One-time exhibitions, known colloquially as “one night stands,” in show business and interpersonal relationships, have a great advantage over those events that last several days or months in that press reviews are of little consequence since they appear after the show has left town. The legitimate theatre, motion pictures and the like can suffer if they get a bad review. However, rock concerts, circuses and other types of oneday showings are in the next town when the reviews come out and seldom feel the onus produced by a dissatisfied reviewer.
This was made apparent to us by the example of the Barnum Caravan of 1851-1854, which had the worse press of any traveling show we have researched, and yet was a financial success. In these days of almost instant communication such general dissatisfaction might travel ahead of the showman, but in the 1850s the only contact one paper had with another was in the exchange system, whereby newspapers sent each other their latest issue by mail.
Until 1874, this exchange system was handled by the Post Office Department at no cost to the newspapers, thus there was a great deal of interchange. Even so, two printers had to be fairly close to one another for a bad review by one to be cited by another.
Had Barnum’s Caravan (titled “Barnum’s Asiatic Caravan, Museum and Menagerie” in 1851 and 1852; and “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Colossal Museum and Menagerie” in 1853 and 1854) been owned by anyone else, our attention might not have been drawn to the multiplicity of bad reviews, but in 1851 Barnum was at the height of his powers, having just managed the Jenny Lind tour and owning as he did the Barnum Museum in New York.
In his autobiography, Barnum said: “In 1849 I had projected a great traveling museum and menagerie, and, as I had neither time nor inclination to manage such a concern, I induced Mr. Seth B. Howes, justly celebrated as a ‘showman,’ to join me, and take the sole charge. Mr. Sherwood E. Stratton, father of General Tom Thumb, was also admitted to partnership, the interest being in thirds.” (1)
We reported what was, perhaps, the outstanding aspect of the show in a previous issue of Bandwagon, the importation of nine elephants from Ceylon. (2) They arrived on May 4, 1851 and the show opened the next day.
It was not a circus, in the proper meaning of the word, but more of a sideshow and museum, as its title indicated. Tom Thumb was the best-known of its attractions. S. K. G. Nellis, the armless man, a fat-boy, and Alviza Pierce, the lion trainer, made up the rest of the human equation. A wax-figure exhibit of mannequins of every president of the United States (there had been thirteen to that date, counting the incumbent Millard Fillmore) was included as well as a wax-works diorama of temperate and intemperate families, and a collection of objects from Barnum’s Museum, which advertising said, “the full particulars of which it would be impossible to give within the limits of a newspaper advertisement.” These were archeological, botanical, ethnic and cultural items of all kinds, probably retired goods from the New York institution. The elephants, excepting a calf among them, were hitched to a large parade wagon which was called “The Car of Juggernaut,” as in Hindu mythology.
It sounds, on paper, as if it was a show worth paying twenty-five cents to see, which was the price of admission in the first season. But if one reads the reviews one gets a different picture.
The Brooklyn Eagle of May 30, 1851 said the museum portion was “a most disreputable and shabby affair.” Further, the wax figures of the presidents did not resemble those worthies. The “Intemperate Family” (part of the wax museum) “is nothing but a charnel house and putrid carcasses.” The menagerie, the writer complained, had not more than seven or eight species. Of the great carved “Car of Juggernaut,” he said, “it was a complete sham, being a vehicle of plainest ordinary construction and painted in the most irregular manner with some shabby carvings.” He ended his description by pointing out that ten elephants were advertised to pull the big wagon, but only seven were to be seen. All this was in the first month of the season.
The condition of the “Car of Juggernaut” might be explained by an item in a Massachusetts paper stating that students in Princeton, New Jersey, prior to the Brooklyn date, had run it from the College to the Canal and pushed it in the water, considerably damaging it. (3)
The Syracuse Standard, in the city where they appeared on September 5, described the show as being composed of “half-grown elephants and deformed children and men . . . a travelling humbug.”
That first season was spent in New England and New York. The second season it went into Canada, Michigan and Ohio. Its press was no better. The Wooster Democrat of September 16 reported the show to be the greatest humbug extant. The advertised price was twenty-five cents, yet “for the best part of the exhibition you had to pay fifteen cents extra.” We would guess that this was a fee for one of the outside shows.
The ads, unlike those of 1851, said that twenty-five cents was the admission, and listed what one saw for that and said, “No extra charge, under any pretense whatever, let the reports be what they may.” This indicates that complaints were getting back to the show.
The Wooster reporter went on to speak of “the slanderous representations of Washington, Jackson, Kossuth” and of “that little towheaded, snub-nosed goggle-eyed Tom Thumb strutting on the stage and offering his picture for a shilling.”
