|P. T. Barnum created a gigantic billboard out of the facade with painted illustrations of the wonders inside -- sketch NYPL Collection|
In 1810 John Scudder put on public display his collection of mounted animals, a live anaconda and alligator, and a gallery of paintings touted as “national portraits.” A small room was used for lectures on various subjects. Scudder devoted his life to his American Museum, which was housed in an old two-story structure on Chambers Street that had once been the city’s Almshouse.
The same year that the museum opened, a baby was born in Bethel, Connecticut. Thirty-one years later that child and John Scudder would cross paths.
By 1835, when he was only 25 years old, P. T. Barnum ’s showmanship and marketing skills were becoming finely-honed. He paid $1,000—an enormous sum—for the services of an elderly black woman, Joice Heth. Handbills were printed calling her “Unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world.”
She was the "most interesting curiosity," said Barnum, because she was 161 years old and had been the nurse of George Washington. The pair traveled through New York and New England and crowds jostled one another to see her. Ticket sales amounted to approximately $1,500 per week.
Barnum was on his way.
In 1841 he purchased the contents of Scudder’s American Museum and moved the collection to Broadway in an impressive building at the corner of Ann Street. Barnum negotiated a payment plan with Scudder. He agreed to pay seven equal installments of $12,000. Before the first year was out he had paid off the entire amount and grossed $400,000.
He painted the five-story façade, turning it into a gigantic gaudy advertisement with signs, banners and illustrations of the wonders inside. Barnum continued Scudder’s educational exhibits; but he knew what would draw the public in huge numbers: the strange and the spell-binding. Little by little he created a small zoo, a museum of historical items (the authenticity of which might have been questionable) like the trunk of the tree that shaded Jesus’ disciples and a hat worn by U. S. Grant, new scientific instruments, a flea circus and a theater.
|Well-dressed patrons stroll the among the cases in 1853 -- sketch NYPL Collection|
A year after opening, in August of 1842, Barnum exhibited the immensely-popular Feejee Mermaid—what appeared to be a mummified or embalmed sea creature. But it was young Charles Stratton who would make an even bigger impression.
That same year Barnum discovered the five-year old dwarf in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He negotiated a deal with the boy’s parents for a four-week stint. The boy was paid $3 per week along with board for the family. Barnum taught him to dance a jig, recite poetry and perform scenes from popular plays. If the four weeks were successful, promised Barnum, he would get an additional $7 per week.
Charles Stratton was advertised as being 11 years old and his name was changed to General Tom Thumb. The public adored him and Barnum’s income rose substantially. It was the beginning of a long-term business relationship and friendship.
Over the course of the next two decades Barnum would present Tom Thumb to President Lincoln, Queen Isabella of Spain, King Leopold of Belgium, Queen Victoria and other crowned heads.
In January 1843 he added to the museum by purchasing the collection of the New York Museum, popularly referred to as Peale’s Museum. Five years later he added the collection of the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia. The Barnum Museum was now a considerable collection.
In addition to the museum space there was a “Moral Lecture Room”—a comfortable theater where dramatic performances were staged. It was in this hall that Barnum created another sensation.
In 1849 he contacted the opera star Jenny Lind who was famous throughout Europe and well-known in the United States through newspaper accounts. He offered the diva $1000 per concert if she would travel to New York and give 150 appearances at the Museum. The singer asked Barnum how he could offer such a staggering amount to someone he had never heard sing.
“I have more faith in your reputation than in my musical judgment,” replied the showman.
When the Swedish Nightingale arrived in New York Harbor in September 1850 30,000 jammed the waterfront to meet the ship. Barnum auctioned seats for the concerts. Although she gave 93 concerts rather than the contracted 150, Barnum doubled her salary, paid all her expenses and still netted over $700,000.
|In the Moral Lecture Room audiences saw Uncle Tom's Cabin and heard the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind -- sketch NYPL Collection|
In the meantime, Barnum continued to lure the public with oddities and human curiosities—what 20th century carnival showmen would call a freak show. For their 25-cent admission the public could gawk at Josephine Boisdechene, the original bearded lady (a card announced that “Visitors are allowed to touch the beard”); William Henry Johnson whose abnormally-tapered head earned him the show name of Zip the Pinhead; the Quaker Giant and Giantess; and of course the conjoined brothers Chang and Eng for whom the term Siamese twins was coined.
|Barnum convinced 17-year old Anna Swan, a Quaker girl from Nova Scotia to join his group of human curiosities. She became half of "The Quaker Giant and Giantess" and a leading attraction -- poster, Library of Congress|
On June 19, 1850 the New York Tribune reported on the opening play of the season at the Museum. The theater had been closed for three months and the public was ready to be entertained. “The opening of the American Museum,” said the article, “after being closed for nine weeks, was the signal for a rush, which crowded the new hall to its utmost capacity. About three thousand persons were present, who witnessed the performance of the moral Drama of the Drunkard with repeated bursts of applause.”
