Barnum profited from Springfield

Newspapers of 1872 mirthfully referred to pickpockets as “the light fingered gentry.”

And “as expected,” the Springfield Daily News reported in July of that year, gents of that gentry had “devoted themselves strictly to business” among the people who flocked to Springfield to see P.T. Barnum’s show.

“One lady lost her port-monnaie (wallet) while doing some marketing on the street,” and Samuel Wolf, “an old gentleman … was relieved of a pocket book containing a small amount of money and notes worth $1,200.”

But the largest haul, the paper reported, was made by Barnum himself, when his treasurer sent “a little package of $25,000” east from Springfield, about half of which he’d collected here.

That money came in 50-cent increments people picked from their own pockets to see his show. Others managed to pony up more by cashing in on a special offer: free admission to anyone who bought Barnum’s biography for $1.50, a savings of $2 off the list price.

If not the best selling autobiography of the time, “it was up there,” said Neil Harris, who was asked to take part in the re-issue of the book about 50 years ago.

“I began (writing) an introduction that got out of hand,” said Harris, from his offices at the University of Chicago. It turned into Harris’ book “Humbug,” a biography of Barnum that remains in print 40 years after publication.

Focused on the showman of showman’s early life, the book focused on a theme dominated Barnum’s entire career: How he legally defrauded people, so thoroughly entertaining them in the process that no one asked for a refund.

Harris likens what Barnum pulled off to the sleight-of-hand marketed as magic.

“It’s not magic in the true sense” of something supernatural happening, Harris said. “It’s magic because you can’t figure it out.”

It was Barnum’s genius to place his bait for human curiosity in the irresistible place between fact and illusion.

Springfielders in 1872 and 1873 ponied up to take a look at several “living curiosities.”

Among them: two albinos, Aztec children, a fat lady, living skeleton and Arabian giant.

Forty years earlier, he had done the same with the character of Joyce Heth, whom he promoted as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington.

For the scientific rather than historically curious, he went on tour with the so-called Feejee mermaid, a part-monkey, part-fish that left admission paying primates scratching their heads.

The latter was a big enough hit that the Cabinet of Curiosities the Clark County Historical Society displays a Feejee mermaid.

Barnum “presented to the public these obvious frauds,” Harris said, “and surrounded them with controversy” to heighten the hype.

All that was a set-up for resolving the matter in the way people of a democracy should: by deciding for themselves, once they’d paid the price of admission.

“The point is,” said Harris, “you become complicit with the impostor.”

Maybe because of the part democracy played in his scheming, the British saw Barnum as “a representative American.”

But in the age of rail, the German military also studied Barnum’s later touring shows just to see how he managed to transport a museum, a zoo, circus troupes and all that was needed to care for an entertainment invasion.

Logistics also put Barnum in a surprisingly influential position among operators of the nation’s natural history museums, said Andrew McClellan, professor of art history at Tufts University.

In the 1800s, “all museums of natural history relied heavily on circuses for their animal specimens,” said McClellan.

When exotic circus animals died, “which they did often” because they had been taken into unfriendly climates, McClellan said, “Barnum and others donated the remains to museums, which had them stuffed and mounted for display.

Indeed, an advertisement for his “Campaign of 1873,” which stopped in Springfield offered this: “Which is the only show in the country that has six monster Living Sea Lions, four of which are held in reserve in case of accident or death? P.T. Barnum.”

“He was the main donor to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and also to the Smithsonian in earlier days,” McClellan said.

And in 1885, when Jumbo, the star elephant Barnum bought for $10,000, died after being struck by a locomotive in Canadian train yard, it did double-duty.

“Barnum took the hide and skeleton with him on tour for four more years,” McClellan said.

When the tour ended, Barnum donated Jumbo’s skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History and its hide to Tufts University, where it was stuffed and displayed until until being destroyed by fire in 1975.

The fire was in Barnum Hall, which he had paid for.

“By the standards of the day in 1880, Tufts was given a state-of-the-art science facility,” said McClellan.

Barnum’s ties with Tufts were through his belief in Unitarian Universalism. He also saw his circuses as having an educational purpose and being family-friendly, which tied into his opposition to alcohol.

As much of a huckster and showman as Barnum may have been, “the circus was a form of innocent entertainment for the family,” McClellan said.

At least a symbol of Barnum’s legacy lives on in the Tufts mascot: Jumbo himself.

Tufts’ Website say that Jumbo’s ashes, saved in a peanut butter jar, are considered to be a source of good luck for the university’s athletic teams.

It’s an idea Barnum would love to have marketed.

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