The great pre­tender

An­to­nio Melechi re­veals how PT Bar­num – the brains be­hind Gen­eral Tom Thumb, the Fee­jee Mer­maid and a wildly suc­cess­ful cir­cus – turned a flair for out­ra­geous stunts and hoaxes into a multi-mil­lion dol­lar con­cern

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

PT Bar­num made a mint out of hood­wink­ing the pub­lic. An­to­nio Melechi re­veals the se­crets to his suc­cess

Bar­num tried to ne­go­ti­ate a price for a tree upon which Lord Byron had etched his name. He also put in a shame­less bid to buy Shake­speare’s home

Bri­tish trav­ellers to 19th-cen­tury Amer­ica were taken aback by the go-get­ting com­mer­cial­ism of their At­lantic cousins. In 1834, dur­ing a long visit to the eastern states, the econ­o­mist Har­riet Martineau saw that in “a coun­try where the whole course is open to ev­ery­one”, the ap­petite for suc­cess led to reck­less and ill-con­sid­ered en­ter­prise. For Martineau, the wild­fire cul­ture of self-im­prove­ment was teth­ered to a deep-seated con­formism, “a fear of sin­gu­lar­ity” ev­i­dent in the ten­dency to of­fer in­dis­crim­i­nate praise. “Ev­ery book that comes out is ex­alted to the skies. The pub­lic or­a­tors flat­ter the peo­ple; the peo­ple flat­ter the or­a­tors. The cler­gy­men praise their flocks; and the flocks stand amazed at the ex­cel­lence of their cler­gy­men.”

When Phineas Tay­lor Bar­num made his first trip to Eng­land in 1844, as pro­moter to Gen­eral Tom Thumb, the star-span­gled show­man was ev­ery inch the car­i­ca­ture of Martineau’s glib-tongued Yan­kee. Wher­ever he went, Bar­num had one hand on his wal­let, ready to “do busi­ness”. In Lon­don, he made a bee­line for Madame Tus­sauds wax­works, of­fer­ing top dol­lar to buy the col­lec­tion out­right. At Lord Byron’s an­ces­tral home, he tried to ne­go­ti­ate a price for a tree upon which the poet had etched his name. And dur­ing a lightning tour of Strat­ford, Bar­num made a shame­less bid to pur­chase Shake­speare’s one-time home, prompt­ing Punch mag­a­zine to com­mence a se­ries of drol­leries that lam­pooned his crass spec­u­la­tions.

A na­tive of Bethel, Con­necti­cut, Bar­num had tried his hand at all kinds of work, from en­cy­clopae­dia sales­man to ed­i­tor of an abo­li­tion­ist news­pa­per, be­fore find­ing his true metier. In 1835, not long af­ter tak­ing on a gro­cery store in New York, the 25-year-old caught wind of some in­trigu­ing news. A friend had re­cently sold his in­ter­est in an Afro-Amer­i­can slave by the name of Joice Heth, pur­port­edly 161 years of age and the one-time nurse of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton. Sens­ing an op­por­tu­nity to break into New York’s en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness, Bar­num made his way to Philadel­phia’s Ma­sonic Hall, where the ‘won­der­ful negress’ was re­gal­ing vis­i­tors with rec­ol­lec­tions of ‘dear old Ge­orge’, with tear­ful mem­o­ries of her Vir­ginia child­hood, and a med­ley of im­promptu hymns.

Bar­num was im­pressed. As “far as out­ward in­di­ca­tions were con­cerned, she might al­most have been called 1,000 years old”. Bet­ter still, Heth’s present owner was pre­pared to do a deal: for $1,000 the su­per­cente­nar­ian nurse was his. Re­turn­ing to New York, Bar­num quickly penned a shower of breath­less ad­verts for his “an­cient lady”. Within weeks of show­ing Heth at Ni­blo’s Gar­den saloon, the gro­cer-turned-show­man was count­ing weekly re­ceipts of $750, and al­ready con­sid­er­ing what cu­rios­ity he might next pur­chase.

En­ter­tain­ment busi­ness

At first, Bar­num strug­gled to repli­cate the suc­cess he achieved with Joice Heth. Briefly aban­don­ing the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness, he squan­dered much of his earn­ings on a failed cologne and boot-black­ing busi­ness, en­dur­ing a short stint as sales agent for Sears’ Pic­to­rial Il­lus­tra­tions of the Bi­ble.

Then, late in 1841, af­ter dab­bling with jour­nal­ism and copy­writ­ing, he suc­ceeded in ac­quir­ing Scud­der’s Amer­i­can Mu­seum, the

be­lea­guered home to an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of automata, dio­ra­mas and hu­man odd­i­ties. Look­ing to turn the mu­seum into Broad­way’s pre­mier at­trac­tion – and be­liev­ing that “the only way to make a mil­lion from my pa­trons was to give them abun­dant and whole­some at­trac­tions for a small sum of money” – he em­barked on a manic spend­ing spree, buy­ing and hir­ing an ar­ray of new at­trac­tions, drawn “from ev­ery branch of na­ture and art, com­pris­ing a cy­clopaed­i­cal syn­op­sis of ev­ery­thing worth see­ing and know­ing in this cu­ri­ous world’s cu­ri­ous econ­omy”.

The new ex­hibits that Bar­num brought to his five-storey emporium – among them the Fee­jee Mer­maid (see left), a ghoul­ish amal­ga­ma­tion of a mon­key’s head and a fish’s tail – caused a sen­sa­tion. But they were only half the story. With un­flag­ging chutz­pah, he be­gan to re­brand old ex­hibits – an In­dian war club be­came ‘The Club that Killed Cap­tain Cook’ – dream­ing up all kinds of pro­mo­tional strate­gies to make the New York mu­seum “the town won­der and the town talk”. In no time at all, tak­ings went through the roof.

