PODCAST Before the American circus existed, animal menageries travelled the land, sometimes populated with exotic creatures. This is the story of the perhaps the most extraordinary wandering menagerie of all.
This year marks the end to the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and, with it, the end of the traditional American circus. Once at the core of the American circus was the performing elephant. Today we understand that such captivity is no place for an endangered beast but, for much of this country’s history, circus elephants were one of the centerpieces of live entertainment.
This is the tale of the first two elephants to ever arrive in the United States. The first came by ship in 1796, an Indian elephant whose unusual appearance in the cattle pens at a popular local tavern would inspire one farmer to seek another one out for himself.
Her name was Old Bet, a young African elephant at the heart of all American circus mythology. She appeared in traveling menageries, equestrian circuses and even theatrical productions, long before humans really understood the nature of these sophisticated animals.
Find out how her strange, eventful and tragic life helped inspire the invention of American spectacle and how her memory lives on today in one town in Upstate New York.
Today let’s give a little love to New York original mermaid queen — the hideous Fiji (Fejee) Mermaid!
This sickening Frankenstein monster — comprising a monkey’s head sewn onto a fish torso — was displayed in PT Barnum’s American Museum off and on for almost twenty years. Believe it or not, Barnum actually leased it from an owner who had bought it off of sailors. It’s actual connection to the Fiji Islands remains tenuous at best.
“[M]any naturalists and scientific men who have examined it assert that it is absolutely the work of Nature. Others however insist that its existence is a natural impossibility. When doctors disagree, the PUBLIC must decide.”
Here’s how the mermaid was advertised in the newspapers:
This is what it actually looked like:
This was classic Barnum bait-and-switch. In fact, he relied on the artifact’s somewhat disappointing appearance to give it a bit of authenticity. See, why would I fake something that looked like this? was the implication.
From Barnum’s autobiography: “The public appeared to be satisfied, but as some persons always will take take things literally, and make no allowances for poetic license even in mermaids, an occasional visitor, after having seen the large transparency in front of the hall, representing a beautiful creature half woman and half fish, about eight feet in length, would be slightly surprised in finding that the reality was a specimen of dried monkey and fish that a boy a few years old could easily run away with under his arm.”
So popular was the exhibit that the old museum of Rubens Peale in today’s City Hall Park debuted its own mermaid, a parody monster called the Fud-Ge Mermaid:
By the 1850s, the Fejee Mermaid was one of a cast of oddities featured at Barnum’s museum. By this point, the grotesque object was probably a commons sight for regular museum goers. I imagine it, perhaps, with a light coating of dust, possibly a cobweb. Below: An advertisement from the Daily Tribune, 1855:
Whatever became of the mermaid? Some say she disappeared during a fire at the museum. I’m not sure she was still there when Confederate spies attempted to burn down the museum on November 25, 1864. But she lives on as an icon of fabulous hoax, “one of the most scientific fakes ever perpetrated upon the American public.” [source]
And she lives on in our hearts. How can you resist a face like that?
One hundred and fifty years ago this week (July 13, 1865), New York City lost one of its most famous, most imaginative and most politically incorrect attractions.
When P.T. Barnum opened his museum in 1841, the kooky curiosities contained within the building at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street— at the foot of Park Row — were simply reconstituted properties from other museums. But he soon expanded the collection to include living spectacles, both human and animal, become both the greatest show and the greatest side-show on earth.
From his lilliputian stars Tom Thumband Commodore Nuttto the unfortunate white whales contained in water tanks in the basement, Barnum’s American Museum was New York’s destination for the fascinating and the weird. Millions would visit its corridors during its two and a half decades of operation. It was so renown that it was even a target of attempted sabotageduring the Civil War.
Below: A rare photo of Barnum’s American Museum, taken in 1858
At around noon on July 13, 1865, the building quickly succumbed to “the fierce tooth of fire,” causing the greatest pandemonium that New York City had ever seen. I must give way to some of the press reports of the day, as they best capture the drama:
New York Times: “Probably no building in New-York was better known, inside and out, to our citizens than the ill-looking ungainly, rambling structure on the corner of Broadway and Ann-streets, known as the American Museum, where for more than twenty years Mr. Barnum has furnished the public with a wonderful variety of amusements.”
