The Destruction by Fire of Barnum' s American Museum, New York

P.T. Barnum’s Museum Burns

In 1835 P.T. Barnum began his life as as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, claimed by Barnum to have been George Washington’s nurse, and to be over 160 years old.

Joice Heth died in 1836, no more than 80 years old.  After a year of mixed success with his first variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater,” followed by the Panic of 1837 and three years of difficult circumstances, he purchased Scudder’s American Museum, at Broadway and Ann Street, New York City, in 1841. Barnum improved the attraction, and renamed it “Barnum’s American Museum.” He invested in upgrading the building and adding exhibits, and it became a popular showplace.

Barnum's American Museum in 1853

Barnum’s American Museum in 1853

From between the upper windows, giant paintings of animals drew stares from pedestrians. The roof was transformed to a strolling garden with a view of the city, where he launched hot-air balloon rides daily.

A changing series of live acts and curiosities, including albinos, giants, midgets, “fat boys,” jugglers, magicians, exotic women, detailed models of cities and famous battles, and, eventually, a menagerie of animals were added to the exhibits of stuffed animals.

On March 3, 1868 Barnum’s museum burned down.

The Destruction by Fire of Barnum’s American Museum, New York

After twelve o’clock on the morning of March 3rd flames were discovered issuing from the windows of the bird department, located on the third floor of P. T. Barnum’s Museum Building, Nos. 539 and 541 Broadway. An alarm was promptly sounded, and in a very brief space of time several hundred persons were at the scene, and the ùtmost excitement prevailed.

The fire Department was rather tardy in its appearance on the premises, owing to the depth of the snow and an alarm of fire raised a short time previously, and when the steamers took up their position the discovery was made that a majority of the hydrants in the neighborhood were frozen to such an extent that they were practically useless. By the time, therefore, that the engines got in working order, the flames, aided by a high wind, and fed by the large amount of inflammable materials about the Museum, had gained such headway that it became apparent that neither the building, nor the animals and curiosities contained therein, could be saved from the ravages of the destroying element.

Animals in the Fire

Animals in the Fire

Above the snorts of the steam-engines, the orders of the engineers and the shouts of the spectators, rose clear and painfully, expressions of the intense agony to which the animals comprising the Menagerie were subjected. Monkeys, bears hogs, lions, tigers, seals, and birds, united in a manner peculiar to their natures in swelling the volume of a death-song which occasioned responses of pity from those without the burning mass.

A very small proportion of the curiosities were saved, and Many of the most interesting and expensive animals, together with the entire collection of birds, perished in the flames. Through the incessant exertions of the policemen and citizens, a passageway was effected through the Mercer street entrance to the Menagerie building, when a series of ludicrous scenes, tinged not a little with the exciting element, were presented. When the fire had burned of more than an hour, and the entire interior of the Museum was a mass of flames, a sudden cry of wonder was raised at the appearance at one of the windows on Broadway of some animal too severely burned to be recognized.

With a brief survey of the situation beneath, the beast, which proved to be one of the Bengal tigers, gave a tremendous bound; the crowd separated frantically as the tortured creature landed in the middle of the street. For an instant the monster stood panting and gazing wildly around, and then turning suddenly, started on a canter down Broadway. A stream of water turned on him from a steam-engine brought him to bay, when a policeman stepped up and with several shots dispatched him.

Escaping Bengal Tiger Shot by Police During the Fire

Escaping Bengal Tiger Shot by Police During the Fire

During the efforts to save the animals, the giraffe tumbled down near the doorway, and put a sudden check to further egress. A number of smaller animals were passed from hand to hand, and finally a rope was attached to the giraffe’s neck and he was slowly raised up.

The Quaker giant and giantess. As exhibited at Barnums American museum, New York 1849

The Quaker giant and giantess. As exhibited at Barnums American museum, New York 1849

The huge creature frantic by the heat and the manner in which was handled, refused to move, although the flames had burst through the partition, and the animal’s body commenced to burn. More men laid hold of the rope, and after a severe struggle succeeded in hauling the beast into the street.

Several of the human monstrosities of the Museum occupied apartments on an upper floor of the building, and a posse of policemen forced open the doors and rushed into the rooms to save the inmates from destruction. The Circassian girl, whose lustrous eyes and beautiful hair have made her one of the Museum favorites, was carried from the room by a stalwart gentleman, and was immediately followed by a procession of four bearing upon their shoulders the fat boy. Miss Swann, the giantess, Mrs. Powers, the fat woman, the hairy little Esau, and the Albino children, were likewise rescued by a sympathetic company, and the entire party were conducted to the parlors of the Ansen House.

The fire is supposed to have originated from a defective flue, on the third floor.

Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published from 1855 to 1922, was an American illustrated news publication started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie. While only 30 copies of the first edition were printed, by 1897 its circulation had grown to an estimated 65,000 copies.


Publication: Frank Leslie’s Weekly
Date: March 21, 1868
Title: The Destruction by Fire of Barnum’s American Museum, New York

All images included in blog posts are from either Accessible Archives collections or out of copyright public sources unless otherwise noted. Common sources include the Library of Congress, The Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and other public archives.

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