Posts Tagged ‘freak show’

The most magical place in the eyes of city kids

January 30, 2017

Today’s equivalent might be an afternoon at an Imax theater, or a trip to Dylan’s Candy Bar or to see the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History.


But for New York City kids growing up in the antebellum 19th century, the greatest treat of all was a visit to Barnum’s American Museum.

barnummuseum1858“Sometimes my mother and father would take me to P.T. Barnum’s Museum—on the corner of Broadway and Ann Street,” wrote James Edward Kelly, who as a small child in 1860s New York recalls Barnum’s as the promise land “for all good boys and girls.”

“As I remember it, it was a large, light colored building, five stories high. It had a balcony over the first floor, and facing Broadway was an expansive banner on which was painted the latest wonder of the world, and behind it a band was constantly playing,” remembered Kelly in his memoir, Tell Me of Lincoln.

It’s not hard to see the appeal. From 1842 to 1865, Barnum’s was a menagerie (below), circus, theater, and freak show all under one heavily decorated roof.


For 25 cents (15 cents for kids under age 10), parents and their offspring could gaze at exotic animals, view exhibits of scientific discoveries, watch historical plays, and be entertained by magicians and musicians in what was cheekily called the “Lecture Room.”

barnumannaswan“[At Barnum’s] I found the people of my fancy realized: giants, in the person of Miss Anna Haining Bates Swan (at left), eight feet high, and dwarfs, such as Commodore George Washington Morrison Nutt” (below).

“Here I also saw Barnum’s white whale, and Ned the trained seal, who had an almost uncanny intelligence,” recalled Kelly.

barnumcommodorenuttBarnum’s was famous worldwide, a must-see for tourists. At its peak the museum was open almost around the clock, entertaining crowds in the millions.

“The country people, so as to get all they could for their money, used to bring their lunches and stay all day, thus filling up the building,” stated Kelly.

While kids were enthralled, many proper adults found Barnum’s appeal decidedly lowbrow, catering to the “vulgar gaze,”  as one English visitor put it in 1854.

barnumsmuseumadBarnum’s occupied “a gaudy building, denoted by huge paintings, multitudes of flags, and a very noisy band,” the visitor wrote.

“The museum contains many objects of real interest . . . intermingled with a great deal that is spurious and contemptible.”

The 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 operation ceased in 1868.

But Barnum’s remained alive in the imaginations of kids like Kelly, who remembered the excitement of watching a show in the lecture room (below).

“Then came the delicious moments of suspense, when the audience waited for wonders that were behind the curtain….”


“Then with a crash from the band, the curtain rolled up and we soon got goose flesh over the blood-curdling play, unsurpassed by any in the Old Bowery Theatre.”

[Images: NYPL]

Sleighs and snowball fights on Ann Street

December 27, 2010

With lots of snow, a six-horse sleigh, and a brass band in the mix, downtown Manhattan appears lively and festive in Thomas Benecke’s lithograph “Sleighing in New York” from 1855.

“This boisterous scene of a sleigh collision and snowball fight may have been a staged spectacle, given that it occurred in front of P.T. Barnum’s museum at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street,” states the caption of Impressions of New York, by Marilyn Symmes.

Inside Barnum’s Museum at about this time, it was a very different scene—one featuring these and other “living curiosities.”

New York’s “fairy” wedding of the year, 1863

May 6, 2009

General Tom Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton, was already an international sensation even before his celebrated New York City marriage. Three-foot tall Tom had toured the world with P.T. Barnum, who taught him how to sing, dance, and perform when he was a kid. 

tomthumbgetsmarriedOn February 10, 1863, Tom, 25, married 20-year-old Lavinia Warren, also part of P.T. Barnum’s traveling sideshow. The wedding took place at Grace Church on Broadway and East 10th Street; the reception held at the Metropolitan Hotel, down Broadway on Prince Street.

laviniawarrenBarnum milked the nuptials as best as he could. He sold tickets to the reception for $75 a head, displayed Lavinia’s hand-made wedding dress in a department store window, and hawked souvenir trinkets.

Thousands of New Yorkers crowded the streets outside the church while Vanderbilts and Astors watched inside. Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, who had a studio nearby, took photos. Newspapers ran stories about the “loving lilliputians” and their “fairy wedding.” 

Tom and Lavinia continued to tour with Barnum. They had no kids (much to Barnum’s chagrin), and the marriage lasted until Tom died of a stroke in 1883.