Below: The street scene at the cross-section of Broadway and Ann Street, in 1860. A sign advertising Barnum’s snake collection can be seen on the museum.
New York Sun: “About half past twelve o’clock yesterday … the Engineer rushed up from below announcing that his room was on fire, and about the same time immense volumes of smoke permeated the Ann Street end of the building. [K]nowing that the immense whale tank was directly over the spot where the fire had begun to make headway, attempted to knock a hole in the huge reservoir.”
The occupants of the tanks were doomed. “‘[T]wo whales, imported, at a cost of $7,000, from the coast of Labrador,’ whose sportive plunges and animated contests of affection afforded constant amusement to hundreds of spectators, [was] a pregnant contrast to the fearful death by roasting which they so soon thereafter met.”
The fire spread rapidly, quickly filling the upper floors with smoke. Firemen burst in from the Ann Street side and quickly attended to patrons who had collapsed or were too confused in the immense labyrinth of bizarre objects to escape.
A fireman named William McNamara is credited with single-handedly evacuating many patrons of the museum, not to mention some of the performers who regularly lived there. From the New York Sun: “Knowing that [some performers] occupied apartments on the third floor, he rushed thither and burst open the doors. Finding the rooms empty he ascended to the next floor and succeeded in bringing down the ladies assembled in the dressing rooms there – Miss Swan, the Giantess, and Miss Zuruby Hannus, the Circassian girl.”
Below: Anna Swan, ‘the Giantess’ who lived at the museum, was successfully rescued
Many of the wax figures from the third floor were hurled out the windows. One peculiar item captured the imagination of the crowd — the wax depiction of Jefferson Davis, dressed in a woman’s petticoat. (It was rumored that the former president of the Confederacy has attempted to escape dressed as a lady.)
NYT: “One [rescuer] had Jefferson Davis’ effigy in his arms and fought vigorously to preserve the worthless thing, as though it were a gem of rare value. On reaching the balcony the man, perceiving that either the inanimate Jefferson or himself must go by the board, hurled the scarecrow to the iconoclasts in the street. As Jefferson made his perilous descent, his petticoats again played him false, and as the wind blow them about, the imposture of the figure was exposed.”
NYS: “When the Jefferson Davis petticoated figure was recognized by the crowd, it was seized, kicked, knocked and finally hanged to an awning frame [in front of St. Paul’s Church], amid the derisive and contumelious epithets of the persons engaged in this pastime.”
More seriously a great number of artifacts from the Revolutionary War were incinerated in the fire. “Valuable mementos of Washington, Putnam, Greene, Marion, Andre, Cornwallis, Howe, Burr, Clinton, Jefferson, Adams, and other eminent men which should have been carefully stored in a fire-proof vault, yesterday smoldered in the heat….” [NYT]
The museum’s impressive collection of taxidermy — monkeys, lions, elephants, zebras — were swallowed up by smoke and collapsed into the inferno.
But the museum also had a great many living animals — snakes, pigs, dogs, and even a kangaroo and an alligator. And, of course, a great many monkeys — “big monkeys, little monkeys, monkeys of every degree of tail, old, grave, gray monkeys, young, rascally, mischievous monkeys, middle-aged, scheming monkeys, and a great many miserable, mangry monkeys.” Most perished in the flames although some escaped into the streets, some never to be found again.
Below: This is Harpers Weekly’s illustration of Barnum’s second fire — see below — but could have tragically captured the events on July 13, 1865.
Remarkably, nobody humans died in the blaze. In fact, few wax depictions of humans perished as many took to rescuing wax figures thinking they were alive. The fire spread to several surrounding buildings, and soon the entire block was engulfed in flame.
NYT: “The roof of the Museum had now fallen, and the interior of the building was like the crater of a volcano. A stream of heated air issued from the top, and was borne eastward by the breeze directly over the block, carrying with it light articles, pieces of burning wood, shingles ….
At 1:30 came a crash resounding like the explosion of a powder magazine. The whole wall on the Ann-street side had fallen. A cloud of dust and smoke filled the air, making it dark as twilight, and rendering it impossible to descry objects at short distance.”
