo

Toward the end of 1880, in his 70th year, Barnum entered into partnership with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson to form the great concern that eventually became Barnum & Bailey. In early 1882, over the protests of the British public, Parliament, and Queen Victoria herself, the circus acquired the enormous African elephant Jumbo from the Royal Zoological Society and added him to its traveling menagerie. For four seasons Jumbo was the chief drawing card of the “Greatest Show on Earth.” Then, on the evening of September 15, 1885, a speeding freight train struck Jumbo while the elephants were being led along a railroad track in St. Thomas, Ontario.

Never one to be daunted by such things, Barnum immediately rushed into print a highly romanticized account of Jumbo’s final moments: how the noble beast, upon seeing the oncoming train, threw the dwarf elephant Tom Thumb to safety and saved his keeper, Scotty; then, realizing there was no time to save himself, heroically charged the locomotive head-on. Meanwhile, both the hide and the skeleton were being mounted by Ward’s Scientific Establishment of Rochester, New York; and when the circus began its new season in 1886, visitors were regaled not only with the spectacle of a “double Jumbo” but also with a live elephant, tethered alongside the remains, touchingly billed as “Jumbo’s widow.”

Shortly after Jumbo’s death, the Hartford Sunday Globe published a sensational tale alleging that Barnum and his partners, knowing Jumbo was ill, had deliberately plotted his assassination. The anonymous journalist responsible for the story was a Bridgeport resident who had attempted to extort money from Barnum on a previous occasion, and the outraged showman wasted no time in taking action. In a letter to Bailey dated October 4, 1885, he reported that “last Sunday a correspondent of the Hartford Sunday Globe charged us with getting Jumbo killed on purpose for an advertisement, as Jumbo was sick, had consumption, & we knew he could not live till spring. The lie was so circumstantial, many believed it, & I sued the proprietor next day for $50,000. He was stubborn, but when he got convinced, he paid all law costs & our lawyer—so his correspondent is squelched at no cost to us.” Indeed, the newspaper’s proprietor had made a special trip to Bridgeport to confer with Barnum and conduct his own investigation, as the result of which he fired the writer of the article and printed a handsome retraction.

The rumor refused to die, however, and at one point was even elaborated to include a sharpshooter who fired on Jumbo as the train was approaching. Some years ago, while attending to some business at Bridgeport’s Barnum Museum, I heard another variation of this conspiracy theory from a person who wished to sell some photographs of Jumbo. According to his very emphatic account, the elephant was beset by a chronic case of diarrhea and gave off so powerful a stench that Barnum and his partners simply had to get rid of him. I held my peace, and went home to compose the following letter. “Bergh” was Henry Bergh, the founder and first president of the ASPCA, with whom Barnum had several highly publicized run-ins.

The language in this letter, I should add, is in part inspired by a letter to Moses Kimball in which Barnum complains of a goat that “shits so I can do nothing with him.”

To James A. Bailey
New York, 24 March 1885

Dear Bailey,

The other day Mrs. Vanderbilt brought her children to the matinee, and while I was showing them “good old Jumbo,” the ungrateful beast suddenly wheeled round & let loose such a load of shit that all their dresses were spattered & ruined and the youngest child was nearly buried up to her neck. We got off light with the promise of new clothes, but I don’t suppose Mrs. Barnum & myself will be invited to many balls next season.

Now the fact is, Jumbo is getting to be a colossal embarrassment, for when he isn’t shitting at every other step, which causes the children & imbeciles to laugh so uproariously, he so stinks up the Garden & tents that patrons & performers can hardly stand it. Of course, we can make a good profit selling the manure to farmers when we go on tour, but in New York no one wants it, as they already have enough of it in the streets.

I want you & Hutchinson to consider what we should do, for I really think Jumbo has about outlived his use to us. When the show travels to Canada at the end of the season, perhaps we could rent Niagara Falls for a day, charge spectators a quarter (children half price), & send him over them on a raft. The trouble is, Bergh & his men would be sure to be out upon us again, and Jumbo might survive or damage the Falls. I don’t suppose we could simply lose him somewhere along the way, & besides there would be no profit in that. But if we could somehow rid ourselves of the big fellow, make money while doing it, and get free advertisement for the show, it would certainly be to our advantage, as well as relieve us of the worry & responsibility of paying for damage done to clothes, children, &c. &c.

