The first building to house Barnum’s Museum was located at the intersection of Chatham Street (now Park Row) and Broadway. It was opened by showman P.T. Barnum whose name is part of the contemporary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Barnum’s attraction was the center of the amusement world during the mid-1800s. One notation from the day referenced the museum: “We always ask him to take us past Polly Bodine’s house. She set fire to a house and burned up ever so many people, and I guess she was hung for it, because there is a wax figure of her in Barnum’s Museum.”
The museum was on the site of the original Spring Garden that dated to the early 1700s. It was near City Hall Park and St. Paul’s Church. Matthew Brady’s gallery also was within walking distance. For his museum, Barnum had purchased, on December 27, 1841, a building that originally had been known as the American Museum. The following year, he introduced to the public General Tom Thumb, the stage name of Charles Sherwood Stratton. He was a little person who achieved great fame under the Barnum marquee.
The amusement manager twice enlarged his museum, first during 1843 and again during 1850. It was set afire by Confederate spies during the Civil War who infiltrated New York City and tried to burn various hotels and landmarks.
No significant damage occurred to the Barnum building, which had a significant collection of curiosities. These included wildlife, unbelievable relics and an assortment of strange people. The “omphalopagus” oriental display featured the first Siamese twins seen in America.
The "Sucker" Wisecrack
Upon learning that a Long Island farmer advertised the sale of a cherry-colored cat, Barnum purchased it and sent a special assistant to secure its safety. When Barnum saw the cat and realized it was just a black cat, he supposedly uttered his famous remark that ‘there’s a sucker born every minute.” But, he turned this situation to his advantage, covering the city with posters that invited the public to see the cherry-colored cat. The public soon gave the cat the name of the “Black Crook.”
Sometimes the showman was upstaged by events beyond his control, as in the case of a fire that occurred during an opening production. The show created by Barnum was The Patriots of ’76 and it included a large cast of extras portraying Hessian and Continental soldiers, American Indians, Molly Pitcher and many other historical figures. Most of the roles were handled by men from one of the local fire companies.
During the middle of the most exciting act on opening night, the city hall bell sounded a fire alarm. A man yelled, “Boys, there’s a fire in the 7th district.”
Thirty members of the cast leaped from the stage, rushed up Broadway to grab their engine and ran to the fire. “Molly Pitcher” was at the head of the rope and an Indian brandished the foreman’s trumpet. A curious crowd followed them to the fire and became fascinated at the sight of Hessians, Continentals, Indians and Molly Pitcher dosing the fire.
Barnum eventually moved his museum to the west side of Broadway between Spring and Prince streets. At that location, fire fighters fought flames during 1865 at his building, opening cages to free birds that flew around the city. A Bengal tire broke loose and leaped to the street from a second floor window. Police guns were ineffective to subdue the animal, but a fireman grabbed his axe and with a mighty blow sprawled the animal on the street. This same firefighter, Johnny Denham, ran three times into the blazing building and carried out the 400-pound fat lady, two children and an Albino woman.
This museum building finally was destroyed by another fire on March 2, 1868. The cold weather quickly froze the water from the fire hoses and encased the building in ice. Soon after, Barnum opened another museum on 14th Street near Irving Place. It, too, on December 24, 1872, was destroyed by fire. Again, the extensive menagerie and other property, valued at more than $300,000, were lost.
While Barnum could put on a spectacular show, he never learned much about the risk of fire. Every place he owned and operated prior to 1874 was destroyed by flames.