Wednesday, January 10, 2018

P.T. Barnum Comes to Alabama

One of the major film releases this past Christmas season was The Greatest Showman with Hugh Jackman. That musical followed Barnum, one that ran on Broadway in the early 1980's. Both are loosely based on the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum, a 19th century showman whose name is forever linked with humbug, hoaxes, and the Barnum & Bailey Circus. That December film release reminded me that I've wanted to do a blog post on Barnum's visit to Alabama in the 1830's, so let's investigate.

Barnum was born in Connecticut in July 1810 and by his early twenties had established his own newspaper, The Herald of Freedom. He moved to New York City in 1834 to begin his career in show business. The following year he purchased Joice Heth, a blind, elderly slave woman already being exhibited as George Washington's former nurse. She died in February 1836, so Barnum then held a public autopsy to determine her real age. Soon he organized a small circus, "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater" and took it on a tour of the south in 1837. That trip brought him to Alabama.

By 1841 Barnum had opened his American Museum in New York City and soon featured the "Feejee mermaid" hoax and the dwarf billed as General Tom Thumb. For the next five decades Barnum brought fabulous entertainment to America and beyond, becoming king of the circus, and still found time to engage in political and civic activity in his native Connecticut and write two memoirs. He died in April 1891, but his combination of showmanship and exploitation continues to influence American popular culture to the present day.

Below are three accounts of Barnum's visit to Alabama as described by himself and in a biography published in the year he died. The complete books are linked to their Project Gutenberg pages.  I have some further comments below in brackets.  

P.T. Barnum [1810-1891] in 1851

Source: Wikipedia


Science is another important field of human effort. Science is the pursuit of pure truth, and the systematizing of it. In such an employment as that, one might reasonably hope to find all things done in honesty and sincerity. Not at all, my ardent and inquiring friends, there is a scientific humbug just as large as any other. We have all heard of the Moon Hoax. Do none of you remember the Hydrarchos Sillimannii, that awful Alabama snake? It was only a little while ago that a grave account appeared in a newspaper of a whole new business of compressing ice. Perpetual motion has been the dream of scientific visionaries, and a pretended but cheating realization of it has been exhibited by scamp after scamp. I understand that one is at this moment being invented over in Jersey City. I have purchased more than one “perpetual motion” myself. [page 14]

A funny incident occurred to me in connection with this great pill. In the year 1836, while I was travelling through the States of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, I became convinced by reading Doctor Brandreth’s advertisements that I needed his pills. Indeed, I there read the proof that every symptom that I experienced, either in imagination or in reality, rendered their extensive consumption absolutely necessary to preserve my life. I purchased a box of Brandreth’s Pills in Columbus, Miss. The effect was miraculous! Of course, it was just what the advertisement told me it would be. In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I purchased half a dozen boxes. They were all used up before my perambulating show reached Vicksburg, Miss., and I was a confirmed disciple of the blood theory. There I laid in a dozen boxes. In Natchez, I made a similar purchase. In New Orleans, where I remained several months, I was a profitable customer, and had become thoroughly convinced that the only real “greenhorns” in the world were those who preferred meat or bread to Brandreth’s Pills. I took them morning, noon, and night. In fact, the advertisements announced that one could not take too many; for if one box was sufficient to purify the blood, eleven extra boxes would have no injurious effect. [page 69] 

[Barnum goes on to tell how he meets Dr. Brandreth when he returns to NYC and the good doctor tells him he has no agents in Natchez and the pills Barnum bought must have been counterfeit. So it went in the patent medicine trade.]

[See below for more on that "awful Alabama snake".]


Barnum, P.T., Struggles & Triumphs, or Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum [1869]

In going from Columbus, Georgia, to Montgomery, Alabama, we were obliged to cross a thinly-settled, desolate tract, known as the “Indian Nation,” and as several persons had been murdered by hostile Indians in that region, it was deemed dangerous to travel the road without an escort. Only the day before we started, the mail stage had been stopped and the passengers murdered, the driver alone escaping. We were well armed, however, and trusted that our numbers would present too formidable a force to be attacked, though we dreaded to incur the risk. Vivalla alone was fearless and was ready to encounter fifty Indians and drive them into the swamp.

Accordingly, when we had safely passed over the entire route to within fourteen miles of Montgomery, and were beyond the reach of danger, Joe Pentland determined to test Vivalla’s bravery. He had secretly purchased at Mount Megs, on the way, an old Indian dress with a fringed hunting shirt and moccasins and these he put on, after coloring his face with Spanish brown. Then, shouldering his musket he followed Vivalla and the party and, approaching stealthily, leaped into their midst with a tremendous whoop.

Vivalla’s companions were in the secret, and they instantly fled in all directions. Vivalla himself ran like a deer and Pentland after him, gun in hand and yelling horribly. After running a full mile the poor little Italian, out of breath and frightened nearly to death, dropped on his knees and begged for his life. The “Indian” levelled his gun at his victim, but soon seemed to relent and signified that Vivalla should turn his pockets inside out—which he did, producing and handing over a purse, containing eleven dollars. The savage then marched Vivalla to an oak and with a handkerchief tied him in the most approved Indian manner to the tree, leaving him half dead with fright.