There was a bit a looting, including “two men dressed as soldiers [who] were seen coming out of the shoe-store in Ann Street, each with five or six pairs of shoes under their coats.” And there were false reports that the lion has escaped and was running through the streets.
For years after, people mourned the loss of Barnum’s collection, truly among the greatest in New York City up until that time. Barnum attempted to relaunch the museum at 539-541 Broadway. but it, too, was destroyed in a fire (pictured below). Then, in 1871, he leased a train depot and called it Barnum’s Monster Classical and Geological Hippodrome. (It would later morph into the first Madison Square Garden.)
Finally he just decided to take his collection of acts on the road forming a traveling circus in 1881 with ringmaster James Anthony Bailey. While the world of entertainment would be changed by their collaboration — Barnum and Bailey’s Circus — most would consider the old American Museum as Barnum’s greatest achievement.
Below: Barnum’s second museum destroyed by fire, which gutted the building on a cold day
The attentions of most New Yorkers 150 years ago today were understandably occupied by the events of the Civil War. The general mood in April 1862 had turned cynical and grim. It had been one year since the first battle at Fort Sumter. The bloodiest skirmish yet, the Battle of Shiloh in northwestern Tennessee, left thousands dead on the battlefield just two weeks before, and attention now turned to the standoff at Fort Pulaski.
And yet the city in April 1862 was overflowing with distraction. The jewellers Ball Black & Co. displayed a framed personal letter from Queen Victoria, thanking New Yorkers for their well wishers following the death of her husband a few months earlier. Across the street, at Niblo’s Garden, theatergoers could delight in ‘The Enchantress’, featuring actor William Wheatley, who would later stage the world’s first Broadway musical, ‘The Black Crook’, on that very stage. Merry gentleman and naughty ladies drank up in lower Manhattan’s various concert saloons, bracing for the effects of a new law passed that month that would effectively close down such bawdy amusements. (Luckily, the law had little effect.)
But New York’s merry king of showbiz in 1862 was P.T. Barnum,his American Museum still New York’s most popular attraction. That April, Barnum featured a ‘living hippopotamus’ and two beluga whale in its basement, and among the museum’s many shows at Broadway and Ann Street was the feature ‘Hop O’ My Thumb, or The Ogre And The Dwarf’ starring Barnum’s biggest small star General Tom Thumb.
Thumb, however, was not Barnum’s only dwarf star in 1862. Earlier that year, Barnum unveiled a New Hampshire teenager afflicted with dwarfism and presented him with the stage name Commodore George Washington Nutt. Known as the ‘$30,000 Nutt’ due the amount of money he was supposedly paid (although later disproven), the young man was advertised as “the Smallest Man in Miniature in the known world” and “Most Attractive and Interesting human being ever known.”
At right: Nutt in an illustration from Harpers Weekly, February 1862, ‘bursting out of his shell’
Although Nutt would perform at the museum, he was frequently used as an instrument to promote Barnum’s many endeavors. He would serve as Tom Thumb’s friendly rival for the hand of diminutive actress Lavinia Warren (whom Thumb later married at Grace Church in 1863) and tour throughout Europe with Barnum. But on April 17, 1862, Nutt had a local duty to perform — at the headquarters of the New York Police Department.
According to the Daily Tribune, Nutt met with local police commissioners in an effort to get an officer specifically assigned to Barnum’s museum. And just in case the idea would be met with indifference, Nutt himself applied to become a New York police officer, although his height of three feet might have precluded him from such an occupation.
A uniform was immediately ordered for the young star, and by telegraph to the Ninth Precinct, he claimed he would hold ‘extraordinary powers to arrest’ troublemakers at the Museum. It appears, however, that Nutt held few responsibilities for the police force.
During his tour of the police facilities, including the famed Rogue’s Gallery, the charming performer even got in a rather dirty joke. According to the article, “Some one said that on the stage the Commodore had been seen to kiss a girl on the mouth. ‘Well, that was the right place, wasn’t it?’ was the reply.”
The famed Barnum & Bailey’s presented an elaborate Cleopatra-themed stage show during its 1912 season, featuring over 1,500 performers. The show had debuted just the week before at Madison Square Garden. Certainly some of its stars — perhaps Cleopatra herself? — participated in the March 1912 suffrage event.
