Have a drink with: Carl Hagenbeck
Ask him: But do you sing country ballads?
Like many other people, I spent the first chunk of my home confinement (thanks, coronavirus) plowing through Netflix’s hot documentary series “Tiger King” whilst eating an inordinate number of Girl Scout cookies. And the show is so relentlessly bananapants that it’s hard to believe that it could be a product of anything but the current moment in history. But no! The 19th century animal entertainment landscape also involved a cluster of larger-than-life figures jockeying for notoriety and revenue, and the birth of menageries in Western culture can tell us a lot about private zoos today.
There had certainly been exotic animals in the West going back far earlier, as part of private collections meant to demonstrate the owner’s status and ability. (Think Mike Tyson owning a tiger.) But where at the turn of the 19th century there were an isolated few animals in private hands, during the 1800s the menagerie emerged as a structured public entertainment. At first this was a matter of novelty: OMG COME SEE AN ELEPHANT. But as time went on, zoos had to embrace a sense of place in the world, and replaced brutal colonialism with an idea of moral purpose – the idea of participation in education, science and conservation.
Read on at Slate for my full take on Joe Exotic and his historical counterparts.
Have a drink with: Jumbo
The Children’s Giant Friend
Ask him about: bath time in the Thames
There’s one conspicuous problem with the 1941 Disney movie Dumbo and Tim Burton’s remake, released last week: the elephant’s name is not, in fact, Dumbo.
The little elephant with the big ears is, in fact, given a family name when he is born, and Mrs. Jumbo’s baby is christened Jumbo, Jr. (The mocking nickname comes about when his giant ears are discovered.) This establishes Dumbo in the lineage of a real circus animal – the mighty Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s prize African elephant. In 1941, when the original Disney film came out in theaters, Jumbo was still within fifty years’ living memory – and indeed, a fair swath of adult audience members were likely to have remembered seeing Jumbo as children on circus day, as the Greatest Show on Earth wound its way across America.
When P.T. Barnum secured him from the London Zoo, where he was known as the “children’s friend” for the rides he would give to young zoo visitors, Jumbo became the undisputed star of the circus, elevating the Barnum shows to an even greater level of cultural prominence.
Here are a few things you may not know about Dumbo’s famous patriarch.
Have a drink with: Harry Hill
“Take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.”
Ask him about: How’s your head?
Harry Hill was a British-born horse-racing enthusiast and barman who ran a multi-purpose bar, concert hall, fight venue and gambling house at Houston and Crosby Streets in 19th century lower Manhattan, a scant mile and change uptown from Barnum’s American Museum. Hill was a colorful character whose combination of brawn, acuity and street-smarts gained him broad respect and local notoriety: he entertained a rough crowd but strictly enforced house rules about behavior and relative quietude (no swearing or unsanctioned brawling allowed, and while you’re at it, order a glass of wine for your digestion).
His New York Times obituary, printed August 28, 1896, described Hill as “a queer combination of the lawless, reckless, rough, and the honest man.” This was an understatement: Hill was the type of guy who once had been stabbed with a penknife by a disgruntled female patron, and seemed not to consider this out of the ordinary.
Have a drink with: James O’Connell & Captain Costentenus
Over 7 million blood-producing punctures!
Ask them about: The many uses of coconut oil
The Greatest Showman, the recent Hugh Jackman movie musical about impresario (and frequent blog subject) P.T. Barnum, centers in large part on the “Oddities,” a troupe of human curiosities Barnum brings from social obscurity to delight crowds at his American Museum. Among these is a tattooed man – and, in this case, fact and fiction align: in the early 19th century, “tattooed person” officially became a career option for white Westerners. Many of them were sailors who, as Robert Bogdan points out in the book Freak Show, “rather than getting a small tattoo on their arm, had their bodies extensively decorated by native tattooers. When they discovered that people would pay to view such skin art, a new type of freak was created.”*
Barnum employed tattooed people in his shows throughout the 1800s, and the movie’s burly, bearded tattoo aficionado looks to be modeled on a real man named Djordgi Konstantinus – Captain Costentenus if you’re nasty.
Have a drink with: Jenny Lind
The one and only Swedish Nightingale
Ask her about: The hot concert tour of 1850
The Greatest Showman, a movie musical about the life and legend of P.T. Barnum, is a colorful, kinetic romp through the most recognizable part of Barnum’s entertainment oeuvre, with Hugh Jackman at the fore in ringmaster’s tails and gold-capped boots. And while the musical admirably captures Barnum’s unparalleled capacity for expansive joy and puckish innovation, it does so by taking some Jumbo-sized liberties with the real version of events (though, frankly, what’s more Barnum than taking a good story and embellishing the hell out of it?)
