New York City – Barnum’s Museum

Who can realize, that at the southeast corner of Broadway and Ann Street, where the St. Paul building (built 1897) rears its 307 feet of masonry skyward, once stood the celebrated Barnum’s Museum, where the famous showman got that auspicious start in “humbugging” the public. Before Barnum became proprietor it had gone through various ownerships. John Pintard, son of the celebrated New York merchant, was really the originator of the Museum which afterward bore Barnum’s name. The city authorities granted him the use of a room in the City Hall to be used for an “American Museum under the patronage of the Tammany Society or Columbian Order.” Pintard was Secretary and Gardner Baker, Keeper. The last-named became sole owner in 1808. It was purchased by Dr. Scudder in 1810, who removed to 21 Chatham Street (now Park Row), where it remained until 1816. The following year the Museum took quarters in the westerly end of the New York Institute building on Chambers Street, subsequently removing (1830) to Ann Street and Broadway, where a new, hand-some building was erected. The upper portion of the building was occupied by the Museum. The ground or store floor was occupied by “Schuyler’s Exchange Lottery” in 1831. Dr. Scudder was highly successful with the venture until his death in 1832. His heirs attempted to manage the undertaking, and Mrs. Scudder gave 400 tickets to the school children of the city, as prizes, to induce their elders to attend. It steadily lost patronage, however, and in a few years the heirs determined to sacrifice their holdings, pricing them at $15,000. Barnum, who had been a newspaperman at a meagre stipend, and, as he said, with “a family to support,” determined to enter the field of purchasers.

The Museum building was owned by Francis W. Olmstead. Barnum communicated with him, suggesting that he be appointed as the manager, which plan however was not successful. Barnum then arranged with Mr. Heath, one of the administrators of Scudder’s estate, to purchase the Museum for $12,000, and when he had arranged the sale, was thunderstruck upon being informed it had been sold to an incorporated concern called “Peale’s Museum,” who intended to load the stock on the public. The scheme being a stock-jobbing affair to bait the gullible public, was ridiculed in the newspapers of the day by Barnum, who described the stock as “dead as a herring.” His campaign was successfully engineered, so much so that “Peale’s Museum, Inc.,” failed to pay the balance due on their contract to the estate, and on December 27, 1841, P. T. Barnum became the full-fledged proprietor of the American Museum. He had arranged to pay off the purchase price in yearly installments, but through perseverance and hard work, the contract was settled long before its allotted time. The venture was a decided success, almost from its inception. There was a band playing from the front gallery. special monstrosities and novelties were introduced from all parts of the globe, “Tom Thumb,” the lilliputian, made the establishment popular, and as time went on, the genial proprietor became financially independent.

To show his sagacity and ability to make the most of a situation, the following incident is related : Barnum had an altercation with a vestryman of St. Paul’s Church, because flags strung across Broadway were tied to a tree in the churchyard, they having been put up without per-mission. On Washington’s birthday, a member of the church wished to haul the flags down, calling on Mr. Barnum to do so, and, upon the latter refusing, attempted to perform that task himself. Barnum, perceiving this, appealed to the patriotism of a large crowd which had gathered, and the churchman retired, worsted. The people then began to stream into the Museum, and they so filled the building that a way had to be devised to admit the waiting throngs. Barnum had an employee build an exit on the Ann Street side with a large sign reading “This way to the egress.” There the people flocked, thinking it was a new wonder to be exhibited, eventually finding themselves on the street. This was an ingenious scheme, and a clever way out of the difficulty.

There was a small theater attached to the Museum, which opened on June 17, 1850, with “The Drunkard.” Here appeared Alexina Fisher, Kate and Ellen Bateman, and many other performers of note. The last engagement played was that of John B. Studley in the legitimate drama. It was also about this time that Barnum acquired additional fame by introducing to the public that famous singer, Jenny Lind. In 1854 Barnum published a volume of reminiscences, dated from The American Museum, November 30, 1854, and dedicated to the “Universal Yankee Nation.” All these years affairs were prospering, wealth was rolling in, and Barnum felt secure against all misfortune, but on November 25, 1864, a fire, started by an incendiary, did serious damage. This was extinguished, however, without much loss, but on July 13, 1865, about noon, a second and most disastrous conflagration broke out, luckily when there were but few people in the building, and the Museum was a complete loss to the owner. The press of the day characterized the escaping of the various exhibits as quite an unique and humorous scene. It is said that steam fire-engines were first used here. The fire was so hot that it scorched St. Paul’s across the street. Thus ended Barnum’s Museum at the corner of Ann Street and Broadway, the venture finally removing further uptown, the persevering owner starting anew after the fire. James Gordon Bennett then purchased the site for the Herald Building.