The Five Fires of P.T. Barnum

Rounding out the final day of this year’s Fire Prevention Week, we thought we’d take a look at five major blazes that afflicted P.T. Barnum over his long career as an impresario. In typical form, Barnum’s set-backs were as spectacular as his successes. Any one of them would have ended the career of many a lesser man. Barnum was made of sterner stuff.

Iranistan (1857)

Barnum built his showplace mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1848. It was inspired by the Royal Pavilion, a seaside palace in Brighton, England (a resort that is in many ways the British version of Coney Island). Built between the years 1787-1815, the Royal Pavilion’s Indo-Saracenic style, characterized by onion-shaped domes and other Eastern features, is a kind of statement of the Empire which Britain was then building. Barnum hired architect Leopold Eidlitz to design his own version of the palace, which in its way was an expression of America’s own Gilded Age Empire. It was naturally one of the most spectacular private homes in the country, and was visited by Barnum’s famous friends such as Mark Twain, Matthew Arnold, Horace Greeley and George Custer. A picture of Iranistan on Barnum’s letter head convinced Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind to accept Barnum’s offer to tour the United States. At the time the house was set on fire by workmen, Barnum had not been living there for several months due to financial setbacks. Later he would build “More Stately Mansions”, to use fellow Nutmegger Eugene O’Neill’s phrase, but none to match Iranistan. He wouldn’t risk the capital or the heartbreak.

American Museum (1864/65, 1868)

Established 1842 at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in Lower Manhattan, P.T. Barnum’s American Museum was one of America’s greatest tourist attractions, the pride of New York. The building contained thousands of curiosities, artworks, artifacts, live animal specimens, and a Lecture Room where Freaks and Philosophers alike held court. That the place lasted for over two decades without being visited by the plague of fire which seemed more the rule than the exception in the 19th century, is a minor miracle. But bad luck finally caught up with Barnum. In 1864 a Confederate plot to set the place afire was quashed, but the following year the museum burned to the ground, possibly also at the hand of Southern saboteurs. Financially ruined, Barnum managed to climb back though, rebuilding both the museum and his collection on a fast track to restore his fortunes. Then, it 1868 it happened again. A faulty chimney flue caused the new American Museum to burn to the ground as well. As the event happened in the dead of a very cold winter, the water of the firefighters became a facade of icicles, inspiring many famous images:

Coming so hard on the heels of his most recent devastation, Barnum opted not to rebuild this time. The American Museum was no more. But Barnum was far from finished. Being out of the museum business was what caused Barnum to become a tented circus impresario. Ironically, given the ephemeral nature of a tent show, it was to be the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus that would keep his name before the public for another century and more, and not an ostensibly more permanent brick and mortar structure.

The Hippotheatron (1872)

Four years after the death of his museum, Barnum purchased the Hippotheatron (“horse theatre”) on 14th Street as a winter quarters for his traveling show, and a combined circus building with seating capacity of 2,500, and a smaller version of his museum, including a menagerie. He had scarcely been there any time at all when this, too, burned down.

Barnum’s Fifth Great Fire (1887)

In 1887, Barnum’s circus winter quarters in Bridgeport, CT burned down again causing mass destruction of property and the lives of many animals. By the following year he had partnered with James A. Bailey to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Barnum always found a way to rebound. He died, however, in 1891; there is no rebounding from that. 

For some related posts: see my articles on the General Slocum Disaster, the Iroquois Theatre Fire, and the Fires of Coney Island.