By John Mulligan, FASNY Firemen’s Home Resident and Retired FDNY Deputy Commissioner
Most people recognize the name of P.T. Barnum due to his association with the circus. He is often referred to as the “Great American Showman” and LIFE magazine dubbed him “the patron saint of promoters.” However, long before he became involved in the circus, Barnum was the proprietor of a museum.
In 1841, Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum in New York City from John Scudder. Barnum’s American Museum, as it would be called, was located at the corner of Broadway and Ann streets in lower Manhattan, and operated from 1841 to 1865.
Visitors viewed an ever-evolving series of attractions, some having tangible cultural and educational value such as menageries, aquaria and taxidermy, natural history and portrait collections.
However, some of the “artifacts” were more dubious, such as the Fiji Mermaid, which in reality was the head and torso of a monkey carefully sewn to the back half of a fish, and skillfully promoted by Barnum as a mermaid. In addition, the museum housed human “curiosities,” such as the little person, Tom Thumb, who at age 4 was 25 inches tall, and the Nova Scotia Giantess, Anna Swan, who stood 7 feet, 11 ½ inches tall, and many others, whose conditions today would be remedied by medical professionals or failing this, they would simply be considered part or our diverse society. The Museum also housed a lecture hall and public theatre.
At its peak, the Museum was open 15 hours a day and had as many as 15,000 visitors a day. It is estimated that 38 million customers paid the 25 cents to gain admission during the lifespan of the museum. The total population of the United States in 1860 was under 32 million, so this attendance number is very impressive.
It is no exaggeration to say that during the heyday of the Barnum Museum, many visitors traveling to New York City made it a point to visit the museum: It was a national and internationally known attraction. Further, it appealed to and was affordable to almost every class of person. This distinguished the museum from all other attractions of the time, and the museum has been recognized by historians as a pivotal institution in the development of 19th-century urban culture. As visitors searched for this famous landmark, locals would often point out the large American flag on the top of the building, using it to direct tourists to the location of the museum building, which was promoted as housing over 850,000 artifacts and curiosities for visitors to marvel at.
On July 13, 1865, at approximately 12:35 p.m., the city was alerted to fire by the ringing of the seven-ton fire bell, said to have been rung by disabled fireman Titus Conklin. The clang of this mighty bell was said to be heard all the way to Harlem.
Smoke had been discovered billowing up through the floorboards of the Museum, and a sea of red-shirted firemen could be seen coming to thwart the spreading blaze. This fire occurred at the time of the changeover from an all-volunteer firefighting department to the beginning of the new paid fire department in New York City.
There had been a promise that the volunteer firemen would remain active until all was in place for the paid firemen. It was reported that out of 57 active volunteer stations, only 19 responded.
Considering the circumstances, this was understandable. And there seems to be some difference of opinion as to if the volunteers’ response, or lack thereof, was unreasonable. After the fire, the fire department received a card from D.H. Hurd, the manager of Barnum’s, thanking them for their efforts and expressing no dissatisfaction with their performance. The editor of the New York Times at the time received this letter as well:
“Sir – One of your evening contemporaries inadvertently, I feel sure, speaks of the firemen as having been ‘dilatory in getting to work’ at the fire today. As an old hand who worked hard at the great fire in this city in 1835, allow me to say that any tardiness on the part of the firemen, if such there was, is to be ascribed to a cause over which they had no control: the impossibility of keeping the crowd back, for it was a full half hour after the fire broke out before a cordon of policemen had cleared the way for them. I do not wish to imply blame to the police, but unmerited blame should not rest on our firemen.”
Since it was the custom of the day for large crowds to gather at structure fires, and the crowd at this fire was estimated by some at 30,000 people. This seems to be a reasonable explanation for a slow response from the fire department, if one did occur. However, one fact everyone seems to agree with is that if it were not for the great respect that the volunteers had for outgoing Chief John Decker, the transition of the department would not have gone as smoothly as it did overall.
During the conflagration at the museum, a number of large snakes managed to escape from the building into the crowd that had gathered to view the fire. Most of the snakes were quickly trampled to death or killed with sticks.
The firemen were successful in releasing some of the exotic bird species from their cages within the museum, giving them a fighting chance to fly away and perhaps survive. Many of the other animals – lions, polar bears, monkeys, kangaroos and two recently arrived Beluga whales – sadly were either burned or boiled alive.
One of the most exciting fire department reminiscences from this fire involved fireman John Denham of Hose Company No. 15. A large bengal tiger had jumped from a Museum window during the fire.
It was reported that people ran or froze in place, while the police tried unsuccessfully to subdue the beast with their small pistols. It was then that fireman Denham grabbed his axe and with a mighty blow, saved the spectators from the animal’s fury. It is said that this shy and retiring fireman was cheered by the crowd.
Another daring deed during the fire involved one brave fireman who climbed out on the flag pole to retrieve the famous American flag that flew over Barnum’s Museum, and save it from certain destruction. The FASNY Museum of Firefighting has this very flag in its collection. All of the Barnum Museum’s human “curiosities” made it out of the fire unharmed, but their very appearance, as they made their way out of the museum and into the street, caused delight and great excitement among the gathering spectators.
As the fire raged and spread, a total of 20 buildings caught fire and burned, nine to the ground. Over $1 million in damage resulted from this fire. It was estimated that the Museum collections were valued at over $400,000, however Barnum’s insurance coverage was for only $40,000.
In 1866, Barnum opened a new American Museum a few blocks away from where the original had stood. This museum wasn’t as elaborate as the former museum and it too was lost to fire in 1868. Every place Barnum ever owned and operated prior to 1874 was completely destroyed by fire with enormous building and property losses, which some thought to be more than a coincidence.
Further, there were some who viewed the loss of the original Barnum Museum as a good thing, as they thought it to be an eyesore, due to the large pictures of reptiles and other attractions displayed outside the building, and the ever-present brass band playing from the second floor balcony.
In 1870, Barnum began his traveling show business, which became the largest circus enterprise in America. The circus business continues to be the endeavor most people associate with Barnum. However, as impressive and successful as that venture was, Barnum was responsible for creating a repository of artifacts, diverse people and programs the likes of which New York City had never seen, and will probably never see again.
It is truly unfortunate that the majority of artifacts did not survive the museum fire, as they would have added greatly to our understanding of the past and our culture as Americans. Even though the collections did not survive, the fire itself is now a part of our shared history as Americans.
A marauding tiger, snakes slithering this way and that, exotic birds flying about, human “curiosities” fleeing the fiery building and more: The day Barnum’s burned is a legendary event to those familiar with the annals of volunteer firefighting, and certainly it is a fire that captures our collective imagination, even to this very day.
This story appears in the July/August edition of The Volunteer Firefighter magazine, just one of many benefits of FASNY membership.