Barnum’s Woolly Horse

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Barnum exhibited his woolly horse many years before the advent of photography, but what he presented was likely a Bashkir curly horse like this one

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of my theatre company Mountebanks. Throughout the year, I’ll be unleashing several activities to celebrate the theme of theatrical charlatanism. Case in point: March 27 & 28 I’ll be playing P.T. Barnum in UTC#61’s MoneyLab. On the run-up, this series of posts on some of Barnum’s most celebrated hoaxes.

Another of Barnum’s first exhibitions was the so-called “Woolly Horse” , which had been born in Indiana, and purchased by Barnum in Cincinnati. In his autobiography Struggles and Triumphs he describes the animal as a “remarkable freak”, but there is in fact an entire breed of horses that fit his description of it, known as “curlies”. The creature might have been of mild agricultural interest to audiences in Barnum’s day but for his masterstroke in tying it to the headlines.

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John C. Fremont had just returned from his latest expedition across the Rocky Mountains (1848)– a major story of the day, as the west was still largely unexplored by Americans. Barnum falsely claimed that Fremont’s party had discovered the woolly-haired equine on one of the peaks of the Rockies, and that it was a new, unique American species (not unlike say, the mountain goat).

Here is an ad he ran:

“COL. FREMONT’S NONDESCRIPT OR WOOLLY HORSE will be exhibited for a few days at the corner of Broadway and Reade street, previous to his departure for London. Nature seems to have exerted all her ingenuity in the production of this astounding animal. He is extremely complex – made up of the Elephant, Deer, Horse, Buffalo, Camel, and Sheep. It is the full size of a Horse, has the haunches of the Deer, the tail of the Elephant, a fine curled wool of camel’s hair color, and easily bounds twelve or fifteen feet high. Naturalists and the oldest trappers assured Col. Fremont that it was never known previous to his discovery. It is undoubtedly ‘Nature’s last,’ and the richest specimen received from California. To be seen every day this week. Admittance 25 cents; children half price.”

This gambit fared well enough, but business grew even better when Fremont’s father-in-law , Senator Thomas Hart Benton took Barnum to court for fraud. At that stage, Barnum himself became the attraction, and more people bought tickets to see the fraud than had to see the unusual animal.

Later, because of the association, Fremont was often branded “the woolly horse” by his enemies (e.g., the Confederates during the Civil War, and by the opposing Democrats, during his political campaigns).

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