Barnum addressed the audience after the play, explaining his museum and theater. “I felt that this community needed and demanded at least one more place of public amusement, where we might take our children, and secure much rational enjoyment, as well as valuable instruction, without the risk of imbibing moral poisons in the chalice presented to our lips.”
In 1853 Barnum staged Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Lecture Room. The ground-breaking play ran a full season and then was brought back the following April. The plays presented in the Lecture Room most often had a moral or social lesson with titles like The Drunkard, The Sister’s Sacrifice and Joan of Arc. In 1858 The Death of Eva was staged—a condensation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
In 1854 Fanny Fern wrote in her “Shadows and Sunbeams” of the breadth of the museum’s collection. “It is possible that every stranger may suppose, as I did, on first approaching Barnum’s Museum, that the greater part of its curiosities are on the outside, and have some fears that its internal will not equal its external appearance. But, after crossing the threshold, he will soon discover his mistake.”
After listing many of the exhibits—“A Chinese criminal, packed into a barrel, with a hole in the lid, from which his head protrudes, and two at the sides, from whence his helpless paws depend” and “snakes, insects, and reptiles of every description” along with stuffed birds, a “scaly set” of creatures and “hideous monsters”—the author claimed that the entire museum could not be seen in one visit.
“Time fails us to explore all the natural wonders gathered here, from all climes, and lands, and seas, by the enterprise of, perhaps, the only man who could have compassed it. We turn away, leaving the greater portion unexamined, with an indistinct remembrance of what we have seen, but with a most distinct impression that the ‘getting up’ of Creation was no ordinary affair, and wondering how it could ever have been done in six days.”
Along with Fanny Fern, upwards of 15,000 visitors a day paid their quarter to see the museum.
The ultimate marketing genius, Barnum jumped upon the chance of a lifetime. In 1864 a dozen native American chiefs were invited by the President of the United States to visit Washington. Barnum spent an enormous amount of money to bring them to New York to spend time in the museum.
It was a delicate process. If the proud chiefs of powerful tribes were to get the impression they were on display they would not agree. The interpreter would not promise a definite time frame, saying “you can only keep them just so long as they suppose all your patrons come to pay them visits of honor.”
Barnum personally took them on stage and introduced them to the audience. The chiefs had been informed that those in the audience were guests of an important man and that they themselves were the guests of honor. The public, in the meantime, knew they were seeing real, authentic Indian chiefs and willingly paid for the chance.
Barnum took the chiefs around town in a carriage, visiting public schools and presenting them to the Mayor. The native Americans were awed by Central Park and the rows of substantial houses that lined the streets. The Indians got the better of Barnum, however; perhaps the only time in his life the showman was bested.
One chief took a liking to a colorful sea shell in a display case and offered to trade Barnum his shirt for it. Barnum politely refused and handed the shell to the Indian as a gift. Decades later Joel Benton in his “Life of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum” recalled “Immediately they all commenced to beg for everything in the vast collection which they happened to take a liking to. This cost Barnum many valuable specimens and often ‘put him to his trumps’ for an excuse to avoid giving them things which he could not part with.”
By 1865 the museum was one of the foremost collections in the country. While accounts of today focus on the outlandish and perverse, Barnum’s American Museum also contained scholarly natural history exhibits and was well-regarded by the educated community. The New York Times remarked that “Those of our citizens who thronged the Lecture-room of the Museum, to the neglect of the well-filled shelves in the many rooms, knew nothing of the capacities of the place for instruction and genuine edification.”
But on the afternoon of July 13 that year it would all come to an end. A defective furnace in the cellar of Groop’s restaurant, below the museum office, was discovered by an employee just after 12:30. Within minutes flames reached the lower floors of the museum. Terror-stricken visitors rushed for the exits while firefighters and policemen rushed in. The firefighters broke the large panes of glass of the live whale tanks in an effort to slow the flames. The cases of live anacondas, pythons and other reptiles were overturned so the animals could at least attempt escape. In the end, all the live animals perished—alligators, a kangaroo, a platypus and other doomed creatures.
At 1:30 the Ann Street façade fall in with a thick cloud of dust and smoke that nearly blocked out the sunlight. Fifteen minutes later the Broadway front collapsed in three sections, one after another. By 2:00 the fire had spread to six other buildings.
The fire was finally extinguished by 3:00. In only two and a half hours ten buildings were burned to the ground and the Barnum American Museum was no more. Egyptian antiquities, portraits of American leaders by artists like Rembrandt Peale, and irreplaceable historical relics were incinerated.
|Newspapers reported that the smoke and dust clouds darkened the midday sky -- NYPL Collection|
The New York Times lamented the end of an incomparable collection. “No public institution in the country pretended even to rival the geological collection of the museum either in extent or value. The conchological and ornithological departments were likewise extended in range, infinite in variety, and full of interest. Birds of rarest plumage, fish of most exquisite tint, animals peculiar to every section, minerals characteristic of every region, and peculiarities of all portions of the earth, costly, beautiful curious and strange, were crowded on the dusty shelves of room after room, where they attracted the earnest attention and studious regard of the scholar and the connoisseur.”