On July 13, 1865, the curtains went up on a spectacular show that was filled with all the strange sights and odd wonders for which the great entertainer P.T. Barnum had become known. This time, however, a veil of horror overlaid the drama.
At around 12:30 p.m., a fire was reported in the downstairs engineering rooms at Barnum’s American Museum.
In just forty minutes, the blaze ripped through the entire five-story structure and produced a scene straight out of a nightmare. While all the humans successfully escaped the burning structure, many of the animals, along with Barnum’s hoards of inanimate treasures, were doomed.
As crowds gathered outside the popular attraction, some of the animals who had not been confined to enclosures when the panic began attempted to jump out of burning windows.
Some got away; others were shot by waiting policemen. Those creatures locked in place—including a pair of white whales held in a giant aquarium—burned or boiled alive while certain members of the crowd who were not content to merely watch the spectacle indulged in a little looting.
“The fire which yesterday destroyed Barnum’s American Museum, while greatly injuring and materially impoverishing its enterprising and public-spirited proprietor, did a damage to this and the adjacent communities, which neither time nor money can replace,” read the lead of the piece that took over the entire front page of the New York Times on July 14, 1865.
The Times was right that a national treasure and its many priceless curiosities had been utterly destroyed, but it proved wrong about the museum’s general irreplaceability.
A year later, Barnum would reopen in a new location, although it, too, burnt to the ground after only two years. It would be the third time that was the charm, but by then, Barnum’s American Museum had been overshadowed by his traveling circus.
While Barnum is best know as the godfather of the three-ring circus, he got his start in the world of fantastic sights and brazen humbuggery as a museum proprietor.
In 1841, when Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum, he had lost his job as a lottery salesman and store owner and decided to try his hand full-time at the showmanship that seemed to come so naturally.
The Greatest Showman, the 2017 Hugh Jackman-led musical blockbuster, dramatized this early era of Barnum’s rise to fame.
What the film got right was that Barnum engaged in a little hoodwinking to acquire the money for his museum. But his machinations were a bit more complicated than passing off a drowned fleet of merchant ships as his own flotilla that still sailed the seas.
Next, he went behind his new employer’s back and made a deal with Scudder’s that if the sale fell through, they would sell him their museum at a reduced cost. Once Peale’s defaulted, Barnum absconded from his new job with his early wages and acquired a stage of his very own.
Now that he had a five-story palace on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in downtown Manhattan, Barnum set about building out his fantastic collection.
At this time, the concept of museums was still being established, and they were something of a catch-all for entertainment, education, and spectacle, or as the blog Messy Nessy Chic puts it, “museum/zoo/freak show/lecture hall/theatre/wax museum doesn’t even cover everything there was to see and do there.”
In the over 20 years that the first and greatest iteration of Barnum’s American Museum entertained the New York masses, the top showman gathered wonders both real and concocted from around the world.
There were displays of U.S. national history (relics from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812), exotic fossils and taxidermied specimens of natural history that were gathered from Barnum’s international travels (think birds, insects, reptiles, and animals), and a collection of precious stones and rare coins. Wax figures of important historical characters were exhibited as well as newfangled inventions to delight the viewing public.
Barnum, the king of fabulist creations, also assembled a few more creative displays, like a fossil of a Feejee Mermaid that was really the head of a monkey sewn onto the tail of a fish.
Part and parcel of ginning up excitement (and entry fees) for the museum was creating an aura of skepticism around the novelties displayed. After all, if debate raged about the legitimacy of an outlandish new find, one should probably go check it out for herself.
Barnum was happy to join in the fun and plant a little counter-programming of his own. In the P.T. Barnum Reader, James W. Cook characterizes Barnum’s signature marketing move as, “If your product lacks a buzz, make one up. Invent expert testimonials. Pretend previous triumphs. and for the pièce de résistance, hire fake rivals to accuse you of doing so.”
