He may be best known for the famous circus that bears his name, but before its founding, P.T. Barnum was the creator and owner of one of the largest, strangest attractions to ever exist. Barnum’s American Museum wasn’t what we think of as a museum today. In one five-story building, Barnum offered many different forms of entertainment that had previously only been found separately. Museum/zoo/freak show/lecture hall/theatre/wax museum doesn’t even cover everything there was to see and do there, all for 25 cents admission.
Barnum got his start as a showman in 1835, when he purchased a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman in her 80s named Joice Heth. Barnum put Heth on exhibition and sold tickets to see her, claiming she was George Washington’s 160-year-old former nurse. Heth died the next year and Barnum moved on to start a variety troupe before purchasing Scudder’s American Museum, located across from St. Paul’s at the corner of Broadway and Ann in New York City, in 1841. He renamed it Barnum’s American Museum and set to work improving the attraction.
Barnum made many upgrades to the building itself, including a lighthouse lamp that shone up and down Broadway to attract customers, flags, and paintings of animals between the upper windows. He also turned the roof into a garden where people could walk and look at the city, and where he could launch hot air balloons.
Inside the building, the attractions were always changing and included some of Barnum’s most well known hoaxes, such as the Feejee mermaid.
The “mermaid” actually consisted of the torso and head of a young monkey sewn onto the bottom of a fish. These “hybrids” were common among fishermen in Japan and the East Indies, which is where an American sea captain purchased the infamous Feejee mermaid in 1822.
Another of Barnum’s most famous attractions was “General Tom Thumb”, a dwarf and distant relative of Barnum. Barnum taught him to sing, dance, mime, and impersonate famous people, such as Cupid and Napoleon Bonaparte. In addition to performing at Barnum’s American Museum, Barnum also took his relative on a European tour, where the General appeared before Queen Victoria twice and also performed in France.
Other famous attractions that appeared at the museum included Siamese twins Chang and Eng (who came out of retirement to appear at Barnum’s American Museum because they needed money to send their kids to college), the “Quaker Giant and Giantess” Robert Hales and Elizabeth Simpson Hales, Commodore Nutt (another dwarf performer like Tom Thumb), an albino family, bearded lady Josephine Boisdechene, and Miss Susan Barton, known as the mammoth lady.
Fortune tellers, phrenologists and magicians entertained guests. Native Americans performed and Grizzly Adams showcased his trained bears. There was also a trained seal named Ned, whose “performances on the hand-organ were, doubtless, painful to him, but to the flippant crowd they were amusing and pleasant,” according to the New York Times in 1865.
Patrons could look at exotic birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and sea creatures (some alive and some stuffed) from all across the world. Barnum even had an aquarium with a white whale.
According to the 1865 New York Times article, “Birds of rarest plumage, fish of most exquisite tint, animals peculiar to every section, minerals characteristics 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.”
The museum was packed full of all sorts of other artifacts and oddities. Paintings, fun house mirrors, mummies, historical artifacts, gemstones, minerals, fossils, skeletons, weapons, shells and other objects were on display. Wax figures portrayed different cultures and famous historical figures.
Barnum often used his museum as a venue to promote his own beliefs. He built a huge, modern theater and called it the Lecture Room, hoping to attract families and moral crusaders to matinee shows such as The Drunkard (a temperance play), family-friendly versions Shakespeare’s plays, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
When the Civil War broke out in the 1860s, people went to the museum to seek out distraction from the conflict, and Barnum added exhibits and performances to support the Union cause.
The museum was open 15 hours per day at its highest point, and as many as 15,000 people went through the museum per day. When Barnum noticed that people were lingering too long at certain exhibits, he famously posted signs that said, “This Way to the Egress.” Visitors followed the sign, not realizing that “egress” meant exit, and found themselves outside. If they wanted back in, they had to pay another 25 cents.
You can explore the museum further in a partial digital reconstruction of the museum here.
In July 1865, the museum burned down in one of the most appropriately absurd-sounding fires in history. There were reports that animals tried to escape the blaze by jumping out windows, only to be shot by police. Other animals burned to death in their enclosures, and two beluga whales were boiled to death in their tanks as firemen, patrons and bystanders attempted to make off with pieces of the exhibits.
No humans were killed as a result of the fire, but the museum was totally destroyed. According to the New York Times, “The only curiosities reported to have been saved…were the live seal and a case of rare coins.” At the time, a furnace was blamed for the blaze, but many now suspect that Barnum’s support of the abolitionist movement and the Union cause during the Civil War led Southern sympathizers to set fire to the museum.
Barnum opened a second museum, but it also burned down, this time due to a boiler explosion. Things worked out fine for Barnum after the second fire though, when he moved on to create, “The greatest show on Earth.” But more on that next time perhaps…