Posts Tagged ‘P.T. Barnum’

The “poet sisters” host a Gramercy literary salon

June 9, 2016

CaryaliceIf you were a writer or thinker of some renown in New York in the 1850s and 1860s, then you likely found yourself on Sunday evenings inside a small house at 53 East 20th Street.

This was the home of Alice (right) and Phoebe Cary, two siblings dubbed “strong minded” (a 19th century put-down for an independent woman) who hosted weekly Sunday salons in their Gramercy Park parlor for the city’s literary and cultural crowd.

Here, newspaper editors, authors, and some of the bohemians who had congregated at Pfaff’s on Bleecker Street came together to “meet and mingle,” according to one biography of the Carys.

“The poet sisters, as they were known, owned a wide, low, old-fashioned house on East 20th Street, near Fourth Avenue, and their informal Sunday receptions were always thronged,” wrote Lloyd Morris in Incredible New York.

Caryphoebe“They had come to New York from an Ohio farm as young women, without either money or formal education, determined to support themselves by writing.”

Alice Cary wrote poems, ballads, and “little idylls of country life,” stated Morris. Phoebe composed parodies of Longfellow and “astringent verses about love that made old-fashioned readers uncomfortable.”

Considering the guest list, conversation at the Carys’ salon must have been fascinating.

Regular invitees included P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum and the curiosities inside it thrilled the city; Horace Greeley, editor of the New-York Tribune; publisher and abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and other cultural leaders of the day.

Carys50east20th“On Sunday evenings, you found the Carys in their parlor, a large room decorated in red and green, furnished with many comfortable, velvet-upholstered sofas and chairs,” described Morris.

“Later, everyone would cross the hall to have tea in the square, oak-paneled library.” Except Greeley, who drank two cups of sweetened milk and water and then took off to write his Monday newspaper editorial.

The famous male guests were joined by “strong-minded” movers and shakers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

CarystreetaddressThese were women like the Carys, who pursued professional work and “asserted that women ought to think for themselves, ought to get their opinions at first hand—not because this was their right, but because it was their duty,” wrote Morris.

The Carys held their weekly salon for 15 years; both sisters, closer to each other than anyone else and just four years apart, died in 1871.

[Third photo: from MCNY, early 1900s; labeled the “Careys” home and the address is 50 East 20th Street, so it is perhaps the sisters’ home, which no longer exists]

A deadly fire rages through Barnum’s Museum

December 21, 2013

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]

The hats on the 23rd Street subway platform

October 1, 2012

Ever take the N/R train and wonder why there are so many mosaic images of hats lining the platform walls?

It’s an art installation called Memories of Twenty-Third Street. Artist Keith Godard pays homage to the famous men and women who a century ago would have frequented the area around 23rd Street and Broadway, where the station is located.

“From the 1880s through the 1920s, 23rd Street was a major vaudeville, entertainment, and cultural district, and ‘Ladies Mile,’ the fashion and department store haven of the time, was located nearby,” states the MTA’s Arts for Transit website.

The hats are stand-ins for the celebs of the day, among them Lily Langtry, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, P.T. Barnum (that’s his top hat in the center photo).

Marie Curie and Winslow Homer are represented in the top pic, and the fancy hats of vaudeville actress Fay Templeton and suffragist Maud Nathan are in the third photo.

Grisly murders rock 19th century Staten Island

July 10, 2010

Polly Bodine, in her 30s, was a suspicious character in 1843 Staten Island, a rural enclave with just 10,000 or so residents.

A “fallen” woman, she lived with her parents in Graniteville after separating from her husband. She had a lover, a druggist in Manhattan.

So on Christmas Day, when the bodies of her brother’s wife and baby daughter were found bludgeoned and burned in their home across the street from the Bodine’s, suspicion fell on Polly.

On one hand, she was known to be very close to her sister-in-law.

But at her murder trial that summer in Richmondtown, witnesses claimed to have seen her hawking Emeline’s things at a pawn shop.

That trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial, in Manhattan, returned a guilty verdict, which was later invalidated. Perhaps the jury was biased by a P.T. Barnum wax figure of Polly kicking Emeline to death displayed near the courthouse.

At her third trial, held upstate—the only place they could find an “unbiased” jury—Polly was found not guilty and set free. She died in 1902.

P.T. Barnum’s “Living Curiosities”

December 27, 2009

Think of them as the cast of a reality show—so real they were actually on display 365 days a year at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum.

One of the most popular tourist attractions on the city, the museum was located on Ann Street and Broadway from 1841 to 1868.

The “curiosities” were a revolving cast. In this undated photo are two albinos, three giants, two little people, and two “circassian beauties”—women from the Northern Caucasus. 

The “beauties” have the blown-out hair on the left. In the 19th century, women from this part of the world were believed to be unusually attractive and widely desired for Middle Eastern harems. Reportedly Barnum claimed that these two had escaped a Turkish harem.

The man who walked to Brooklyn in a day

September 2, 2009

From Montauk, that is. Native American Stephen Talkhouse, a member of the Montaukett tribe, lived in Montauk Point, Long Island in the mid–19th century.

StephentalkhouseHe was known for his daily walks around the South Fork and reportedly once walked from Montauk to Brooklyn and back in just one day.

Round trip, we’re talking about 200 miles.

That’s not Talkhouse’s only brush with notoriety. Somehow showman P.T. Barnum heard about him and signed him up as “The Last King of the Mountauks.” Talkhouse became a sideshow attraction, probably at Barnum’s American Museum on Ann Street and Broadway in Manhattan.

He wasn’t a king, and he wasn’t the last Montaukett, but it must have made for a good exhibit. Barnum’s American Museum was a huge sensation, showcasing conjoined twins Chang and Eng and little person General Tom Thumb, among others.

The museum burned to the ground in 1865; Talkhouse died in 1879.

The Great Coney Island Water Carnival

June 9, 2009

Swimmers, sensational high divers, log rollers, and others—brought to you by Barnum & Bailey, of course. The sideshow and circus folks sure produced some beautiful posters around the turn of the last century.


See what’s going on this summer at Coney Island

Zip the Pinhead at Coney Island

May 27, 2009

If the year was 1925 instead of 2009 and you were planning a trip to Coney Island, you would be able to see Zip the Pinhead, a P.T. Barnum freak show find who by the 1920s displayed himself at one of the boardwalk sideshows.

Zip_the_pinheadLike other freaks of the time, he was very popular; supposedly Charles Dickens and the Prince of Wales visited him, and he had his portrait done by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady. He was also heralded for saving a little girl from drowning off Coney Island.

Despite his appearance, Zip wasn’t microcephalic (the medical term for having a pinhead). Nor was he mentally disabled, according to some accounts. He just happened to be born into a poor New Jersey family and then “discovered” by Barnum, who billed him as a “wild man” from Africa.

Apparently Zip laughed all the way to the bank. On his deathbed in 1926, the 80-something’s last words reportedly were “We fooled ’em for a long time, didn’t we?”

Check out more sideshow freaks and curiosities here.

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.