A deadly fire rages through Barnum’s Museum

If you wanted to see exotic animals in mid-19th century New York, there was one option: P.T. Barnum’s American Museum (below, in 1858).

Barnumsmuseum1858Located on Broadway and Ann Street, the museum was famous for its freaks: Anna the Giantess, the Feejee Mermaid, and Siamese twins Chang and Eng, among others.

But Barnum wasn’t all about human oddities.

He displayed an incredible menagerie of exotic creatures New Yorkers would not have been able to see otherwise.

For 25 cents, up to 15,000 visitors a day observed live beluga whales, monkeys, birds, and snakes—until July 13, 1865.

On that post-Civil War day, a terrible fire tore through the museum building. Firefighters arrived quickly to aid the human exhibits, but the flames spelled doom for many of the animals.


“The whales were, of course, burned alive, wrote The New York Times the next day. “At an early stage of the conflagration, the large panes of glass in the great ‘whale tank’ were broken to allow the heavy mass of water to flow upon the floor of the main saloon, and the leviathan natives of Labrador, when last seen, were floundering in mortal agony. . . .”

BarnumsmuseumfiretigerThe snakes tried to slither away, but “their mortal coils heated quickly,” as the florid Times article stated, and they were not saved.

A kangaroo, alligator, and monkeys also perished.  A report of an escaped lion terrified crowds, but that apparently turned out to be a hoax. (Perpetuated by Barnum maybe? He certainly knew how to attract attention. )

BarnummuseumfiregiantessNed “the learned seal,” a popular exhibit, was one of the few live animals that escaped unharmed.

As for the human attractions, Anna the Giantess was too big for firemen to carry out of the burning building, so she was hoisted down via a crane.

The museum was destroyed, but Barnum rebuilt. That new museum also burned three years later. Barnum turned to circus exhibits, where his name lives on.

[Third photo: NYPL Digital Collection]

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4 Responses to “A deadly fire rages through Barnum’s Museum”

  1. RD Wolff Says:

    And not one building that can be seen in that fire view of Ann St and Broadway remains today except what appears to be Trinity church (St Paul across the street is not visible in the image)

  2. RD Wolff Says:

    I found my scan of a Magic Lantern slide made circa 1875-1878 of this location.


  3. The most magical place in the eyes of city kids | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] museum burned down in 1865 in a spectacular fire that killed many of the animals. Though Barnum rebuilt it in farther north on Broadway, the […]

  4. The ghost photographer who became a sensation in Gilded Age New York City | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] went on trial for fraud later that year, with several photographers, as well as P. T. Barnum, testifying against him. In the end, he was acquitted, since the prosecution could not prove beyond […]

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