Women did not have the right to vote one hundred years ago. I know this is not an unknown fact. There are people who are still alive who remember that an extra X chromosome excluded you from what is today considered a basic American right for adults.
This struck me as particularly odd this morning, having read last evening all about some odd events from a hundred years ago, March 31, 1912, involving the Barnum & Bailey circus troupe, in town to perform at Madison Square Garden (back in its Madison Square location). The female stars of Barnum’s traveling show decided to throw their support behind the suffragist cause — and the newspapers could barely keep their laughter in check.
Modern women activists of the day were happy to see any headlines relating their cause, as long as the environment was a respectable one. The circus was not one of those environs. Then consider that most newspapers were operated by men and read by men. While some progressive sheets supported suffrage, several chose to cast the cause in a satirical light where possible. The ladies of Barnum & Bailey gave reporters a particularly ripe opportunity for a little spoofing.
Seventy-five women employed by America’s most famous circus organized an afternoon suffrage rally and invited the press to the world’s first ‘circus suffrage society‘. How indeed could reporters resist a group of comely acrobats and horse wranglers, presenting their cause on the site of caged animals?
It was meant as a solemn pronouncement; reporters mocked it. “They Organize As Man-Eating Hyena Grins, Elephants Trumpet‘, went the Tribune headline, as the circus’s publicity agent “solemnly sw[o]re last night with a hand on his heart that the meeting was a real, honest-to-goodness suffrage meeting.” [source] This was Barnum territory, after all. Although the great showman had died many years earlier, perhaps after decades of chicanery and misdirection, nobody could take a Barnum photo opportunity with a straight face.
But it was a serious endeavor, led by petite circus rider Josie De Mott (pictured at left)and acrobat Zella Florence. Included in the audience were animal trainers, wire walkers, ‘hand balancers’, dancers, acrobats and even a few strong ladies, including the renown Katie Sandwina, ‘the female Hercules’ (pictured below).
Not in attendance, however, were key members of the mainstream suffrage movement — notably Brooklyn socialite Inez Millholland and the movement’s de facto leader Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Mrs. Blatch, the New York Times noted, was having tea with her fellow esteemed suffragists at their 46 East 29th Street headquarters. (It should be noted they were only a block away from Madison Square Garden!) However, perhaps recognizing the value of a traveling suffragist show, they did deign to send a representative named Beatrice Jones.
Clearly flustered by the appearance of the press — the society ladies of the suffrage movement did not consider a circus ring an appropriate political venue — Jones repeatedly asked the ladies if they were serious, then dispensed advice on how to conduct themselves as standard-bearers of the roving suffragist cause.
At one point, the male half of Barnum’s husband-and-wife riding act stormed in and dragged his partner from the meeting. The crowd assailed the interloper with boos and hisses.
After the meeting, De Mott and the other circus suffragists created a dandy of a photo op, moving to a cage and presenting the name of ‘Miss Suffrage’ to a young baby giraffe. The Times coyly suggested the animal was male: “[B]y nightfall he couldn’t abide even the sight of a suffragette.”
The ‘proper’ suffragists acquiesced and eventually did meet with their more flamboyant sisters over tea the following week. The society activists marveled at the vigor of the Barnum ladies. “It is because they have so much exercise,” one exclaimed, all the while “looking envious at the at the smooth skins and rosy cheeks,” the Times condescendingly added.
Top picture courtesy the Boston Public Library. The picture of Ms. DeMott comes from this blog about West Hempstead history and has a lovely story about the feisty circus star. And as for Mrs. Sandwina (at right), you can read all about this wonderful lady at Forgotten Newsmakers.
Meet Afong Moy, the Chinese teenager who became the most famous Asian person in America in the 1830s. I would not exactly call her notoriety enviable.
There’s a strong likelihood that Moy (in the illustration at right) was actually the first Asian woman to ever step foot in New York. Early trade with China, beginning in 1784, would have brought New Yorkers in contact with the Chinese for the first time, but the traders and sailors manning the trading vessels would have been male. By the 1830s, it would have been rare but not extraordinary sight to see a visiting Chinese sailor in the boatyards and taverns of Corlear’s Hook.
