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).
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. . . .”
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. )
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]