“We next proceeded to Barnum’s museum”

Lavinia Goodell, October 12, 1853

P.T. Barnum was a nineteenth century showman who is best known for founding the Barnum & Bailey circus in 1871. But nearly twenty-five years earlier he purchased a museum in what is now New York City’s financial district, added unusual – and often fake or deceiving – exhibits, and renamed the establishment Barnum’s American Museum. In the early 1850s, the museum was a popular tourist destination and in October of 1853, fourteen year old Lavinia Goodell, whose family had recently moved to Brooklyn, visited the Barnum museum for the first time.

Barnum’s American Museum in New York City

Lavinia wrote to her sister:

Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost, October 12, 1853

Lavinia was impressed with the variety of exhibits, writing:

We saw a man making little toys, etc. out of glass. He had a fire in which to melt the glass and had all the different colors so he could make everything he pleased. He made a ship while I stood by. We next saw “the Happy Family” as it is called, consisting of two cats, three monkeys, a pair of doves, 2 pigeons, a Mexican hog, a white rat, a common rat, a mouse, guinea pig, ant eater, owl, an eagle, and a rooster, all living in perfect harmony in one cage.   

(Modern day accounts of the “Happy Family” indicate that the animals were not always well treated. In 1866, the museum drew the attention of the recently formed American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Among other complaints, the ASPCA objected to the public feeding of rabbits to snakes.)

Barnum had no qualms about exhibiting people as well as animals. Lavinia continued:

The “bearded lady” was also exhibited. She has a full crop of whiskers, is twenty-three years of age, is married and has had two children. The eldest died when a babe, the younger I believe has some beard. We then went into the performance room where we saw two plays played which were very amusing.

New York Times, November 30, 1853

In December of 1853, Lavinia had taken notice of another play she very much wanted to see and had figured out a way to gain her father’s consent to attend. She wrote to her sister:

They are performing “Uncle Tom” at Barnum’s Museum. At first they had a pro-slavery version of it, but they couldn’t make it go and had to reform it. I want to go very much. Don’t know whether Father will let me or not. I have been thinking it over and have got it all cut and dried. It is performed every evening and Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, so Saturday evening I will tell Father, and if he approves of the plan I will go with him to the office and in the afternoon go up to Barnum’s which is not far from there. I do hope I can go.

It is not surprising that a ”pro-slavery” version of Uncle Tom’s cabin had not met with public approval. One wonders why someone thought that such a radical alteration of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work would be a good idea. Horace Greeley’s abolitionist New York Tribune ran a very critical review of the short-lived production:

The effort of the dramatist has evidently been to destroy the point and moral of the story of Uncle Tom, and to make a play to which no apologist for Slavery could object. He has succeeded; and in doing so, has made a drama which has nothing to recommend it but its name.

According to a subsequent letter written by Lavinia’s mother, the Goodells did not allow Lavinia to attend the performance. Mrs. Goodell wrote to her older daughter, “Lavinia has been most crazy to see Uncle Tom performed either at the Theater or Museum but we do not think best to have her go. We are to avoid the appearance of evil. Theater, you are aware, sounds badly.”

In 1865, Barnum’s museum was destroyed by fire. Barnum rebuilt at a different location, but in 1868 that building also burned, and Barnum decided to retire from the museum business.  In 1870, at age sixty, he established  “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome” in Delavan, Wisconsin.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (October 12, 1853; December 8, 1853); Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (February 16, 1854); New York Times (November 30, 1853); New York Daily Tribune (November 15, 1853);


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