Insofar as the movie pivots on the suggestion that Barnum and his star, the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, had the hots for each other, that one is right out: I’m over at Vanity Fair explaining why.
Have a drink with: Tom Petty
Into the great wide open…
Ask him about: Not backing down.
Tom Petty recently achieved the feat, as far as the press was concerned, of dying twice in a single day.
On Monday, October 2, news outlets began reporting in the afternoon that Petty had died following a cardiac incident at his California home, following a CBS News breaking news item declaring the singer dead. Only a few hours later, amidst a social media explosion of remorse and YouTube videos, did the news squeak out that announcements of Petty’s death may, in fact, have been premature. The Los Angeles Police Department, which had been CBS’ source in breaking the news, shortly clarified that it could not in fact confirm Mr. Petty’s death, noting on Twitter: “The LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting.”
It isn’t the first time death has seemed less than final in the realm of celebrity.
Modern media culture is full of conspiracy-laden, media friendly death theories: Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra died on the same day in 1945! Why do you think Paul McCartney’s barefoot on the Abbey Road cover? Elvis faked his death and is living under witness protection! Abe Vigoda didn’t just miss a wrap party during the 1980s, he opted out ENTIRELY. (Sorry, that’s during the 90s.) (Oughts?) (Check the website.)
Are celebrity death hoaxes an unpleasant, if inevitable, modern consequence of the Internet’s viral credibility problem?
Nope. The gleeful anticipation of celebrity deaths as mass mourning events is a particularly tawdry offshoot of modern mass media culture. But the phenomenon isn’t new. Since the 1800s, death hoaxes and premature obituaries have punctuated American history (and yes, American – we seem to specialize in both death obsession and gullibility).
Have a drink with: General & Mrs. Tom Thumb
Tiny wedding of the century!
Ask them about: Will there be ice cream?
I’m over at Atlas Obscura today writing about the Tom Thumb wedding, an American dramatic tradition in which kids put on elaborate, supremely awkward mock weddings for paying audiences. These plays began in the 19th century as a wink and a nod to the “Fairy Wedding” of celebrity little people Charles Stratton (aka “General Tom Thumb”) and Lavinia Warren, and have been undertaken through history as a fundraiser, a crash course in etiquette and promises, or presumably simply so adults could enjoy their children’s embarrassment over cocktails. Click over to Atlas Obscura for more.
Have a drink with: P.T. Barnum
The Greatest Showman on Earth
Ask him about: elephant agriculture
Barnum month continues! With the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus performing its last shows yesterday in New York, and first-look pictures of Hugh Jackman’s Barnum musical The Greatest Showman breaking this week, it’s a good day to tip the top hat to Phineas T.
Here are ten things you may not have known about Barnum:
1. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” P.T. Barnum never spoke his most famous words. In the late 1860’s, workers near Syracuse, New York dug up a ten-foot stone colossus, claiming it was archaeological evidence of Biblical giants having lived in the northeast United States. Really the “Cardiff Giant” was a hoax planted by skeptic George Hull, and as it drew thousands of people to see it, the statue made its owners money hand over fist. When the statue’s owners refused to sell to Barnum, the showman simply created his own “Giant,” and claimed the other guys were showing a fake. One version of the tale has angry owner David Hannum spitting out the famous phrase in the resulting legal dispute.
Have a drink with: Henry Bergh
The Great Meddler, mustache aficionado, friend to animals
Ask him about: Aquatic rhinoceros*
Today I’m over at The Atlantic writing about Henry Bergh, America’s first animal rights activist and a relentless crusader for the early animal rights movement. Through an unlikely and yet genuine friendship with entertainment icon P.T. Barnum, the two men advanced their mutual goal to make the world a better place – Bergh through service to animals, Barnum through the joy of spectacle.
Have a drink with: Mary Todd Lincoln
Bad taste in psychics; good taste in jewelry
Ask her about: Levitating pianos
George Saunders’ novel Lincoln in the Bardo looks at the metaphysics of the Lincoln family, with what on first glance might seem to be wild creative license. Dramatizing the doubt and grief that colored the President’s life, Saunders gathers a swirl of chatty ghosts to comment on Lincoln’s brief foray into the graveyard after the death of his son Willie in 1862.
Linking the Lincolns and the spirit world isn’t a stretch – though it wasn’t the President so much as his wife who was eager to commune with spirits. Mary Todd Lincoln, driven by family tragedy, was interested in spiritualism through much of her life.