Moy arrived in New York by boat as well, on a trading ship called The Washington, owned by brother traders Frederick and Nathanial Carne. But she arrived in New York ostensibly as a possession, an exotic companion to a set of rich Oriental objects brought over by the Carne’s for exhibition.
Moy, between 16 and 19 years of age, was brought to the United States as part of a national tour of Chinese treasures, debuting on November 6, 1834. She was garbed in traditional fashion and displayed among a collection of imported finery and trappings brought over by the Carne brothers. It’s no surprise that her presentation was at New York’s American Museum. P.T Barnum wouldn’t own the holdings of the museum until the 1840s, so the museum, housed in the old almshouse in City Hall Park, was still in the hands of the Scudder family. (Listen to our podcast on Barnum’s American Museum for more information.)
Above: Scudder’s American Museum, in City Hall Park (Picture courtesy NYPL)
For fifty cents, the curious could observed Moy in her fabricated ‘authentic’ chamber; “[T]he simple foreignness of Afong Moy was deemed sufficient novelty to warrent her display,” according to author James Moy. Of particular fascination to New Yorkers were her “little feet”. (The New York Times called them “monstrous feet.”) In an ad for a later exhibition at the museum of Rubens Peale, ad copy exclaimed, “Afong’s feet are four inches and an eighth in length, being about the size of an infant’s of one years old. And, to add to the interest of the exhibition, the shoe and the covering of the foot will be taken off.”
Moy would speak to audiences via an interpreter, entertain with a traditional Chinese song, and, at regular intervals, would circle the room and allow people to observe her ‘little feet’ in action. Newspapers made note of her reactions, including her fit of giggles at seeing something so unusual as a left-handed person.
Although she did indeed tour various American cities, she seemed to hit every major New York venue of the day, including Niblo’s Garden, the Brooklyn Institute, and Barnum’s own American Museum, when it opened in 1842.
Not much is known of Afong Moy, which was not her real name. (One thing I’m pretty sure of, her name was not “Juila Foochee ching-chang king, daughter of Hong wang-tzang tzee king,” as was listed in the New York Daily Advertiser.) She toured the country from 1834 to 1847, then disappears from the record. There does not appear to be a single record of an interview of Moy, or any letters or diaries. What we know of this singular woman is seen only through the twisted kaliedoscopic lens of mid 19th century public astonishment.
No! It was the death of New York’s best known trout, known to all by her regal name, Mrs. Bigge Trout.
Mrs. Trout has been all but forgotten in the annals of both fish and human history. She would have been one of dozens of ill-kept aquatic creatures in the basement of Barnum’s American Museum, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, at the foot of City Hall Park.
The museum was an amalgam of delights, from wax figures to ‘freaks’ of nature, murals of historical reenactments to temperance entreaties in the lecture hall. But showman P.T. Barnum also specialized in a few live animals.
Fish were an especially popular delight to mid 19th century New Yorkers in a world without private aquariums. The museum featured a range of exotic fish such as “the angel, peacock, four-eyed cherub, cow, sturgeon, porcupine, and Spanish Lady as well as the squirrel, crimson cavaretta, parrot, grouper, zebra and yellow snapper.” Long after the passing of Mrs. Trout, Barnum would expand the aquatic feature to briefly include two doomed Beluga whales.
In 1861, the large, beloved Delaware trout would have been quite the popular attraction because she was pregnant. Very pregnant. According to the New York Daily Tribune, Mrs. Trout received her fatal injuries while attempting “to bring into the motley world seven thousand and sixty eggs at once.” The paper applauds her gusto in her attempt to increase “the census of the piscatorial kingdom by a number almost fabulous.”
The writer speculates: “Probably the odd sixty proved her ruin, but she is by no means the first who has fallen a victim to overweening ambition.”
Let me be clear here. I was reading this old issue of the Tribune looking for a more serious subject, and this, the death of Mrs. Bigge Trout, came before articles on the country’s impending strife, events that would lead to the Civil War. Urgency was apparently not a requirement for story placement in 1861.
Although Bigge — may I call her Bigge? — died on February 28th, her passing was reported in the March 4th issue with great fanfare (and some serious tongue in cheek).
If descriptions are to be believed, museum workers wore black, including the man in the box office with “crape on his hat.” Even the other animals, trapped in their confines and plaster dioramas, were reportedly sullen that day.