Pentland then joined us, and washing his face and changing his dress, we all went to the relief of Vivalla. He was overjoyed to see us, and when he was released his courage returned; he swore that after his companions left him the Indian had been re-enforced by six more to whom, in default of a gun or other means to defend himself, Vivalla had been compelled to surrender. We pretended to believe his story for a week and then told him the joke, which he refused to credit, and also declined to take the money which Pentland offered to return, as it could not possibly be his since seven Indians had taken his money. We had a great deal of fun over Vivalla’s courage, but the matter made him so cross and surly that we were finally obliged to drop it altogether. From that time forward, however, Vivalla never boasted of his prowess.

We arrived at Montgomery, February 28th, 1837. Here I met Henry Hawley a legerdemain performer, about forty-five years of age, but as he was prematurely gray he looked at least seventy, and I sold him one-half of my exhibition. He had a ready wit, a happy way of localizing his tricks, was very popular in that part of the country, where he had been performing for several years, and I never saw him nonplussed but once. This was when he was performing on one occasion the well-known egg and bag trick, which he did with his usual success, producing egg after egg from the bag and finally breaking one to show that they were genuine. “Now,” said Hawley, “I will show you the old hen that laid them.” It happened, however, that the negro boy to whom had been intrusted the duty of supplying the bag had made a slight mistake which was manifest when Hawley triumphantly produced, not “the old hen that laid the eggs,” but a rooster! The whole audience was convulsed with laughter and the abashed Hawley retreated to the dressing room cursing the stupidity of the black boy who had been paid to put a hen in the bag.

After performing in different places in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, we disbanded at Nashville in May, 1837, Vivalla going to New York, where he performed on his own account for a while previous to sailing for Cuba, Hawley staying in Tennessee to look after our horses which had been turned out to grass, and I returning home to spend a few weeks with my family.

Early in July, returning west with a new company of performers, I rejoined Hawley and we began our campaign in Kentucky. 

[When Barnum came to Alabama in 1837, whites and native Americans were still in conflict in parts of the state and the Southeast. The following year the U.S. military began the forced removal of Cherokees from Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. Some 15,000 were moved to the Indian Territory--now Oklahoma--along what became known as the Trail of Tears. About one-fourth of the Cherokees died along the route.]


Benton, Joel. A Unique Story of a Marvellous Career. Life of Hon. Phineas T. Barnum [1891]

At the end of February, 1837, they reached Montgomery, and there Barnum sold a half interest in his show to Henry Hawley, a sleight-of-hand performer. He was a very clever fellow and was never known to be non-plussed or embarrassed in his tricks, except upon one occasion. This was when he was performing the well-known egg and bag trick, which he did with great success, taking egg after egg from the bag and finally breaking one to show that they were genuine. "Now," said he "I will show you the old hen that laid them." But it happened that the negro boy to whom had been intrusted the duty of supplying "properties," had made a slight mistake. The result was that Hawley triumphantly produced not "the old hen that laid the eggs," but a most palpable and evident rooster. The audience roared with laughter, and Hawley, completely taken aback, fled in confusion to his dressing room, uttering furious maledictions upon the boy who was the author of his woe.

The show visited various places in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, and finally disbanded at Nashville in May, 1837. Vivalla went to New York and gave some performances on his own account before sailing for Cuba. Hawley remained in Tennessee, and Barnum went home to his family. Early in July, however, he formed a new company and went back to rejoin Hawley. But they were not successful, and in August they parted again, Barnum forming a new partnership with one Z. Graves. He then went to Tiffin, Ohio, where he re-engaged Joe Pentland and got together the nucleus of a new company.


In that first excerpt from Humbugs of the World, Barnum asks the probably-rhetorical question, "Do none of you remember the Hydrarchos Sillimannii, that awful Alabama snake?"

Barnum is no doubt referring to the 1844 discovery in Washington County, Alabama, by German scientist Albert C. Koch. Below is a link to the entry and some of its text for a 1972 translation into English of Koch's full account. Below that is the title page and a link to the full text of his 1845 English publication about his fossil discovery.

This find was eventually identified as a whale, Basilosaurus cetoides and designated the Alabama state fossil by the legislature in 1984. 

Koch, Albert C. Journey through a part of the United States of North America in the years 1844 to 1846 

6 editions published in 1972 in English and German and held by 433 WorldCat member libraries worldwide 

"In 1844, Albert Koch, then an obscure but passionate paleontologist, began his remarkable journey. His objective was paleontological exploration, and his travels took him by land and water from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, to New Orleans and Alabama in search of the gigantic sea serpent, or Zeuglodon. Koch's full, day-by-day, record of his journey was excerpted and published in Germany in 1847. The book, which is extremely rare, is here translated into English for the first time by Ernst A. Stadler, who also provides a thorough introduction to this narrative and to the author's life and his other scientific digs... [The author] provides fascinating descriptions of travel and of American folkways of the mid-1840's"--Book jacket

That 1972 translation is not available in full online, but Koch's 1845 books about the fossil discovery in Washington County in Alabama is online at the Internet Archive as linked below. 

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