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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."
"Now," said he, "if you only had a piece of unencumbered real estate that you could offer as additional security, I think I might venture to negotiate with you."
This seemed the turning-point of my fortune. Thinks I to myself, "It is now or never," and memory rapidly ran over my small possessions in search of the coveted bit of land. Ivy Island, in all the beauty in which my youthful imagination had pictured it, came dancing to my relief. I hesitated an instant. He is amply secured already -- so I thought within myself -- and without some piece of land, I may lose the Museum altogether. I saw no particular harm in it, and after a moment's hesitation I replied:
"I have five acres of land in Connecticut which is free from all lien or encumbrance."
"Indeed! what did you pay for it?"
"It was a present from my late grandfather, Phineas Taylor, given me on account of my name."
"Was he rich?"inquired Mr. Olmsted.
"He was considered well off in those parts," I answered.
"Very kind in him to give you the land. It is doubtless valuable. But I suppose you would not like to part with it, considering it was a present."
"I shall not have to part with it, if I make my payments punctually," I replied, "and I am sure I shall do that."
"Well," said Mr. Olmsted, "I think I will make the purchase for you. At all events, I'll think it over, and in the mean time you must see the administrator and heirs of the estate -- get their best terms, and meet me here on my return to town a week hence."
I withdrew, and proceeded at once to the house of Mr. John Heath, the administrator. His price was $15,000. I offered him $10,000, payable in seven equal annual instalments, with good security. He could not think of selling at that price, and I agreed to call again.
During the week I had several interviews with Mr. Heath, and it was finally agreed that I should have it for $12,000, payable as above -- possession to be given on the 15th November. Mr. Olmsted assented to this, and a morning was appointed to draw and sign the writings. Mr. Heath appeared, but said he must decline proceeding any farther in my case, as he had sold the collection to the directors of Peale's Museum (an incorporated institution) for $15,000, and had received $1000 in advance.
I was thunderstruck. I appealed to his honor. He replied that he had signed no writing with me, was not therefore legally bound, and he felt it his duty to do the best he could for the orphan girls. Mr. Olmsted said he was sorry for me, but could not help me. He would now have permanent tenants who would not require him to incur any risk, and I must necessarily be thrown overboard.
I withdrew, with feelings which I need not attempt to describe. I immediately informed myself as to the character of this Peale's Museum Company. It proved to consist of a company of speculators, headed by an unsuccessful ex-president of a bank, who had sought Peale's collection for a few thousand dollars, were now to join the American Museum with it, issue and sell stock to the amount of $50,000, pocket $30,000 profits, and permit the stock-holders to look out for themselves.
I went immediately to several of the editors, including Major M. M. Noah, M. Y. Beach, my good friends, West, Herrick and Ropes, of the Atlas, and others, and stated my grievances. "Now," said I, "if you will grant me the use of your columns, I'll blow that speculation sky-high." They all consented, and I wrote a large number of squibs, cautioning the public against buying the Museum stock, ridiculed the idea of a board of broken-down bank directors engaging in the exhibition of stuffed monkey and gander skins, appealed to the case of the Zoological Institute, which had failed by adopting such a plan as the one now proposed, and finally told the public that such a speculation would be infinitely more unwise than Dickens's "Grand United Metropolitan Hot Muffin and Crumpet-baking and Punctual Delivery Company."
The stock was as dead as a herring! I then went to Mr. Heath and solicited a confidential conversation. He granted it. I asked him when the directors were to pay the other $14,000. "On the 26th day of December, or forfeit the $1000 already paid," was the reply. I assured him that they would never pay it, that they could not raise it, and that he would ultimately find himself with the Museum collection on his hands, and if once I started off with an exhibition for the South, I would not touch the Museum at any price. "Now," said I, "if you will agree with me confidentially, that in case these gentlemen do not pay you on the 26th December, I may have it on the 27th for $12,000, I will run the risk, and wait in this city until that date." He readily agreed to the proposition, but said he was sure they would not forfeit their $1000.
"Very well," said I; "all I ask of you is, that this arrangement shall not be mentioned." He assented. "On the 27th day of December, at ten o'clock A. M., I wish you to meet me in Mr. Olmsted's apartments, prepared to sign the writings, provided his incorporated company do not pay you $14,000 on the 26th." He agreed to this, and by my request put it in writing.