In Millersburg, Ohio, the caravan was dubbed “a collection of old clothes, stuffed and labeled, together with a few animals, mostly rendered harmless from old age and poverty . . . a bushel or two of old bones, pieces of brass, iron, stone and said to have been taken from the moor.” (4)
And in Xenia, the Torchlight of October 6 said the museum was a humbug exhibiting the baldest of caricatures. In addition, it noted, “Extra features were presented for an extra fee, which almost precipitated a riot.”
The route in 1853 led through Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois and Wisconsin. By this time Lewis B. Lent was manager and the admission had been raised to fifty cents in the South, thirty cents in the North. The rest of the show remained as it was. This lack of change was possible without fear of falling revenue, as a different part of the country was visited each season.
Brickbats from the press were as abundant in 1853 as before. In Princeton, Indiana, the Democratic Clarion of 18 June commented that the wax statuary was a perfect burlesque and slander of the men they purported to portray. The Rockford, Illinois, Rock River Democrat on August 16 weighed in with the observation that there were seven elephants on the show, which altogether would not make two good-sized ones.
The most sour comment we have found for that year is in the Mineral Point, Wisconsin, Tribune. On August 11 it said, “[Barnum’s] old dry good box, called the Car of Juggernaut, drawn by six, instead of ten half-grown elephants, looked very much like the broad side of a barn . . . we received free tickets and so will not charge Mr. Barnum for this notice.”
The Caravan spent its fourth, and last, season in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. It closed in Brooklyn on October 20, and an auction of animals and equipment was held in New York City on November 15, 1854.
They stopped listing the elephants as numbering ten in 1854, which, in any case, had been true only in their inaugural parade in New York way back in 1851. Even then, we believe they borrowed two animals from Sands, Nathans & Co. just for that one procession. Elijah Lengcl replaced Alviza Pierce as the lion trainer, otherwise everything was the same as it had been over the four seasons. And this included the usual diet of negative comments in the press.
“Blind and toothless beasts,” the Buffalo Express reported, “distorted wax figures and sundry monstrosities, which to see is to despise.”
“Old, worn-out lazy lions,” said a West Chester newspaper, “several animals in a state of feeble old age,” said another in the same town. (5)
The riot that almost occurred in Xenia, as above, finally did happen, but in Lynchburg, Virginia. A report went as follows: “A terrible row took place at Lynchburg, Virginia last week, between the showmen of Barnum’s Mammoth Exhibition and the citizens of Lynchburg, resulting from the great number of extra charges made, notwithstanding the published notice that the whole was to be seen for fifty cents. It was reported that five persons, two of the citizens and three of the showmen, were very seriously if not fatally injured, and many others slightly. The affair wound up by the entire demolition of the ticket office and the destruction of its contents, together with no little incidental damage to the show fixtures. The scene is represented to have been fearful; men, women and children were assembled under the huge tent, and the greatest consternation prevailed.” (6)
Yet, as we said, and, indeed as Barnum said, the exhibition was “immensely profitable.” The initial investment was $109,000. We don’t know the net in 1851, but in the three subsequent seasons the figures were $71,000, $48,547, and $6,000 as given in various sources. The last year may reflect the cost of the riot in Lynchburg. If the show was as bad as the press considered it to be, how did it survive, why did the public “elbow their way through the crowd,” as one observer said, to see it?
The West Chester, Pennsylvania, American Republican said, “The papers in every part of the country set the concern down as the greatest humbug of the age . . . this may be true, but what of it? Barnum has made a study of the genus homo and he has discovered a great fact, to wit, that there are two animals in the universe that wear long ears.”
The writer then went on to give his version of Barnum’s thought process. We publish it here because it may be the only explanation of why the Caravan made money that we will ever have: “Acting on this principle, (Barnum] says, ‘there are the editors and conductors of papers, they must be my assistants. I will publish flaming advertisements with pictures to match in advance of the appearance of my shows, and in this way I will draw money out of thousands that would otherwise remain at home. Pay the printer a small sum, and I will gain largely, is his motto. Barnum is one of the wise men of Gotham . . . and ‘laughs to kill’ at the soft-pated world he has so nicely duped.”
1. P. T. Barnum, Struggles and Triumphs. (1872 edition), p.355.
2. Stuart Thayer, “Elephants for Barnum,” Bandwagon, xxxiv; 3 (1990), p. 30.
3. Solan Register (CM), 5 June 1851.
4. Holmes County Whig (Millersburg, OH), 9 September 1852
5. American Republican; Village Record, both 3 October, 1854.
6. Cambria Tribune (Johnstown, PA) 4 September 1854.
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