The ‘biggest liar of the age’ was at his typewriter on the afternoon of 13 July, 1865 reliving the spectacle of the living exhibits within Barnum’s American Museum being burned alive. A fire had broken out in the New York museum (on the corner of Ann Street and Broadway) at around noon and, according to this journalist, the animals in the menagerie suffered unimaginable anguish and pain as they were swallowed up by the flames. He writes of a terrible combat between an escaped lion and tiger and of a snake throttling a lioness. He continues:
One of the alligators was killed almost immediately by falling across a great fragment of shattered glass, which cut open his stomach and let out the greater part of his entrails to the light of day. The remaining alligator became involved in a controversy with an anaconda, and joined the melee in the centre of the blazing apartment. At this moment the floor, undermined by flame, gave way with an awful crash, and the living, struggling, howling, writhing mass was launched into a gulf of red and yellow fire, sending up a whirlwind of smoke, sparks, and cinders to the very heavens. The last object I saw was the Polar bear, upon a white-hot square of sheet-iron, with all the hair burnt from his hide, and standing stark and stiff and rapidly baking brown. Before the whale went down with the rest a stream of spermaceti ran from his carcass down the sides of the building, taking fire and making impromptu candles on a colossal scale.
New Yorkers read these hideous descriptions in horror. Fortunately, the journalist was exposed by a fellow reporter as a charlatan when it became apparent that there was no lion, tiger or polar bear in the building – they were all conjured up in the mind of the publicity-seeking reporter.
However… there were animals that died in the fire and P.H Barnum confirmed a few days later that animals died, although not in the numbers suggested in the newspapers. Living exhibits made up a small proportion of those on show in the Museum, alongside stuffed animals, wax works, ephemera and human curiosities, such as Tom Thumb. The Museum was the first American institution to combine sensational entertainment and gaudy display with instruction and moral uplift – it was supposedly the most visited place in America.
Their sportive plunges and animated contests of affection afforded constant amusement to hundreds of spectators, and a pregnant contrast to the fearful death by roasting which they so soon thereafter met….The whales were, of course, burned alive. At an early stage of the conflagration, the large panes of glass in the great "whale tank" were broken to allow the heavy mass of water to flow upon the floor of the main saloon, and the leviathan natives of Labrador, when last seen, were floundering in mortal agony, to the inexpressible delight of the unfeeling boys, who demanded a share of the blubber.
On the floor above was a collection of animals, including predators and their natural prey, all kept in one cage. The exhibit was known as the Happy Family and all of the animals perished:
…"sassy" monkeys, subdued dogs, meek rats, fat cats, plump pigeons, sleepy owls, prickly porcupines, gay guinea pigs, crowing cocks, hungry hounds, big monkeys, little monkeys, monkeys of every degree of tail, old, grave, gray monkeys, young, rascally, mischievous monkeys, middle-aged, scheming monkeys, and a great many miserable, mangy monkeys. Those animals and other creatures may have been ‘happy’, but they did'nt smell nicely; they doubtless lived respectable, but their antics were not pleasant to look at, and, to tell the truth, they frequently fought fiercely, and were badly beaten for it. However, they are gone; all burned to death, roasted whole, with stuffing au naturel, and in view of their lamentable end we may well say, "Peace to their ashes." In corner of the room was a pretty little kangaroo, but he too has gone, he can-go-round no more.
The New York Herald’s report of the fire gives an idea of the importance of the Happy Family exhibit to the children of New York (and their ‘country cousins’) which seemingly provided ‘much amusement’ and helped make a trip to Barnum’s a ‘great treat’. While the crowd outside could hear the cries of the animals in fear and pain, the Herald’s reporter thought with regret of the ‘persecutions’ which were metered out to some of the members of the Happy Family – the monkey who was given ‘blind [false?] nuts’ and the ‘unfortunate pussy’ named Jacko who was obviously tormented as he would sometimes attempt to bite fingers, but would usually submit to ‘persecutions…without a word of anger or reproach’. Goodness knows how the Happy Family community suffered at Barnam’s – perhaps it was a great relief that they were free of the cage once and for all…
Unfortunately, the list of deaths continues in the New York Times with the snakes in the ‘case of snakes’ and the crocodile/alligator:
Huge boa constrictors, thirty feet long and proportionally thick, very fond of rabbits and sheep, lay upon the floor of the cage. Smaller, but equally unpleasant snakes, hung about the perches, and a whole family of little fellows swarmed and wiggled about the warm stovepipe in the centre. These could not have been saved in any way; their mortal coils were heated quickly, their cages burned and their way before them; but it is probably a correct supposition that the hot breath of flame suffocated them before they could reach the ground and join the other reptiles on the lower tier….The "Man-Eater" also suffered a cruel death amid the burning pile. This representative of the saurian species remained passive and quiescent during the progress of the fire, as far as witnessed by mortal eye. True to his taciturn habits, the alligator failed to make the slightest attempt at escape.
However, much to the delight of the crowds waiting outside the burning museum, one of the Museum’s favourite attractions was saved – the ‘learned seal’ called Ned. He occupied a conspicuous position on the second floor and was greatly admired. According to the New York Times, ‘…he could eat more small fishes in a short space of time than any seal we ever saw. Unlike the scriptural seals of which we read, he was never closed, but was invariably open, ready for a fish or a cracker. His performances on the hand-organ were, doubtless, painful to him, but to the flippant crowd they were amusing and pleasant… his home… combined the conveniences of a bath and the comforts of a sand-bank.’ Ned was rescued by a couple of men, one of whom he bit, and was carried to a place of safety with the crowd making way on every side. The New York Herald hoped that ‘we may at some future time see him perform as of yore.’
The crowds were also pleased to see a bear being rescued by firemen. A rope was tied round his waist and he descended the ladder looking ‘quite savage and not at all inclined for fun; accustomed to be looked at through iron bars he seemed at a loss to understand his present situation.’ It was thought that a few birds also succeeded in flying away.
It is difficult to image the panic within the Museum as the performers and visitors fled to escape the fire, but add escapee exotics into the melee and there really was cause for concern. The cabinet containing the ‘gigantic specimens of the ophidian [snakes] tribe, was capsized, and the tenants thereof were suffered to wander whither their fancy led. Naturally enough, they took advantage of their now-found liberty, and soon were traveling down stairs, to the infinite astonishment and alarm of the multitude.’ Other animals were also reported to be escaping, such as a lion which was supposedly rushing down Broadway - the result was, ‘the sudden flight of a few nervous people, who, imparting their terror to others, brought about quite a stampede.’
When the fires were finally quenched and Barnum’s insurers paid the reported $300,000 in losses, the museum was opened for a second time along the road in 1866, but was again burnt down. Perhaps realising that static exhibits were doomed to fail, Barnum went into the travelling circus industry and his past life at the Museum became overshadowed by his worldwide success.
Note: ‘The Lost Museum’ is an online version of the original Barnum American Museum, found at www.lostmuseum.cuny.edu/intro.html