Sunday, June 10, 2018

358. P.T. Barnum: Does He Out-Trump Donald Trump?

For my other books, see BROWDERBOOKS below.

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A collection of posts from this blog.  Short biographical sketches of people, some remembered and some forgotten, who lived or died in New York.  All kinds of wild stuff, plus some stuff that isn't quite wild but fascinating.  New York is a mecca for hustlers of every kind, some likable and some horrible, but they are never boring.

To be published July 26.  You can order it here from the publisher and get a discounted price (plus postage), but it won't be shipped before that date.  Also available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, minus the discount but with the delay.  Signed copies are available now from the author (i.e., me) for $20.00 (plus postage, if needed), though in limited numbers.  


Recently I lunched again at an Indian restaurant on Bleecker Street between Seventh and Sixth Avenues.  Luckily, I got the table by the front window, and since that window had been opened, I felt close to the people passing on the street outside.  Being in a good mood, I thought I'd try the forbidden: to make innocent eye contact with the passersby, well aware that they might think I had a commercial or sexual purpose in mind.  But how could I, when I was inside and they were outside, with many witnesses on hand?  So I smiled benignly at the passing throng.  The result, after doing this for an hour: two contacts.  Most of the passersby were immersed in talk with friends, or involved with their smart phone or tablet, but a few noticed me briefly.  One older woman, passing with her spouse, smiled back, and one young girl, passing with her family, waved to me, and I waved back.  And that was it.  In New York, you don't make innocent eye contact with strangers.  Any attempt to do so implies an ulterior motive.  People assume you want something from them -- something more than a fleeting smile -- are they are on the defensive.  Worse still, they may think you're one of those guys.

But my time at the window wasn't wasted.  When not consuming my chana saag and mango lassi, I could once again view the enterprises on the other side of the street.  Right across Bleecker was the sign Caliente Cab Co., which, as I knew from previous visits, has nothing to do with cabs, as is made clear by a vertical sign below: TEQUILA BAR.  Inside, I could see people lunching and, I'm sure, imbibing.

Just to the left of this came a series of signs: KUMO SUSHI, FISH RESTAURANT / SEA FOOD, and then on an awning, JOHNS OF BLEECKER STREET / since 1929.  This last baffled me, until I finally saw a small neon sign: pizzeria.  So there it is: Mexican, then Japanese, then American, and then Italian/American.  And this while sitting In an Indian restaurant, with a big photo on the wall opposite of a huge elephant with its calf (if that's what young elephants are called).  Once again, the diversity of New York.


         Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) perfected the gentle art of humbug.  (Humbug, verb: to willfully deceive or trick.)  Born and raised in Connecticut, then a stronghold of strict Protestantism, he was convinced that Americans could be entertained only if the entertainment was presented as serious and educational.  His whole eventful career, much of it based in sinful and fun-loving New York City, was devoted to “educating” the American public -- amusing and hoaxing them -- so as to “put money in my own coffers.”  The saying “There’s a sucker born every minute” has long been attributed to him, but the “Prince of Humbug” probably never said it.  But as regards his coffers, he started early: by age 12 he was peddling molasses candy, gingerbread, and homemade cherry rum.  Not humbug – not yet – but a prime example of what was then called “Yankee push.”

File:Life of P. T. Barnum frontispiece 1855.jpg

         Some of his most famous shows and humbugs:

·      Joyce Heth, an aged negress, a blind and almost paralyzed slave whom he leased and then presented as George Washington’s nurse, 161 years old, with yellowed documents to prove her authenticity.  In 1836, after being worked 10 to 12 hours a day spinning tales about “dear little George,” she inconvenienced him by dying.  Barnum then had a doctor do an autopsy in a New York saloon and charged admission.  When the autopsy revealed that Heth was only about 80, Barnum claimed that the corpse was a fake, and that the real Joyce Heth was alive and performing elsewhere – a maneuver that maintained public interest in the hoax.  This ethically questionable enterprise launched his career.  (Later he distanced himself from the hoax and even became an abolitionist.)
·      The “Egress” in his American Museum in New York.  A sign that read “This way to the egress” encouraged museumgoers to go through a door and exit the museum, so that they had to pay again to enter.  Which may help explain why the museum drew some 4,000 visitors a day, some of them being repeats.
·      A wild buffalo hunt in Hoboken, with strong fences to protect the public from the savage beasts, which in fact were quite feeble and docile, and barely capable of movement.
·      The Feejee Mermaid, the body of a fish sewn to the head and hands of a monkey, a puny, dried-up thing with two chests and two bellies that by provoking a controversy sparked the interest of the public.
·      General Tom Thumb, a genuine dwarf whom he ballyhooed into an international celebrity and exhibited to Queen Victoria in England and the royal court in France.  Later he had him marry a female midget and sponsored their honeymoon tour.

File:Samuel Root or Marcus Aurelius Root - P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb - Google Art Project-crop.jpg
Barnum and Tom Thumb, circa 1850.
·      Jenny Lind, the Swedish coloratura soprano whom he likewise ballyhooed into a celebrity, making the public desperately eager to hear her warbling notes.  The Lind mania was such that items were named for her: women’s hats, opera glasses, paper dolls, sheet music, and even chewing tobacco.  Her nine-month tour in America grossed, in today’s dollars, the astonishing amount of $21 million.  Fictionalized accounts of Barnum’s life have him and Lind at least somewhat in love, but this is fiction; theirs was a business relationship and nothing more.
·      His three-ring circus in New York, whose initial lack of a giraffe was explained by a sad tale of feeding one to the lions to keep them alive during the hard voyage across the Atlantic. 
·      200 educated rats that performed amusing tricks in his museum.
·      The giant six-ton African elephant Jumbo, which he bought in London in 1881 and brought to this country, to the outrage and dismay of all of England.  Here he advertised it as “The Only Mastodon on Earth,” and advertised it in pictures vastly exaggerating its size.  When Jumbo, touring by rail, was killed by a freight train in Canada, Barnum had the animal stuffed and mounted, and presented his remains, and a female elephant labeled his widow, to the public.