In all seriousness, Barnum’s would have offered New Yorkers the closest approximation to a modern ‘natural history’ experience, although proper care of the animals would have been a principal concern only to the extent that living creatures sell more tickets than dead ones. (Although there were plenty of those as well, stuffed and mounted throughout.)
The Tribune mentions that Mrs. Trout was “interred with all the honors” but does not list her final resting place. Morbidly, I wonder if that interment might have been the dinner plate of another museum inhabitant. “Her mourning friends, the other fishes, were prevented, by prior engagements, from following the remains to their last resting place.”
So this weekend, pour a little out for Bigge on this, the 150th anniversary of her passing to that great Barnum spectacle in the sky.
And finally, an advertisement from July 1860, unveiling some of the delights that would have been in the museum at around the time of Mrs. Trout’s death. It’s really worth your time to click the image and read through these. Don’t miss the Giant Baby!
Believe it or not, this long-gone, unsuccessful attempt at a museum actually figures into the larger tale of a major New York institution, which we cover on this week’s podcast and which will be available for download by Wednesday. This is a reprinted article from May 15, 2008 with some modifications. Original is here.
What if your best known accomplishment in this world was the fact that you posed for a well-regarded American masterpiece by your more talented older brother? Welcome to the world of Rubens Peale!
Philadelphians and American art lovers in general should be quite familiar with Rubens’ father Charles Wilson Peale, one of early America’s pre-eminent painters, portraitist to Washington and Jefferson, and patron of what would become the Philadelphia Museum. Peale’s museum for Philly, which opened in 1786, is not only one of this country’s most important natural history institutions, it set the stage for pioneering museums across the country.
Peale graced his children with some truly loaded first names — Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Titian and of course Rubens. And they all attempted to follow in their father’s footsteps, both as painters and as curators of their own museums.
Raphaelle tried to open one in Charleston. Rembrandt set one up in Baltimore (unfortunately timed for the War of 1812). Baby brother Titian took the reins in Philadelphia and became the family’s most prolific naturalist.
Rubens would have more ambitious designs. At first more interested in the sciences than the arts, the youngest and frailest Peale operated the Philadelphia Museum after his father’s retirement before coming to New York City in 1825 to set up his own version of his father’s dream. The address for the Peale Museum of New York City was 252 Broadway, a building better known as the more austere-sounding Parthenon.
Peale’s museum opened on October 26, 1825, to monopolize on a huge city celebration occurring that day: the opening of the Eric Canal. By 1840, Peale would change the name to the New York Museum of Natural History and Science.
In the early days, Peale’s chief competition was the small museum housed in the former almshouse across the street, next to City Hall. The collection of John Scudder, advertised as the American Museum, had thrilled New Yorkers here since 1817. But Scudder was dead by 1825, and his collection was worn and barely upgraded. It was definitely not of the calibre of a Peale museum, or so Rubens believed. Unbeknownst to Peale at the time, his real competition would sprout up just south of the park.
Rubens’ new museum would have had much the same makeup as the one in Philadelphia : great displays of stuffed animals in natural settings, display cases of butterflies and insects, postulations of pre-Darwinian scientific theories laid out over several rooms and supported with lectures and even theatrical productions. One book refers to Rubens as a “popularizer of scientific discoveries and a manager of theatrical attractions.”
In 1826, Rubens imported two mummies from Cairo for display; after 16 days of presenting the draped bodies, he presented for the interest of the “scientific and the curious” the unwrapping the age-old corpses in the museum lecture room.
His museum also featured fine arts and historical portraits, some by his own family members, others by respected painters as Bass Otis.
Rubens was sensitive to some of the cheap ploys of the Philadelphia Museum (live animals, displays of human deformities) and tried to keep his New York museum a dignified affair, although today we would find its use of waxworks and flashy lectures rather silly.
Above: an illustration entitled ‘Mesmerism on Wall Street’
Rubens adherence to the scientific led him into some unusual directions. He became mesmerized, if you will, by the theories of Fredrich Anton Mesmer, who believed a magnetic fluid in the body controlled the personality. A precursor to hypnotism and later the intellectual embrace of clairvoyance, mesmerism was such a popular distraction that Rubens placed a New York newspaper advertisement on February 8, 1841, claiming “a demonstration on the principle of animal magnetism” would be presented at his museum.
