July 13: P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Performance Wasn’t on a Stage


Today in 1865, Connecticut’s Greatest Showman Phineas Taylor “P T” Barnum was as busy as ever – but not on a stage or in a tent. Rather, he was giving an impassioned speech in the Connecticut legislature, where he was serving his first of several terms as a state representative.

The seasoned showbiz veteran – whose name was already an American household word – had thrown his hat in the legislative ring the previous spring, claiming his primary motivation was to have the privilege of voting “for the then proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States to abolish slavery forever from the land.” Nominated in March, he was elected a month later as a Republican representative for Fairfield.

No ordinary freshman legislator, Barnum had thrown himself into the political arena with gusto and was already using his extraordinary people, promotional, and oratorical skills to exert significant political influence in Hartford. On this day, he was speaking forcefully to limit the power of the state’s railroads, which Barnum felt exerted too much influence over both the legislature and the cost of commuting from Fairfield to New York.

In the midst of his railway speech, a fellow legislator hurried over to Barnum and handed him a telegram.

1864 Holiday Bill. Library of Congress

Barnum paused, read the message without expression, placed it in his pocket – and launched right back into his speech. What the note had told Barnum – that his colleagues wouldn’t learn from his expression but would soon learn from their newspapers – was that at that very moment Barnum’s American Museum, his New York entertainment showpiece, was being destroyed by a catastrophic and unquenchable fire. Barnum’s fortune, quite literally, was going up in flames.

Most people associate the name Barnum with the “Greatest Show on Earth.” And while the circus is undeniably the showman’s most lasting legacy, it isn’t where he first made his name or established his wealth. That came from the American Museum, a foundering New York City museum Barnum purchased in the 1840s and transformed into America’s foremost amusement destination.

Barnum’s American Museum was the undisputed must-see entertainment venue of its day. Over a comparable period of time, more people visited Barnum’s American Museum than today visit Disneyland. For a quarter (children were 15 cents), visitors had access to the wonders of a world largely beyond everyday reach: wax museum figures, works of fine art, anthropological curiosities, and live animals including whales in basement tanks, and the “Happy Family,” a pen of predators and prey meant to prove the Biblical suggestion that lions and lambs could get along. Visitors enjoyed 3-D “cosmorama” views of the great cities of Europe, a miniature working model of Niagara Falls, and even a 3000-seat theater with daily drama. Guests could interact with Barnum’s famous “human curiosities,” purchase souvenirs or enjoy a glass of lemonade on the rooftop “aerial garden.” (No cocktails were on offer; Barnum, a temperance advocate who had lobbied for Connecticut’s 1852 anti-alcohol laws, prohibited drinking in his establishment.)

Situated on a prime stretch of lower Manhattan, the Museum had established Barnum as an American entertainment icon decades before the Barnum & Bailey circus would appear on the horizon.

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Thomas Benecke. 1855 Lithograph showing Barnum Museum and Crowd. The Met.

But on July 13, 1865, the American Museum caught fire around noontime, when someone noticed wisps of smoke rising from the cracks between floorboards. Some accounts suggest the cause was an engine room failure. Others believe that Confederate sympathizers, angry with Barnum’s very public pro-Union politics, had decided to have a go at the Museum. Whatever the origin, the fire spread with remarkable speed. Fortunately, since the morning performances had just wrapped up, crowds were already making their way out. Some Museum staff shooed the rest to exits as others raced for pumps and hoses.

While spectators gathered to watch the growing conflagration, museum residents emerged one by one: patrons, human curiosities, staff members, and the occasional animal. Birds flew away, a few snakes slithered out only to be battered by horrified New Yorkers on the street, and firefighters rescued Ned the seal. Most of the animals were not so lucky. The New York Times remarked, with a distinct lack of sentiment, that Barnum’s animals were “gone; all burned to death, roasted whole, with stuffing au naturel, and in view of their lamentable end we may well say, ‘Peace to their ashes.'”

The hopelessness of the situation was made clear to Barnum in the telegram, but without the least sign of distress or distraction he continued his legislative speech, passionately urging his fellow legislators to exercise greater control of the state’s railroad powers. Then, he retired from the chamber to assess the dimensions of his calamity. His fellow legislators, who learned of the news Barnum had received only after he had finished, were astonished at the legislator/showman’s ability to remain so collected and persuasive in such a moment of such personal tragedy. It was a performance that instantly earned Barnum legendary status in the state’s legislative history.

Not the sort of man who would let disaster end his own story, Barnum opened a second American Museum in the mode of the first, on November 13, 1865 – mere months after the fire. This, too, later fell victim to an unfortunate fire, and, after a period of semi-retirement in Bridgeport, Barnum returned to public life with what would become the Greatest Show on Earth.

Further Reading:

Barnum’s American Museum,” The Lost Museum Archive.

Eric Grundhauser, “The Cursed History of P.T. Barnum’s Museums,” Atlas Obscura.

Barnum’s American Museum Illustrated Guidebook. (New York, 1850). Library of Congress.