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The Life Of P.T. Barnum
Barnum was an extraordinary entrepreneur, an impresario, and a self-made man. He remade himself several times during his long career as a showman. The following is an excerpt from Barnum's first autobiography, published at the height of his antebellum success and fame. Barnum relates how he pulled himself out of financial danger with his purchase of the American Museum and how he achieved his first profits there by exhibiting the Fejee Mermaid and Tom Thumb. Moses Kimball of the Boston Museum was friends with Barnum and helped him obtain the Fejee Mermaid. Barnum was a master of promotion. Notice how he promoted the Fejee Mermaid. When he obtained the services of the five-year-old Charles Stratton, Barnum would use similar approaches in promoting the young man he called "General Tom Thumb."
There was a gleam of sunshine next morning. It was in the following note:
"Madame CELESTE presents her compliments to Mr. Barnum, and begs to say that her private box is quite at his service, any night, for himself and friends.
"Theatre Royal, Williamson Square."
This polite invitation was thankfully accepted on the evening of its reception. In the box adjoining that of Celeste (occupied by my party, including the General, who was partly concealed by his tutor's cloak) sat an English lady and gentleman whose appearance indicated the respectability of both intelligence and wealth. The General's interest in the performance attracted their attention, and the lady remarked to me:
"What an intelligent-looking child you have! He appears to take quite an interest in the stage."
"Pardon me, madam," said I, "this is not a child. This is General Tom Thumb."
"Indeed!" exclaimed both the lady and the gentleman in a breath. They had seen the announcements of our visit, which had largely preceded us, and what they had heard of the pigmy-prodigy was more than confirmed by what they saw. The reality of their gratification could not be questioned, for they immediately advised me, in the most complimentary and urgent terms, to bring the General to Manchester, (where they resided,) with the assurance that his exhibition in that place would be highly profitable.
Here, thought I, is a fair offset to the depressing proposal of the wax-figure man; these respectable people know how to appreciate a curiosity. It is not remarkable, therefore, that I forthwith had pleasing visions of prosperity among the Cotton Lords of Manchester.
I thanked my new friends for their counsel and encouragement, and ventured to ask them what price they would recommend me to charge for admission.
"The General is so decidedly a curiosity," said the lady, "that I think you might put it as high as tup-pence" (two-pence).
She was, however, promptly interrupted by her husband, who was evidently the economist of the family. "I am sure you would not succeed at that price," said he; "you should put admission at one penny, for that is the usual price for seeing giants and dwarfs in England."
Worse, and more of it! "What a fall was there, my countrymen!" But the reaction promptly brought me to my feet; the old spirit was awakened; I was myself again; and I answered, "Never shall the price be less than one shilling sterling, and some of the nobility and gentry of England will yet pay gold to see General Tom Thumb!"
It had been my intention to proceed directly to London and begin operations at "head-quarters" -- that is, at the Palace, if possible. But I learned that the royal family was in mourning because of the death of Prince Albert's father, and would not permit the approach of entertainments. My letters of introduction speedily brought me into relations of friendship with many excellent families, and I was induced to hire a hall and present the General to the public in Liverpool for a short time.
Meanwhile I had confidential advices from London that Mr. Maddox, Manager of Princess's Theatre, was coming down to witness my exhibition, with a view to making an engagement. He came privately, but I was "posted up" as to his presence and object. A friend pointed him out to me in the hail, and when I stepped up to him, and called him by name, he was "taken all a-back," and avowed his purpose in visiting Liverpool. An interview resulted in an engagement of the General for three nights at Princess's Theatre. I was unwilling to contract for a longer period, and even this short engagement, though on liberal terms, was acceded to only as a means of advertisement.
The General made so decided a "hit" at Princess's Theatre, that it might have been difficult to decide which party was the best pleased, the spectators, the manager, or myself. The first were pleased because they could not help it; the second was pleased because he had coined money by the operation; and I was pleased because I had a visible guarantee of success in London. I was offered a much higher figure for a re-engagement, but my purpose had been sufficiently answered. The news was out that General Tom Thumb was on the tapis, as an unparalleled curiosity, and it only remained for me to bring him before the public, "on my own hook," in my own time and way.
I had taken a furnished house in Grafton street, Bond street, West End, in the centre of fashion. Lord Brougham, and half a dozen families of the blood-aristocracy and many of the gentry, were my neighbors. The house had been occupied by Lord Talbot for several years previously. From this magnificent mansion, I sent letters of invitation to the editors and several of the nobility, to visit the General. Most of them called, and were highly gratified. The word of approval was indeed so passed around in high circles, that uninvited parties drove to my door in crested carriages, and were not admitted.
This procedure, though in some measure a stroke of policy, was not either singular or hazardous, under the circumstances. I had not yet announced a public exhibition, and as a private American gentleman it became me to maintain the dignity of my position. I therefore instructed my servant, dressed in the tinselled and powdered style of England, to deny admission to my mansion to see my "ward," excepting to persons who brought cards of invitation. He did it in a proper manner, and no offence could be taken -- though I was always particular to send an invitation immediately to such as had not been admitted.