“The time is not far off when it will be said where is the person that doubts its existence,” he later said in a letter to his brother Remington.
Unfortunately he could not quite predict the financial disaster that was the Panic of 1837 which sent his museum deeply into debt for years, later unable to keep up with the flamboyant American Museum just opened down on Broadway and Ann Street (south of City Hall Park) by showman P.T. Barnum.
Rubens had to eventually sell his entire collection, and it ungraciously ended up in the hands of Barnum himself in 1843. (The old John Scudder exhibits now belonged to the flamboyant showman as well.) Included in the sale: one of the surviving mummies that had been brought from Cairo.
Almost as a slap in the face, Barnum actually kept Peales’ museum open under the original name as a faux rival to the much more popular American Museum on the other side of City Hall. Eventually its contents were absorbed in the bigger museum
Rubens drifted to his brother’s museum in Baltimore, and, swallowing his pride, even tried to interest Barnum in a collaboration there, involving P.T’s newest star Tom Thumb. Eventually, Rubens retired from museum operations entirely, turning first to his love of taxidermy then to a dalliance in painting. He did achieve a certain amount of renown for his excellent still lifes, and when he died in 1865, he had literally just finished the aptly named work The Artist’s Last Birthday.
Rubens’ earnest collection set the stage for the world-class museums that we have in our city today. However, art historians probably know him best as the subject of his brother Rembrandt’s portrait Rubens Peale With Geranium (below).
Show-stopping: The interior of Niblo’s Garden Theatre. Illustration by Thomas Addis Emmet, courtesy NYPL
PODCAST It’s the 1820s and welcome to the era ofthe pleasure garden, an outdoor entertainment complex delighting wealthy New Yorkers in the years before public parks. Wandering gravel paths wind past candle-lit sculptures, songbirds in gilded cages, and string quartets in gazebos, while high above, nightly fireworks spray the sky.
Niblo’s Garden, at the corner of Broadway and Prince Street, was the greatest of them all, with an exhibit room for panoramas and refreshment hall consider by some to be one of New York’s very first restuarants. But it was Niblo’s grand theater, seating 3,000 people, that would make Niblo’s reputation as the venue for both high- and low-brow events. And in 1866, a production debuted there that would change everything — the gaudy, much-too-long spectacle The Black Crook, considered by most as the very first Broadway musical.
Music in the episode is Enigma Variation VI. Ysobel by Elgar. It’s actually from after the time period of Niblo’s, but it’s so very strolling-the-garden, isn’t it? And I had a cold this week, so please forgive my scratchy voice!
You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.
Before Niblo’s, the premier pleasure garden was Vauxhall Garden, derived from a British garden of the same name. The one picture below is from the incarnation before it moved in 1807 to the area just below Astor Place, in what would become Lafayette Street. (NYPL)
The first theater on the Niblo property was a small stage he called ‘Sans Souci’. Demand soon dictated that a larger venue be built. [NYPL]
From another illustration detailing the block just a few years later. The theater looks the same, but other buildings (possibly the saloon or a greenhouse?) have been built up around it. (from Merrycoz)
The garden was soon overtaken by a great hotel, the Metropolitan, which opened in 1852. This image is looking east, down Prince Street, with Broadway stretching to the left. NOTE: The original caption on this illustration says 1850, but the hotel would not be open for a couple years later. (NYPL)
This is one of the only photographs of Niblo’s Theater, certainly from its last years, judging from the fashion of the day. The theater and the hotel were demolished in 1895. [Pic from here]
This poster is from a Boston production of ‘The Black Crook’, but it illustrates nicely the scope and theatricality of the production. The show was cobbled together using a poorly written German fantasia, a troupe of out-of-work Parisian dancers, and some original music. The show ran five and a half hours nightly and was a runaway hit. [Image from Kirafly Bros]
A costumed damsel (in photographic negative) from an early production of The Black Crook. [source]
An early program from Niblo’s, from 1877, featuring stage rendition of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days. I can only imagine the sets for this one! Also featuring the ‘Greatest Terpsichordean Ensemble’ and ‘250 Danseuses and a Superb Cast’.[Courtesy Jules Verne]