Bread and Circuses

Well, actually just the latter. In early May of 1872, the circus came to Washington, D.C.—and not just the usual political circus. This one was P.T. Barnum’s, and it featured the “famous horse-riding goat ‘Alexis,’ the wonderful snake-charmer,” and “four wild Fiji cannibals.” (One newspaper waggishly wondered what the cannibals were fed.)


(Barnum with General Tom Thumb, circa 1850.)

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, to Irena Taylor Barnum and Philo F. Barnum, a storekeeper and farmer. He was a capitalist from an early age, selling cookies and candy to schoolmates. When his father died, Barnum got a job clerking a store, saving up until he could open his own store three yeas later. But there was more to the man than simple finance. In 1831, he began publishing an abolitionist and nondenominational Christian newspaper, the Herald of Freedom. At one point he was jailed for libel; when he was set free, he was said to have been driven through town in an open coach accompanied by cannon blasts and a chorus singing “Yankee Doodle.”

After some economic reversals, he moved in 1834 to New York City, where he embarked on his first entertainment venture—scraping and borrowing $1,000 to purchase elderly slave Joice Heth. Claiming Heth was the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, Barnum set her free and installed her at a popular entertainment venue to tell stories about the father of the nation. His investment was sound: She brought in $750 weekly. But she was probably no more than 80 when she died two years later.

In 1836, Barnum bought his first circus and toured the South. This, along with other Barnum ventures, had its boom and busts. In 1841, Barnum finagled his way into taking over Scudder’s New York Museum (featuring a stuffed bison, wax figures, and a guillotine). He renamed it Barnum’s American Museum and it was considered to be the country’s first public museum of real importance. His financial strategy was to spend great sums of money on exhibits, then charge small entry fees and entice people to return for multiple visits. One famous humbug was the Fiji mermaid (a mishmash of a corpse with the top of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish). Another was the Woolly Horse, purportedly from explorer John C. Frémont’s trek through the Rocky Mountains and billed as having “his head where his tail should be.” (The horse had probably never been west of New York, and was simply housed backward in his stall.) For all his faith in Americans’ appetite for the bizarre and freakish (and his willingness to exploit that appetite with fake spectacles), there is no definitive proof he ever actually said a sucker is born every minute. (He might wish he had, though.)

Barnum also brought fame to Charles Stratton, a boy only two feet in height. Barnum re-christened him “General Tom Thumb” and paid him three dollars a week to entertain the public by singing, dancing, and chatting. The pair toured Europe to great acclaim. On the heels of that success, Barnum mortgaged everything he owned to bring soprano Jenny Lind to America; he is credited as singlehandedly doing more to increase U.S. appreciation for opera than just about anyone else.


(A popular portrait of Jenny Lind. My own maternal great-grandmother had a copy over her fireplace—for years I thought it was a relative. It now hangs in my uncle’s house. Imagine my surprise when years later I saw old photos of my paternal grandmother’s house with the same portrait over the sofa—and even later, when the images popped up gracing the set of the 90’s TV show Charmed.)

But for all his exploitive actions, Barnum had an abiding respect for humanity and freedom. As slavery became a more prominent political issue, Barnum, who had been a Jacksonian Democrat since youth, took up Republicanism in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. He had evolved from a man of common stereotypes of the 1840s to a leader for emancipation by the Civil War. During the Civil War, Barnum’s museum drew large audiences seeking diversion from the conflict. He added pro-Unionist exhibits, including an actress who had served as a spy for the Union and who lectured about her “thrilling adventures” behind Confederate lines. Barnum’s Unionist sympathies incited a Confederate arsonist to start a fire in 1864. On July 13, 1865, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground from a fire of unknown origin. Barnum re-established the Museum at another location in New York City, but this too was destroyed by fire in March 1868. This time the loss was too great, and Barnum retired from the museum business.

In 1865, he won a seat in the Connecticut legislature. At ratification of the 13th Amendment, Barnum spoke before the legislature and said, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.”

Aside from his one early foray, the man most associated with the circus didn’t really get involved in that business until he was 60 years old. In 1870, he established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks.” It soon became the first two-ring, then three-ring, circus, transported by up to seventy railroad freight cars (Barnum was one of the first circus owners to move his circus by train and probably the very first to buy his own train), and was renamed “P. T. Barnum’s New and Greatest Show on Earth.”

