PT Barnum is best known today for his role in the Greatest Show on Earth when he partnered with James Anthony Bailey to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1880. But decades earlier, Barnum had already established himself as a peddler of oddities and absurdities with the purchase of a natural history museum in New York in 1841.
Barnum’s American Museum opened the following year, on January 1, 1842.
The so-called “dime museum,” which referred to lowbrow institutions of cheap entertainment in the 19th century, included a zoo, wax museum, lecture hall, theater and freak show.
Within its walls the American Museum housed exotic birds and animals, an aquarium containing beluga whales, the trained bears of Grizzly Adams, a working steam engine made entirely of glass, wax sculptures of Tom Thumb and the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng, the Feejee Mermaid, scraps of cloth from the jackets of Revolutionary War heroes, taxidermy specimens, a flea circus, a fortune teller, a phrenologist, Ned “the learned” seal, the “Nova Scotian Giantess” known as Miss Swan and much more.
At its height, the museum saw as many as 15,000 visitors a day.
On July 13, 1865, a defective furnace caught fire and quickly burned the museum to the ground.
Visitors still inside the museum attempted to save items, such as the wax figure of Confederate president Jefferson Davis in petticoats, by throwing them out the front windows onto the street below.
Davis was subsequently carried away and hanged from a lamp pole near St. Paul’s Churchyard.
A cage full of anacondas and pythons was tipped over, scattering the huge snakes across the floor. To the alarm of the panicked crowds, the snakes began making their way downstairs toward freedom.
The glass panes of the whale tank were broken in hopes the water would flow out and help quell the blaze.
“The whales were, of course, burned alive,” The New York Times reported the following day.
Likewise, the “Man-Eater,” as it was known, also suffered a cruel, though apparently apathetic death.
“True to its taciturn habits,” the newspaper wrote, “the alligator failed to make the slightest attempt at escape.”
30,000 people filled the streets to watch the “scenes exciting, serious, and comic” as the building burned.
While thieves ran off with items pilfered from the building, looters stole wine, boots, coats and Panama hats from nearby shops. Pickpockets worked their way through the crowd, a pair of brothers even making off with a gold watch.
In the end, PT Barnum’s American Museum and most of its extensive collection was reduced to ash.
“The only curiosities reported to have been saved beside the fat woman,” The New York Times reported, “were the live seal and a case of rare coins.”