Af­ter lit­tle more than a year, Bar­num’s pen­chant for outlandish pub­lic­ity al­lowed him to pay off all debts and se­cretly ac­quire a sec­ond venue, Peale’s Amer­i­can Mu­seum, so that he could foster a bo­gus ri­valry be­tween the two in­sti­tu­tions.

Sing, dance and mime

And it wasn’t just Amer­ica that fell for Bar­num’s charms. Soon his cu­riosi­ties were caus­ing a stir in Bri­tain – none more so than the show­man’s three-foot-tall dis­tant cousin, Gen­eral Tom Thumb. Bar­num plucked Tom from ob­scu­rity and – hav­ing taught him to sing, dance, mime and do im­per­son­ations – made him a star, one who per­formed in front of Queen Vic­to­ria three times.

Bar­num was now a se­ri­ously wealthy man, able to spend vast sums of money on build­ing a grand Moor­ish palace in Bridge­port, Con­necti­cut. This lav­ish new res­i­dence was based on Brighton’s Royal Pavil­ion, and Bar­num named it ‘Iranistan’.

But suc­cess came at a price. Now a com­mit­ted tee­to­taller, Bar­num set out “to make my amuse­ments to­tally un­ob­jec­tion­able to the re­li­gious and moral com­mu­nity, and at the same time com­bine suf­fi­cient amuse­ment with in­struc­tion to please all”.

In pub­lic, Bar­num feigned in­dif­fer­ence to a grow­ing cho­rus of crit­i­cism of his busi­ness prac­tices, ap­par­ently pre­fer­ring “to be roundly abused than not no­ticed at all”. Pri­vately, he was con­cerned that con­tin­ued at­ten­tion on his hoaxes might come to cast a trou­ble­some shadow over a bur­geon­ing port­fo­lio of busi­ness and civic in­ter­ests. Wish­ing to be per­ceived as a Bi­ble-car­ry­ing cap­tain of in­dus­try, Bar­num made furtive over­tures in the di­rec­tion of his most per­sis­tent in­flu­en­tial crit­ics, ask­ing that they stop re­fer­ring to “my­self or my ac­tions in a spirit of ridicule or abuse”.

Much of the crit­i­cism cen­tred around his po­si­tion as the self-styled ‘Prince of Hum­bugs’. Bar­num, with an eye on a seat in Congress, ar­gued that humbug was sim­ply hype, ‘ harm­less’ puffery to sell his hoaxes to sen­sa­tion-seek­ing cus­tomers. Yet there was no es­cap­ing the dic­tionary def­i­ni­tion of the term as “an im­po­si­tion un­der fair pre­tences” or, in verb form, “to de­ceive; to im­pose upon”.

Daz­zling thrills

The fi­nal act in Bar­num’s show­stop­ping ca­reer be­gan as a busi­ness al­liance with sea­soned cir­cus men WC Coup and Dan Castello. Formed in 1870, ‘PT Bar­num’s Grand (or Great) Trav­el­ling Mu­seum, Menagerie and Cir­cus’ was Amer­ica’s largest trav­el­ling cir­cus. With bal­let dancers, ac­ro­bats, char­iot-rac­ers, flamethrow­ers and an ever-ex­pand­ing pro­ces­sion of an­i­mal acts, this 60-car, rail­road­ing be­he­moth brought a nightly thun­der­storm of daz­zling thrills into ev­ery ma­jor town. This was the cir­cus as never seen be­fore. “There are things so mighty, so aw­ful, so truly gi­gan­tic,” wrote one ob­server, “that the mind shrinks be­fore them and shriv­els… One of these things is Bar­num’s One and Only Great­est Show on Earth.”

When Bar­num died in 1891, leav­ing an es­tate val­ued at $10m, his name re­mained a by­word for the kinds of humbug that his com­mer­cial em­pire had been founded on. The un­scrupu­lous ro­manc­ing of the press and the mu­seum-go­ing pub­lic and the art­fully faked mon­strosi­ties were, how­ever, by no means his only legacy.

The swag­ger­ing emis­sary of Yan­kee ‘push’ (wrongly cred­ited with coin­ing the say­ing that there was a sucker born ev­ery minute), Bar­num had be­come the ac­cept­able face of 19th-cen­tury cap­i­tal­ism. A ‘Shake­speare of Ad­ver­tis­ing’, au­thor of one of the cen­tury’s best­selling au­to­bi­ogra­phies (1855’s The Life of PT Bar­num), his in­dus­tri­ous lies and dol­lar-chas­ing hero­ics had lifted him, as one com­men­ta­tor wryly noted, “head and shoul­ders above the swindlers, black­legs, black­guards and hum­ble rig­gers of the day”. Next to these or­di­nary hum­bugs, PT Bar­num was, truly, in a class of his own. An­to­nio Melechi’s books in­clude Ser­vants of the Su­per­nat­u­ral: The Night Side of the Vic­to­rian Mind (Ar­row, 2009)

With un­flag­ging chutz­pah, Bar­num be­gan to re­brand old ex­hibits in his mu­seum. So an In­dian war club be­came ‘The Club that Killed Cap­tain Cook’

PT Bar­num is de­picted as a wily old fox prey­ing on peo­ple’s “phreno­log­i­cal bump of credulity” in a car­toon from Punch in 1884. The press didn’t share the pub­lic’s en­thu­si­asm for the show­man’s hoaxes

A 1920s poster for Bar­num & Bai­ley’s ‘Great­est Show on Earth’. When Bar­num launched his cir­cus 50 years ear­lier, it soon be­came a global en­ter­tain­ment phe­nom­e­non

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