But he didn’t give up on politics and community involvement. Having reverted to the Democratic Party, Barnum supported Horace Greeley for president in 1872. Three years later he was himself elected mayor of Bridgeport as a Democrat, focusing on temperance issues as well as bringing gas lighting to streets. Barnum was again serving in the Connecticut state house in 1878, and was notably the legislative sponsor of a law enacted in 1879 that prohibited the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception” that remained in effect in Connecticut until being overturned in 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Barnum also made significant contributions to Tufts University, which features Jumbo the elephant as its mascot and refers to its students as “Jumbos.”

In 1891, realizing he was near death, Barnum reportedly had his own obituary written and printed in the newspaper so that he could read it. He died in Bridgeport at the ripe old age of 80.


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Hot Lava

Everyone  has heard of Pompeii, I think. (At least, you should have.)  Wiped out by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, it’s one of the more famous natural-disaster tourist attractions. But did you know that Mount Vesuvius wasn’t content with that bit of ash-spewing? Over the years, it continued to wreak havoc in the region, and is today a national park, plus one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world (because 3 million people live nearby and it’s a pretty volatile formation).

Why am I writing about this? Well, volcanoes are cool.  And because it erupted on this day in 1872, right around the time the wheels were being set in motion for the action in my book, Justice and Vengeance.  (You can preorder from the link over there on the right.)

The volcano had belched a bunch of times between when it buried Pompeii and 1872, but that year’s eruption was  doozy. The lava blocked an escape route and killed some spectators. The flow forked at one point — one path destroyed a couple villages, the other surrounded an observatory and stranded workers there for days. (Luigi Palmieri, the director of the volcano observatory wrote a memoir about it the next year.) On the 28th, when the lava flow stopped, there were massive eruptions at the summit, which at that point was about 4,400 feet in elevation.

The next really exciting eruption was in 1944, in the midst of  World War II. The 340th Bombardment Group was stationed there and lost upward of 70 of planes when they “were covered with hot ash that burned the fabric control surfaces, glazed, melted, or cracked the Plexiglass, and even tipped some B-25s onto their tails from the weight of the ash.” That was also the last time Vesuvius erupted, to date.

It’s been 70 years since then, but that doesn’t mean lava won’t flow again. I don’t really understand why you’d want to live in the shadow of a volatile and unpredictable volcano. It kind of reminds me of those people who build and rebuild their houses in flood zones thinking things will be different THIS TIME.  Would you take that risk?


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It’s Official!

It only took a year or so, but I can officially say that my book will see the light of day!

I am now the proud signer of a contract with Open Books, which produces a whole swath of interesting material.  Give them a look!

And in June, you’ll be able to get a copy of this:

justice and vengeance with coin final

It’s the story of James Clark, a married Commonwealth’s Attorney in Prince William County, who ran off with an eager-to-elope 16-year-old Fannie Fewell, the daughter of one of Manassas’s leading citizens. After being arrested for abduction, Clark was shot in his jail cell by Fannie’s older brother, Lucien, a hellraiser with a passion for drink and for abusing Yankees and scalawags.

The trial the followed was a celebrity affair. The prosecutors were former Virginia Governor and Confederate General Henry A. Wise, who assisted Charles E. Sinclair, a judge during the Mormon War in Utah in the 1850s who had replaced Clark as Commonwealth’s Attorney. Fewell’s defense was handled by two other Civil War generals: Eppa Hunton, a participant in Pickett’s Charge who was elected to Congress during the trial, and William Henry Fitzhugh Payne, who rode with the infamous Black Horse Regiment.

The outcome of the trial is a surprise, as is what happened to Fannie and Lucien in later life.

Tell all your friends!

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Today in 1872: Dry Milk Day

If you love Doritos, Kraft Mac and Cheese, or powdered cheese popcorn, you can thank Samuel Percy.

On this date in 1872, Dr. Percy patented the process to create dried (or powdered) milk, which eventually gave rise to all that delightful stuff we consume today.

And while, yeah, the stuff isn’t as good for you as diet of roots and leaves, the conditions that gave rise to Percy’s patent came from a pretty Upton Sinclair–like situation that was much more disgusting. (And hey, we aren’t bunnies, either! A little powdered cheese ought to spice things up every so often!)

It all came to pass, as so many things do, in New York.  As the city expanded, dairies got farther and farther away, and in pre-refrigeration days, that created problems for getting the product to the consumers.  Some enterprising swindlers figured out a way to keep cows in the city and stuff them with subpar grain leading to so-called swill milk, which was then doctored with all kinds of crap to make it look whiter and thicker. (Dianne Durante has a great piece on this at the link—and offers a pretty good warning on the raw milk issue, while she’s at it.) Percy and others set out improve the quality of milk, and thus such innovations as spray drying and pasteurization were developed and embraced.

