Can’t See the Forest for the Woods: Two (or More) Great Dime Museum Impresarios

Col. Wood’s Museum, Chicago

A few scraps about the mysterious impresario(s) whom many writers in exasperated defeat refer to simply as “Wood”. What follows are the theatrical activities of two, possibly more, men. The difficulty is the variations on the name one encounters. The first gent is usually rendered as Colonel J. H. Wood. I’ve seen both John and Joseph given as his first name, as well as the initials E.L rather than J.H.. There was also a George Wood, whose activities are so similar to the Colonel’s that the pair were often confused with one another, for they often operated in the same jurisdictions. Some of these activities are ascribed by some writers as being the work of J.H., others of George. This 1886 obit of George helped me sort out which was which. Based merely on what I was able to pull together in a few hours, I present this fascinating catalog of showmanship by two or more fellows named Wood.

Colonel J.H. Wood

Col. Wood was, all would agree, a student of P.T. Barnum. The first reference I find to him is this “Grand Buffalo Fight” staged in 1851 by Wood’s Cincinnati Museum, a decade after the founding of Barnum’s American Museum, and 8 years after the original humbug’s own Grand Buffalo Hunt. Wood’s event, like Barnum’s, was a farce, although a more egregious one, and unlike the New Yorkers of 1843, the 6,000 Cincinnatians who showed up to watch a small band of “Ottoe Indians” harrass a single sleepy bison with spears and arrows, were not pleased. Later a gang of irate young hooligans staged a noisy protest outside the museum, which burned down a few months later. An entertaining article about it here.

In 1853, Wood took a leaf out of Barnum’s playbook once again, this time by mimicking his lucrative tour with Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind. Wood’s answer to Lind was the former slave Elizabeth Greenfield, known as the Black Swan. (It was this episode, which we wrote about a few days ago, which got me interested in Wood). The tour, which climaxed with a Command Performance for Queen Victoria, made a fortune for the entrepreneur.

By the mid 1850s he had established Colonel Wood’s Great Museum of Living Wonders in Philadelphia. This institution, like its Cincinnati predecessor, was a dime museum, this one clearly with an emphasis on human anomalies (i.e. “freaks”). In 1855 Wood finally joined forces with his hero when the two toured with Barnum and Col. Wood’s Grand National Baby Shows. This was at the climax of a national craze for infant beauty pageants. Their show traveled to Boston, Providence, Albany, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Though they had planned to continue on to other cities they ran aground in Cincinnati due to a public campaign against it as exploitative. Very few tickets were sold and that ended the tour. One wonders if Wood had left a few enemies behind in that town.

In the late 1850s and early ’60s one finds references to Colonel Wood’s Grand Traveling Museum, a touring version of his Museum of Living Wonders, in cities like Hannibal, Missouri and Cleveland.

In the 1860s, Wood began some truly impressive expansion, extending his brand in several major cities in a way that Barnum never did until he went into the circus business. In 1863, he purchased the collections of the St. Louis Museum and founded Colonel Wood’s Museum a.k.a. the Chicago Museum, one of the few museums in the country to rival Barnum’s in scale. It was known for its natural history displays, and especially for several mummies and papyri that had been the property of no less than Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints. (Smith had bought them from a showman who had acquired the artifacts from an Italian adventurer who had plundered them as part of Napoleon’s army during their invasion of Egypt! If you’re wondering how such a thing could happen). The Chicago Museum also had a theatrical stock company modeled on Barnum’s, featuring stars like McKee Rankin. Also like Barnum’s –– Wood’s Chicago Museum was destroyed by fire multiple times. The first one was turned to ashes by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. A new one reopened in 1875. This one burned in 1877. He then reopened a new one there in 1884.

By 1869, Wood was also running his Oddity Museum at 9th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia, which later passed to other hands as the 9th and Arch Museum a.k.a. C.A. Bradenburgh’s Museum. This was likely a place where W.C. Fields saw some of his earliest performances. By the late 1890s it was the principal motion picture screening venue for Sig Lubin.

In 1876 Wood, having divested himself of his New York holdings, went west. First he managed the Palace Opera House in San Francisco for David Belasco. He next opened Wood’s Opera House in Los Angeles, presenting boxing exhibitions and bawdy farces. This venue went bankrupt two years later.

There was also a music hall manager in England named J.H. Wood operating at this time. This same man is noted for organizing several world clog dancing competitions won by Dan Leno in the 1880s. Assuming it’s a different guy.

In October of 1886, the New York Clipper reported that Colonel J.H. Wood was retiring. This is another deet that helps us differentiate him from George — for George had already died in May of that year.

George Wood

If the Times obit is to be credited, George Wood started out running the Old Bowery Theatre in 1850 and then built Wood’s Theatre in Cincinnati, where the likes of Edwin Booth and Laura Keene performed. As this is around the same time as the Colonel’s museum exhibited in that town, it does get somewhat confusing, as does the fact that George next operated a theatre called Wood’s in St. Louis, which is the town in which the Colonel purchased the collections for his Chicago Museum. Yet at the time the Colonel was launching the Chicago Museum, George Wood returned to the Big Apple, where he ran the New York Theatre from 1864 to 1867, finally selling it to Barney Williams. Also for a few months in 1866 he operated a venue he called Wood’s Theatre, presenting a spectacle called A Balloon Wedding featuring F.S. Chanfrau and the Hanlon Brothers. He later passed the venue on to the latter bunch, then managed it again as Wood’s Theatre Comique and it eventually (and most lastingly) became the showplace for Harrigan and Hart.

In 1868 he acquired Banvard’s Museum in New York (Broadway and 30th). It had only been founded the year before, by the eccentric panorama artist John Banvard, a visionary showman but terrible businessman. Now renamed Wood’s Museum and Metropolitan, it specialized in presenting Victorian burlesque musicals, such as the historic 1869 production of Ixion starring Lydia Thompson and Her British Blondes. The last iteration of Barnum’s American Museum had burned down in early 1868, leaving Wood as his principal successor for a time. In 1876 Banvard regained control of his New York museum and Wood sold his collections to George Bunnell, forming the basis for his new venue, the greatest of all dime museums on the Bowery, also backed by Barnum. By 1879, Banvard had lost his place again. Augustin Daly snatched it up in 1879 and it became Daly’s Theatre its most famous incarnation, for the next 20 years. Then it passed to the Shuberts.

George Wood’s last theatrical venture was in Minneapolis in 1885. When he died a year later, though he had a large-ish family, he was fairly destitute, and had to be buried with charity from the Actor’s Fund.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,