Let me know what you & Hutch decide.

Truly yours,
T. Barnum


Extinct sea creatures; Chapman & Hall, 1896 Extinct sea creatures; Chapman & Hall, 1896


Barnum on “Champ”

The third letter I wish Barnum had written pertains to a legend that is still very much with us—that of pa serpents and their equally elusive relatives, lake monsters. As I discovered while researching the topic, nearly every lake in the northern hemisphere has been blessed with the latter at one time or another; especially during the 19th century, great sea serpents regularly patrolled the Atlantic coastline and sometimes even made terrifying excursions up the Hudson.

In the summer of 1886, after several circumstantial accounts appeared of a huge sea serpent seen swimming off the coast of Massachusetts, Barnum wrote a letter to the editor of the Boston Journal, offering a reward of $20,000 to anyone who succeeded in capturing the creature, dead or alive. The national press was soon repeating the offer but, strange to say, there were no claimants. The following summer, while vacationing in Vermont, the showman wrote to Professor Henry A. Ward, who had prepared the hide and skeleton of Jumbo, to report that “the people in this region are half crazy about the sea serpent. A hundred respectable persons testify to having seen him in Lake Champlain this season. Clubs are formed in different parts for killing him, & I have assured them I will give $20,000 on conditions offered last year, but a statement will appear in Associated Press papers within 3 days stating that I insist that any persons capturing the monster shall immediately telegraph Prof. Ward, Naturalist, Rochester, N.Y., & he will despatch a force of men at once to preserve him.”

I need hardly add that Barnum never succeeded in exhibiting either a sea serpent or a lake monster, although he did receive at least one letter suggesting how to make one. Other entrepreneurs actually did so, and one of them, the proprietor of a resort hotel whose business picked up remarkably after a polka-dotted monster was sighted in the lake adjoining his establishment, thought it best to take himself over the Canadian border when the inflatable beastie was discovered resting in his attic. Additional inspiration for the following letter is drawn from the lawyer for a woman who claimed to have photographed “Champ,” a reporter for Life magazine who did an article on the same topic, and the director of an imposingly titled organization devoted to much the same objective Barnum had in mind. Having somehow learned of my work on Barnum, all three contacted me on separate occasions and attempted to enlist my aid in their stimulating projects.

To James L. Hutchinson
Bridgeport, 12 August 1887

Dear Hutch,

An idea has occurred to me which might do the show a world of good if carried out cleverly & in strictest secrecy. The people along the shores of Lake Champlain are nearly mad over the sea serpent, & scores among them claim to have sighted the monster, though if my opinion were asked I might say it was a sell to get trade & notoriety for the region.

Why couldn’t someone—without revealing the secret to any more than are absolutely necessary—make a S.S. that would startle the eyes out of the gaping yokels? It could perhaps be made of India rubber or some hollow material & let down at night to the bottom of the lake, then pumped full of air (by concealed hoses run to a woods or rented house on shore) so as to rise during the day, move about if possible, sink again, &c. Cooper’s brother is good at mechanical work, & possibly he should be let in on the secret and could build the “crittur.” Then we would send our men & agts. to the lake to capture it, make a big splurge in the papers over having really done so, & announce that the S.S. is to be exhibited in our sideshow next season. Of course it would all come out then, but if the affair were properly handled, no one probably would be offended and all would join in a hearty laugh.

Of course, if the mechanism & its operation could escape detection for a reasonable or indefinite time, we might arrange somehow to get years of free advertisement through expeditions to catch the beast, sightings by “reliable” witnesses, announced rewards for its capture, &c. &c.

Think about this & keep mum.

Truly yours,

T. Barnum


A. H. Saxon is the author of P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man and the editor of Selected Letters of P. T. Barnum.


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