(Incidentally, Percy also gets credit for suggesting cocaine as an analgesic. The man had a thing for powdery white substances, I guess.)

I can’t find much on Percy himself, other than he died in 1890. But obviously, the effects of his work lived on, for good and bad.

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A Murder of Crows, a Desire of Suitors…

What do you call a gathering of writers? A neurosis? A penury? An ego?

This weekend, for me, it was called the Virginia Festival of the Book. We went last year when my husband talked about his book, and we had such a good time that we went again this year. Our kid was happy because he finally got to meet a childhood hero: Jon Scieszka. We stood in line after the lecture, and the man was absolutely lovely—so warm and friendly and engaging, even with the line snaking around the building.

I spent the time talking to authors about various approaches to publishing and promotion. Hope springs eternal, and all that. I did conclude that I definitely do not want to self-publish—partly out of ego, but more out of laziness. I have no desire to do all my own formatting, but at the same time I don’t want to pay a printer to do something I’m completely capable of doing myself. And maybe it’s my profession getting the better of me, but I don’t trust a process that doesn’t require the involvement of one single editor.

I did learn a lot about Things I Should Not Do when it’s my turn. Don’t pre-record your lecture and sit and watch it with the audience. Know what slide is showing and make sure your chatter relates to it. If you don’t know the answer to an audience question, don’t stall or deflect; admit it and offer to find the answer and email the person who asked—then redirect to something you DO know. Try not to say “uhhh” more often than any other word.  Try to look like you are honored to be there, not like it’s an imposition.

I also learned that most audiences show up ready to laugh—I mean, unless you’re there to talk about the Holocaust or something. In most cases, if you give them the tiniest bit of help, they will respond with enthusiasm—even more if you keep it energetic and help the time go by quickly. Twenty minutes of funny and informative anecdotes goes by quickly. Twenty minutes of “uhh” is excruciating.

Beyond the festival, we also spent a lot of money at assorted bookstores, ate ice cream, and had an amazing dinner. Charlottesville is a lovely spot. I highly recommend it.

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New Ideas

It is funny how things fall into my path and I think they’d be great ideas for books. (After so many completed projects turning out to be apparent nonstarters, I’m starting to question my judgment, but we’ll set that aside.)  Now,  along with thinking about the Willard Hotel, I have two more.

One is something my husband found while looking up stuff for his job. It revolves around the first murder trial in California where television coverage competed with newspapers (and pretty much blew them out of the water).   It’s a horrible story; a little girl went to the movies with her littler brothers and wound up kidnapped, raped, dead, and dumped in a gulch. They caught the guy and he was sent to the gas chamber. It sounds like a good idea, right?  But maybe it’s too grisly.

Then, I was listening to Karen Abbott’s American Rose and was intrigued by a  throwaway reference to the first wife of Otto Preminger.  Her origins are sketchy but she got out of Europe one step ahead of the jackboots, lived a life of lavish extravagance in Hollywood while her director-husband catted around on her before eventually getting divorced, then moved on to wrapping up her identity in the polar opposite of Preminger: Albert Schweitzer. If you squint, she was the prototype Angelina Jolie. And there’s no book about her… yet. But maybe nobody even knows who Albert Schweitzer is anymore.

So now I have three ideas and a crisis of confidence.  I figure I’ll do some research (but not write the whole book this time) before I have to decide. That’s the fun part anyway, right?

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History Stuff

I just finished listening to Astoria by Peter Stark, and this book is incredible.  I’m tempted to try to make my 13-year-old read it; it’s that engaging and interesting. (And there’s a really great description of scalping and scalping victims in it that is just primed and ready for putting on screen.)

We are making the kid read the diary of Anne Frank along with Red Scarf Girl. I don’t know if they are giving him an appreciation for history—or for all the stuff he has—but at least it’s a change from Marvel comics and YouTube.  (That’s not really fair. In the past month, he’s also read Ready Player One and three Robert Cormier books and loved them all, so I shouldn’t make him sound like a total screen-head.)

My husband is putting the finishing touches on his second book. It’s a follow-up on his first book; this one focuses on 1856. I’m looking forward to editing it.

Still in a holding pattern on my own book. Still busy thinking about next moves and assiduously not actually doing anything.

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