In addition to the exhibition halls, a carnival-esque atmosphere was created by way of a funhouse and performing animals (the museum served as something of a proving ground for the acts that would eventually go on the road in the circus). There were also live animals on display, including giraffes and the aforementioned white whales.
When not walking the exhibition halls, visitors who had paid a precious quarter to be shocked and awed by Barnum’s treasures could watch performances by glass blowers, magicians, fortune tellers, and that most despicable of 19th-century pseudoscientists, phrenologists.
Or they could enjoy the oyster saloon, rooftop garden, or museum shop, where they were welcome to bring in their beloved and recently deceased pets to be taxidermied. Barnum was a mastermind at wringing additional coins out of his patron’s pockets at every turn.
But not all was fun and games. The freakshow was becoming an integral part of American entertainment in the early 1800s, and Barnum, who became the godfather of mass entertainment in the U.S., eagerly gathered up his own troupe of performers. Today, many of his practices are seen for what they were: exploitative and often abhorrent.
Barnum’s early performers at the American Museum included the conjoined twins Chang and Eng, Charles Stratton, better known as the famous Tom Thumb, who began performing at the museum when he was only around five, but who was advertised as 11, and Josephine Clofullia, known as the Bearded Lady.
As Bowery Boys, a blog on the history of NYC, describes it, Barnum’s museum had the city’s “most famous, most imaginative and most politically incorrect attractions.”
Critics and even the public might have known that they were being duped by at least some of the “treasures” inside Barnum’s American Museum, but that didn’t stop it from becoming one of the must-visit attractions in the city.
The New York Mercury reported on December 8, 1860 that the museum was the “only place of amusement in America voluntarily visited by the Prince of Wales” during his trip to the states.
It also made Barnum a pretty penny, though he was quick to downplay his wealth. In a piece he wrote for the New York Atlas during his European travels in August 1844, Barnum immodestly described himself as a “decidedly modest individual” while at the same time boasting of his entertainment prowess and his success in business.
He wrote, “While I neither now have, nor never expect to possess quite ‘enough’ [money], it is obvious that the pecuniary profits of the museum are small compared to what I can make in other ways…but I pledge my honor that I would give up all other hopes of emolument which I possess in the world, rather than part with the American Museum; for now, having secured an independence, I am determined to gratify my own pride and the pleasure of my patrons at the same time, by making that institution the most attractive and valuable establishment of the kind in the world.”
Just over 20 years later, this dream would go up in flames.
The cause of the fire has never been determined with certainty. In the days following the inferno, many blamed it on a faulty furnace in a neighboring building. (This explanation would in part lead Barnum to install a newfangled boiler in his second museum, which would tragically be the cause of that institution’s fiery demise.)
But with the hindsight of history, many suspect that the fire was deliberately set by a person or group in those early post-Civil War days who opposed Barnum’s abolitionist stance.
Barnum’s relationship to the fight to end slavery and to promote racial equality is a complex one. He got his start in the world of entertainment with a despicable and racist act; in 1835, he purchased an old woman who was blind and paralyzed and “exhibited” her for a small fee as a 160-year-old slave who used to be George Washington’s nanny.
And while he later advertised his museum as open to all, there is some evidence that African Americans were only allowed to visit during specific and separate times, at least until the 1860s, according to Lehman.
But his attitudes towards slavery began to change in the late 1850s, and in 1865, he campaigned to be elected to Connecticut’s Congress on an abolitionist platform.
Whether the tragedy was caused by a deliberate act of sabotage or one that was purely misfortune, Barnum responded like the entertainment visionary he was and refused to be stopped. He would go on to create new museums and the even more innovative traveling circus.
But Barnum’s first temple to curiosity and wonder set the scene for him to become the entertainment don that he was and it earned its own place in the annals of history.
As the New York Times wrote in its report of the fire: “Granting the innumerable sensations with which the intelligent public were disgusted and the innocent public deluded, and the ever patent humbuggery with which the adroit manager coddled and cajoled a credulous people, the Museum still deserved an honorable place in the front rank of the rare and curious collections of the world.”