Watching Copper, you'd think that New York in the 1860s was all about brass-knuckle brawls in bordellos, opium-fueled sex romps, and chasing criminals with names like Buzzy Burke through seedy Five Points. But there was a lighter side—in an era where finding the next cat with eyebrows wasn’t so easy, P.T. Barnum was the public’s point of entry to the world of the bizarre and extraordinary.
Yes, the same man behind the famous circus actually first operated Barnum's American Museum, one of the most popular attractions for New Yorkers and tourists alike. Millions flocked to the museum partly because Barnum trumpeted things like conjoined twins Chang and Eng, the skeleton of a "real" mermaid and tiny Tom Thumb and partly because he hired the worst musicians to play music outside the museum, thinking it would drive people inside.
The Barnum Museum in 1853
Barnum never said "There’s a sucker born every minute," but he did say, "The people like to be humbugged"—suggesting that people enjoy being entertained, even if it's being obviously hyped up and possibly fake. Barnum's American Museum's opened in 1841 at Broadway and Ann Street, but a spectacular fire devastated the building in 1865. Barnum quickly reopened the museum at Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets (present day SoHo), but then that museum burned down too in 1868.
Here are a few of his amusements that he brought to the public:
Harvard's Peabody Museum owns a "skeleton" of the FeeJee Mermaid
Going against a scientific movement to classify the fast growing number of flora and fauna discoveries around the world, Barnum deliberately included the FeeJee Mermaid in his museum in a dubious context. In order to drum up controversy—and therefore publicity—in the curiosity, he hired a British naturalist to act as the mermaid skeleton's "discoverer," had newspaper reporters examine the the object, and even went so far as to plant newspaper stories about the mermaid, some alleging the attraction was indeed fake. The whole idea, as with most of the museum's attractions, was to use these charges of fakery to inspire fascination in the general public. (And the mermaid was made using the head and torso of a monkey with the body of a fish.)
CHANG AND ENG
The brothers came to America as oddities, but went on to become respected pillars of their Southern community
Chang and Eng Bunker are perhaps the most famous set of conjoined twins—in fact, their condition and birthplace is the inspiration for the now-outdated term "Siamese twins." In 1829, a British merchant met the twins and paid their family in order to take them on a world tour as a curiosity.
After the contract ended, the twins, intent on becoming as "normal" as possible, went into business for themselves, purchased a 110-acre farm in North Carolina, became naturalized U.S. citizens, bought slaves, and adopted their American surname. They went on to marry two sisters and father 21 children between them. Among their now 1,500 descendants were an Air Force Major General, an esteemed geosciences professor, a former Chief Financial Officer of Florida, and the President of the Union Pacific Railroad in the 1940s.
THE BABY SHOW
There was even a Baby Show Polka for the Baby Show
It wasn't only the out-of-the-ordinary that Barnum promoted—he also decided to take advantage of people's love of cute babies by holding "Baby Shows," basically pretty baby contests except these babies were judged "especially on the crowning merit of their being genuine original American stock." Since no foreign or black babies were allowed, rival shows sprung up.
An 1862 NY Times article noted, "The favored babies were surrounded by delighted friends, who chirruped and talked nonsense while they admitted the sagacity of the judges, Mesdames WOODRUFF and GENIN, and the generosity of BARNUM; and the dear little fellows whose beauties were slighted by the aforementioned experts, were condoled with and suffocated by the sympathetic indignants, who vowed they were humbugged and that truth lay not in man or woman." The shows became so popular at the museum that he held them in other cities.
Tom Thumb—born Charles Sherwood Stratton—became one of Barnum's most famous figures. Barnum met the boy and trained him to sing, dance and mimic famous people. Soon, Tom Thumb, at age six and just over two feet talls, had shows at the museum and toured the United States and Europe (Queen Victoria was in his audience twice!).
He later married fellow little person and "human curioisity" Lavinia Warren. Naturally, Barnum marketed their wedding so it became front page news. President Abraham Lincoln even welcomed the newlyweds at the White House.
Description of this 1865 illustration: "Thrilling scene at Barnum's American Museum, New York City, on the 3d inst. -- the royal bengal tiger leaps from a window into Broadway, and is shot by a policeman."
Unusual animals were also housed inside Barnum's American Museum, and their presence gave visitors a chance to see them in an age before zoos (the Central Park Zoo only opened in 1859). There were tigers, elephants, giraffes and even beluga whales. An 1861 New York Tribune report about the whales breathlessly said, "These are white whales and were taken near the Labrador coast by a crew of thirty-five men. The largest has attained the extreme size reached by this species, and is about 23 feet long; the other is 18 feet long. Their form and motion are graceful and their silver backs and bellies show brightly through the water."
The 1865 fire that destroy the museum's Broadway and Ann Street location (NYPL)
However, when a huge fire broke out at the museum on July 13, 1865, the whales boiled in their tank and there were claims that animals were roaming the streets (the report of an escaped lion sent New Yorkers hurrying). A defective furnace under a neighboring restaurant was apparently the cause of the blaze.
THE BEARDED LADY
Though "bearded ladies" have been common throughout history, Barnum's own Josephine Clofullia is one of the more notable examples. Born Josephine Boisdechêne in Switzerland, she reportedly sported a two-inch beard by age eight, then began touring Europe at age 14. It wasn't until she married and had a son that she moved to the US to join Barnum's attractions. Clofullia developed quite the legacy during her tours, including receiving a gift of a large diamond from Napoleon III after fashioning her beard after his.
The Quaker giant and giantess, illustrated in 1849
P.T. Barnum was widely famous for the perhaps unethical strategies he used to nurture his businesses, and did not go without critics. The vague facts and background on many of his exhibits drew criticism from the scientific community, along with journalists who became part of the stunts Barnum designed to inspire curiosity in the general public.
By 1856, Barnum was bankrupt through a number of ill-advised business ventures and his downfall was celebrated by many critics as an act of karma. But that didn't stop the showman—despite claims he couldn't revive the magic of his past, the return of Chang and Eng, a new Tom Thumb, and a public looking for escape from the horrors of the Civil War ensured his rise to the top once again.
An 1865 columnist wrote, "[Barnum] taste has become [less] discriminative. The mere fact of his exhibiting a giantess we consider to be against him. Superficial observers might possibly suppose that, for exhibiting purposes, a giantess was at least the equal of a dwarf. We cannot think so. A giantess is, in our opinion, just on the wrong side of the line which separates the bearably from the unbearably grotesque."
AFTER THE MUSEUM
Sketch of the second Barnum's American Museum, after a fire (NYPL)
After the 1865 fire, the museum moved to a new location, which then burned down on March 3, 1868. The cold weather caused the water being used to fight the fire to freeze, leaving another unexpected spectacle.
The losses after the second fire were too much for him to bear, so Barnum turned his attention to politics and the circus. There is a museum dedicated to his legacy, the Barnum Museum, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
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