Barnum’s American Museum was located at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in New York City, United States, from 1841 to 1865. The museum was owned by famous showman P. T. Barnum, who purchased Scudder’s American Museum in 1841. The museum offered both strange and educational attractions. It burned to the ground in 1865.
In 1841 Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum across from St. Paul’s at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street. He converted the five-story exterior into an advertisement lit with limelight. The museum opened on January 1, 1842. Its attractions made it a combination zoo, museum, lecture hall, wax museum, theater and freak show, that was, at the same time, a central site in the development of American popular culture. Barnum filled the American Museum with dioramas, panoramas, “cosmoramas,” scientific instruments, modern appliances, a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, the trunk of a tree under which Jesus’ disciples sat, an oyster bar, a rifle range, waxworks, glass blowers, taxidermists, phrenologists, pretty-baby contests, Ned the learned seal, the Feejee Mermaid (a mummified monkey’s torso with a fish’s tail), midgets, Chang and Eng the Siamese twins, a menagerie of exotic animals that included beluga whales in an aquarium, giants, Native Americans who performed traditional songs and dances, Grizzly Adams’s trained bears and performances ranging from magicians, ventriloquists and blackface minstrels to adaptations of biblical tales and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
At its peak, the museum was open fifteen hours a day and had as many as 15,000 visitors a day. Some 38 million customers paid the 25 cents admission to attend the museum between 1841 and 1865. The total population of the United States in 1860 was under 32 million.
In November 1864 the Confederate Army of Manhattan attempted and failed to burn down the museum but on July 13, 1865 the American Museum burned to the ground in one of the most spectacular fires New York has ever seen. Animals at the museum were seen jumping from the burning building, only to be shot by police officers. Many of the animals unable to escape the blaze burned to death in their enclosures, including the two beluga whales who boiled to death in their tanks. It was allegedly during this fire that a fireman by the name of Johnny Denham killed an escaped tiger with his ax before rushing into the burning building and carrying out a 400-pound woman on his shoulders. Barnum tried to open another museum soon after that, but that also burned down in a mysterious fire in 1868. It was after this time that Barnum moved on to politics and the circus industry. Barnum’s American Museum was one of the most popular attractions of its time.
What I find amazing is that I knew nothing about this museum. It is strange but what happens in a time period is sometimes lost in time. With the fires occurring so often, I wonder if there was insurance on the location. P.S. the first fire policy was by the Hartford in 1815. Was Barnum scamming the insurance company? How profitable was the museum? I tried to get the records but could not.