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The Cursed History of P.T. Barnum’s Museums

What would you think if you heard that three businesses belonging to the same man burned down? And what if that man were P.T. Barnum, the famous hoaxter? You’d probably think he might be an arsonist, but although bad luck seemed to follow Barnum’s buildings, he lost too many priceless artifacts in each disaster to be deemed culpable -and insurance fraud wasn’t lucrative enough to make up for his losses.

Barnum lost three buildings in fires, and then one by tornado. Was it a curse? Barnum’s first museum was Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan, which opened in 1842.
But the good times couldn’t last. In 1865 the first disaster to befall a Barnum museum came in the form of a fire that raged through the place, destroying the entire endeavor. It was a massive conflagration that reduced the building to rubble and spread to the entire block. All of the employees were able to evacuate, and no human lives were lost in the blaze, but many of the animals in the building were not so lucky. Some of them tried to escape by jumping out the windows, but they were shot by police officers. Others, such as the creatures in the aquariums, simply burnt up.

At the time, the New York Times blamed the fire on a “defective furnace,” but it may have been intentional sabotage. Barnum, who at the time of the first fire was serving on the Connecticut legislature, was a proud supporter of abolition, and it may have been these politics that caused the demise of his first museum. “Right after the Civil War, the American Museum was burnt down, and it was alleged to have been burned down by Southern sympathizers,” says Maher.

Disaster followed his other efforts, too, which you can read about at Atlas Obscura.     


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