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Jumbo.  A sheet music cover, 1882.

         Americans were hardheaded, shrewd, and suspicious, but pseudoscientific explanations could win them over, and Barnum offered plenty of those.  And if one of his hoaxes was exposed, many of the public admired the cleverness of the hoax, noting that Barnum was a very “smart” man, meaning clever to the point of duplicity.  And if controversy resulted, so much the better; it was all part of the show. 

File:Iranistan, Residence of P.T. Barnum, 1848 crop.jpg

         Always the showman, he created Iranistan, a country estate in Connecticut with a “Moorish” mansion topped by onion-shaped domes, then had an elephant pulling a plow in sight of passenger trains passing on the tracks of a nearby railroad.  Meanwhile he got involved in local politics in Connecticut, promoted minstrel shows, and in 1870, at age 60, went into the circus business, founding P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome.  This in time became Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, the “Greatest Show on Earth,” which in later years merged with Ringling Brothers and toured the world, closing its doors only in 2017 because of high operating costs and declining ticket sales.

File:The life of P.T. Barnum (1855) (14778924761).jpg
The Barnum Museum at Broadway and Ann Street, 1855.  Dioramas, panoramas, scientific instruments, a flea circus, the Feejee Mermaid, the Siamese Twins, trained bears, freaks, a rifle range, glass blowers, waxworks, an oyster bar, and magicians, and all for twenty-five cents.

         Barnum had a colorful career with many ups and downs, including defecating animals; a fat boy who lost weight; fires that reduced Iranistan and his museums to ashes; near bankruptcy; and a train wreck that killed 33 horses and 2 camels.  Not to mention occasional exposures.  “Some skunk,” he wrote a colleague, “saw the Mermaid box on the top shelf in my office, so that’s been tattled out.”  Ever resourceful, he survived every setback and went on to even greater displays that would “kill the public dead.”  His autobiography, first published in 1854, became a bestseller; by the end of the century, its North American sales were surpassed only by the New Testament.  Also of interest is his 1880 book, The Art of Money-Getting, which to my ear has a distinctly contemporary ring. 

         Other tidbits from his life:

·      Before becoming a showman, in his early years in Connecticut he was in turn a peddler, clerk, porter house keeper, village store proprietor, country newspaper editor, boarding house keeper, and lottery operator.
·      An impoverished country boy, he helped a cattle drover drive a herd of cattle to New York and immediately saw the vast prospects for making money that the city offered.  In time, New York would become his base for the rest of his money-making life.
·      He published a newspaper, the Herald of Freedom, and spent 60 days in jail in Danbury, Connecticut, when convicted of libel.  There he decorated his cell, continued to publish his paper, and at his release threw a party and parade to celebrate.
·      To present his circus, he created the 10,000-seat New York Hippodrome, which opened in 1874.  He had his office there until his death in 1891.  Its later name: Madison Square Garden.
·      He is said to have had correspondence with Mark Twain, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Queen Victoria (to whom he presented Tom Thumb), Abraham Lincoln (at least he voted for him), Ulysses Grant, and Thomas Edison, who recorded his voice.

         If I have lingered over Barnum, it’s because he raised the art of humbugging to a new level and made a fortune – in fact, several – in the process.  He claimed to educate and edify, but mostly he was letting his audience have a vast amount of fun.  Which, in Victorian times, was no small feat.  And he’s still with us today.  A film entitled “The Greatest Showman” opened last winter and gave a splashy version of his career. Simultaneously, a cartoon in the Times of December 20, 2017, showed Barnum gesturing grandly toward THE GREATEST HUMBUG OF THEM ALL, whose face was unmistakably that of the present occupant of the White House.  And right below the cartoon was a column by history professor Stephen Mihm with the caption No, Trump Is Not P.T. Barnum. 

         So what does Professor Mihm profess?  First, he grants that there are certain similarities:

·      A willingness to bend the truth.
·      Artful manipulation of the press.
·      Self-promotion.
·      Tremendous energy.
·      Hyperbole.
·      A fondness for living large (Iranistan, Mar-a-Lago).
·      Bankruptcy, followed by recovery.

         But there the similarities end.  Unlike Trump, Barnum was a devoted husband, and a scrupulous businessman who paid his debts in full and on time, and worked hard and made personal sacrifices to get out of bankruptcy.  Visitors to his exhibits might dispute their authenticity, Barnum argued, but rarely felt shortchanged or cheated.  Though he shared the casual racism of his time and profited from it, he became a progressive who voted for Lincoln in 1860 and advocated voting rights for blacks.  If Barnum were alive today, Professor Mihm suggests, he would want to exhibit the Donald as an extreme embodiment of humbug – worthy of a sideshow, but nothing more.  My conclusion: Barnum doesn't out-Trump the Donald; he played a different and more responsible game.

Coming soon: BookCon 2018: How I Survived Pop Culture, Bill Clinton, the Grim Reaper, and Grinning Pink-Nosed Trolls.


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

Browder - Cover - 9781681143675-Perfect - 2
The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?

Early reviews

"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

New release; available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

©   2018   Clifford Browder

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