Moses Kimball: The Barnum of Boston

Moses Kimball (1809-1895) should be lauded as a founder of American show business. He is a definite link in the chain that leads to American vaudeville. Simply put (too simply put) Kimball was the Barnum of Boston.

Very much like Barnum, Kimball was a New England entrepreneur who tried his hand at a variety of businesses before making a hit as an exhibitor. He was from Essex County, Mass., a direct descendent of Richard Kimball, one of the founders of Ipswich in the 1630s. He had speculated in land, run a newspaper, and operated a printing press. All these had failed.

In 1838 Kimball purchased the bulk of the collections of the 20 year old New England Museum, founded and run by Ethan Allen Greenwood. Greenwood was a lawyer and portrait painter. His museum had started with paintings by Edward Savage, including portraits of George Washington, Henry Knox, and Robert Morris, and the famous Congress Voting Independence, which had been begun by Robert Edge Pine. Greenwood had then expanded his holdings in 1821 by acquiring the estate of a New Haven man named John Mix, which included wax figures, preserved animal specimens, curiosities from Asia, etc. The following year he bought the collections of Philip Woods‘ Market Street Museum (founded 1804) which was located next to Faneuil Hall, which had its own paintings and wax figures, but also showed such things as the hide of a sea elephant, live animals such as an elephant, a whale, and an alligator, and spectacles like a phantasmagoria, a cosmorama, and a “Deotric”. Woods’ himself also performed cures on patients with some sort of electric contraptions. In 1825, Greenwood purchased the Columbian Museum (founded 1795) which had similar collections and was located on Tremont Street. That same year he also acquired the natural history collections of the short-lived Linneaen Society of New England, which had kicked up a stir with its “Gloucester Sea Monster” controversy.

So by the time Kimball acquired the New England Museum, as we can see, it had already had a history of growth, acquisition, and consolidation. Kimball opened his Boston Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts in 1841, at the same time Barnum was remaking his newly acquired American Museum in New York. Barnum and Kimball are often described as “competitors” but the word in inaccurate. The men operated in different markets. On occasion they bid against each other fore desired attractions, but more commonly they cooperated as it served their mutual interest. Such a case was the fabled Feejee Mermaid, which they purchased together. Kimball expanded and improved his museum over the decades, and he had much better luck than Barnum in keeping his buildings fire-free. Barnum had essentially been forced into the circus business after a series of disastrous blazes. This never happened to Kimball. But, much like the American Museum, the Boston Museum did have a lecture room/theatre, that presented melodrama plays, freaks, and variety acts, making it one of the precursors to vaudeville.

Competition did arrive. Austin and Stone’s Dime Museum came along in the 1880s. Colonel William Austin also collaborated with B.F. Keith on his own dime museum in 1885, which quickly evolved into a variety theatre which proceeded to become the springboard for his vaudeville empire, which would rule the big time for as long as it lasted and eventually become absorbed into RKO Pictures. But this was long after Kimball had passed from the scene. Kimball died in 1895, just as Keith was starting his vaudeville empire. His Boston Museum lasted until 1903.

Another resemblance between Kimball and Barnum was involvement in politics, serving several terms in Boston’s Board of Alderman, Common Council, and the Massachusetts House of Representatives. He ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Boston three times.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,