Autograph Letter Signed by American Circus Showman about Wall Street Stocks and His Injured Credit Rating

Signed by P.T. Barnum

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Item: 19440
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BARNUM, P.T. (1810-1891). American showman and entrepreneur. ALS. (“P.T. Barnum” and “P.T.B.”). 2pp. 8vo. Bridgeport, July 31, 1855. Written on Barnum’s highly decorative American Museum stationery on which Barnum has crossed out “New York,” written “Bridgeport, CT,” and marked the letter “Private.” To Mr. (H.B.) Curtis of the Ohio law firm Curtis and Scribner.

“That Nichols is injuring my credit very much by peddling around my acceptances all over the country at enormous shares. Two of them which had been forwarded by some broker in Ohio were sold yesterday in Wall St. New York for 1½ per cent per month. Now this of course won’t do, & I cannot send him any more acceptances but must take them all up as they come due & I must now proceed to sell that property. I don’t see any other way. So I would be glad to get you to take hold of the matter promptly as we talked, and have it all sold. Will you please to take it in hand – as you know all the ropes. Truly yours… P.S. Mr. Higby sent you on Saturday last the certificates of R[ail] R[oad] stock asked for. I fear that the officer who took Turner’s depositions neglected to have the witnesses identify them, but perhaps not. I send copy of Buices [?] letter certified by R. D. Turner. He is expected every day in N.Y. when he comes I’ll try to send the original. P.T.B.”

Barnum began his remarkable career at age 25 when he bought a slave named Joice Heth, who he maintained was 161 years old and formerly George Washington’s nurse. The claim created a sensation, and by 1842 Barnum had established the American Museum in New York City in which he exhibited many oddities (both dead and alive) including the Fiji Mermaid, General Tom Thumb and the original Siamese twins Chang and Eng. An inveterate businessman, Barnum began to invest in the development of Bridgeport, Connecticut, subdividing land and selling smaller plots and investing his own money in several manufacturing endeavors.

During 1855, already heavily in debt, Barnum found his personal credit imperiled when his cousin Edward T. Nichols, a Cleveland theater manager, real estate investor and gambler to whom Barnum frequently lent money, began forging Barnum’s signature to cover his own debts. After his discovery, “Nichols ran away from Cleveland, was arrested and brought back to stand trial, and spent some time in prison. The trouble was, in his defense he claimed Barnum had authorized him to sign his signature; and as the brokers and others who were stuck with the forged paper – the amount was $40,000 in all – naturally preferred to believe him on this point, they eventually succeeded in getting him pardoned. The vexing affair dragged on for over six years and involved Barnum in several different trials, lawsuits, and threats of legal action,” (P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man, Saxon). Our letter also mentions Barnum’s wish to sell one of Nichol’s properties on which he came to hold the mortgage.

At the same time, Barnum had arranged to loan the Jerome Clock Company an amount up to $110,000 while they relocated to Bridgeport. However, “there followed what appears to have been some incredibly inept accounting on the part of Barnum or his bookkeeper son-in-law. The showman had agreed to set his signature to any number of notes and drafts, renewed as often as necessary… [but] he carelessly began signing notes without checking to see how much might still be out,” (ibid.). The result was Barnum’s bankruptcy, publicly announced in January 1856. These financial reversals forced him out of retirement and Barnum reopened the American Museum and in 1871 created a circus dubbed, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He later merged with James A. Bailey to form the Barnum & Bailey circus. Our letter is marked “Private.” Folded with some dust staining on the vertical fold and light wear. In very good condition.

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