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P. T. Barnum, or Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), was an entrepreneur and showman from Connecticut, known for mastering the art of self-presentation.
He helped to bring about a new era in American culture at mid-century, as the bustling masculine landscape of the theater gave way to more "respectable" middle-class forms of entertainment, in line with emerging ideals of sobriety, respectability, and domesticity.
With a keen eye for star creation and promotion, Barnum orchestrated the much-anticipated arrival of soprano singer Jenny Lind in 1850. Unlike most of Barnum's other gimmicks, Lind was real; she became the first modern music superstar.
In 1835, Barnum exhibited a slave named Joice Heth, a woman supposedly 161 years old, whom he claimed had been the nurse of George Washington. His "Feejee Mermaid" of 1842 was a monkey skull attached to a fish, measuring about three feet long.
All such attractions came to be stored at the American Museum, which charged a quarter for admission. Barnum's was not the first museum of its kind, but he became well known because he adeptly utilized the press to gain a national and even international reputation. By 1860, the museum had been expanded several times, and contained tanks of fish, pigeons painted every color of the rainbow, cases of shark teeth and butterflies, and Rembrandt Peale paintings that hung along the hallways.
Barnum also displayed Charles Sherwood Stratton, the midget known as "General Tom Thumb," and Chang and Eng, the original "Siamese Twins." He founded the gigantic traveling circuses of the 1880s that toured for 150 years, most recently as The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, until their shutdown in mid-2017.
James Gordon Bennett (1795-1872) was a Scottish-born newspaper publisher and editor whose work in the New York penny press established the foundation for modern journalism.
In May 1835, he launched a new penny paper of four four-column pages called the New York Herald. Though he began with only $500 in capital and based the operation out of a cellar on Wall Street, Bennett's paper quickly rivaled Benjamin Day's Sun and was selling 15,000 copies a day within a year.
Bennett was a tireless self-promoter who employed a number of notorious tactics in order to sell issues. The Herald fixated on the most lurid and scandalous tales of murder and sex that the city had to offer; its coverage of the Helen Jewett murder case in 1836 set the standard for journalistic sensationalism. Bennett became the first editor in the history of American journalism to tour the scene of the crime when he reported on Jewett's dead body, one of many descriptions that took on a quasi-erotic undertone.
Bennett also headed a citizens' Committee of Safety after the public demanded action from the police to solve the murder of Mary Rogers, while profiting from reporting on these violent crimes. He broke with contemporary tradition and criticized both political parties in his editorials, rather than siding consistently with one or the other. Given the newspaper's location in Manhattan, it seemed only natural that Bennett would include news on the financial market, which was in itself an innovation. He also employed the first-ever European correspondents.
Edwin Booth (1833-1893) was one of the first great American actors. He was born into an acting family in Maryland and spent his childhood touring with his popular actor-father, Junius Brutus Booth. He enjoyed an illustrious stage career for many years, including a tour of England during the Civil War and a record-breaking 100-night run as Hamlet at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1864.
His success and reputation rivaled those of his fellow American actor Edwin Forrest.
Edwin was forced to retire in April 1865, when his brother, John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln.
He reappeared as Hamlet the following year, but never fully recovered from the incident.
Jonathan Cilley (1802-1838) was a Democratic Maine congressman who was killed in a duel with Whig Kentucky congressman William Graves. He was the last member of the U.S. House to die in a duel.
Standing almost 100 yards from Graves on a frozen field outside Washington, D.C. in February 1838, Cilley intentionally fired the first shot into the ground. Two more rounds were ordered before Graves mortally wounded his colleague, who left a wife and three young children back home.
Cilley had been an up-and-coming figure in the House, a proud New Englander and an adamant abolitionist. He had antagonized the Whigs by alluding to the idea that James Watson Webb, a Whig newspaper editor in New York City, had accepted a bribe. Cilley's Whig enemies goaded Graves into challenging the Maine congressman to a showdown. Cilley was equally reluctant to participate, but he felt obligated to do so because he thought that New England's honor was at stake.
When Maine separated from Massachusetts to become its own state in 1820, it passed anti-dueling laws that authorized a $1,000 fine against anyone who challenged another person to a duel or who accepted such a challenge. The public outcry over Cilley's death resulted in a popular reaction against dueling in the North and the passage of a Maine state law that fined a person $100 for ridiculing anyone who refused to duel. All of the Supreme Court Justices refused to attend Cilley's funeral as a show of protest against the practice of dueling. Congress declared a national mourning period for Cilley but Graves was not punished.
Davy Crockett (1786-1836) was an American frontiersman and politician who became a popular hero during the antebellum period.
Born on what was then the frontier in Tennessee, Crockett served in the War of 1812 fighting the Creek Indians under Andrew Jackson and was then elected to the Tennessee state legislature. This combination of rugged frontiersman and patriotic legislator captivated the public.
But for all his popularity, Crockett's political career was somewhat tumultuous, partly due to his early rupture with Jackson over whether squatters in western Tennessee ought to receive priority in land acquisition. The Whigs recruited Crockett to their ranks and shepherded him on speaking tours that enhanced his legend as a bear-hunting, Indian-fighting congressman. Crockett ensured his own legend with a spectacular death in the battle for Texan independence against Mexican forces at the Alamo.
In 1830, author James K. Paulding wrote Lion of the West, a play starring Nimrod Wildfire, a character who was largely based on Davy Crockett. Wildfire—and Crockett, his real-life counterpart—provided audiences with a sort of anti-European hero whose physical strength could defeat the pretensions of his neighbors. The play was wildly popular, further elevating Crockett's reputation and character to the status of legend.
Benjamin Day (1810-1889) was an American printer and journalist who inaugurated the era of the inexpensive "penny press" when he launched the New York Sun in September 1833. He learned the printing trade in the office of the Springfield, Massachusetts Republican, and began printing the Sun for lack of other work.
James Gordon Bennett's New York Herald followed two years later, as did several other inexpensive papers in places like New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. By that time, Day's paper had already achieved the largest circulation in the world: 19,360. For the first time, newsboys sold the papers in the city streets, calling out the headlines, which became increasingly sensational as competition heated up and the papers tried to maintain their advertising revenues.
Still, these papers were at first solely an urban phenomenon, and most Americans still lived in small towns, so their exposure to the penny press was usually indirect. Day went on to sell the Sun in 1838 for $40,000; four years later he founded the Brother Jonathan, which became the first illustrated weekly in America.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was a prominent lecturer, poet, and essayist. He was a mentor and friend to Henry David Thoreau. Known as the "Sage of Concord" for his place of residence in Massachusetts, Emerson was a major literary figure and an important spokesman for transcendentalist philosophy, the New England movement that flourished until the Civil War, primarily among intellectuals. Transcendentalism was in part a reaction against Unitarian Church orthodoxy.
Emerson was one of the principal founders of the Transcendental Club in 1836, which began as an informal discussion group that met at homes in Boston and Concord. Club members rejected pure reason in favor of a transcendent world beyond, one occupied by ideals, morals, and intuition.
It was on Emerson's land that fellow transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau built his cabin at Walden pond, lived for almost a decade, and was inspired to write eighteen essays on his experience in simple living. Emerson was also one of the few critics to acclaim Walt Whitman's poetry masterpiece, Leaves of Grass.
William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) was the ninth president of the United States, serving the shortest term in office ever: just one month.
Harrison was governor of Indiana Territory in 1800 and gained a reputation for his successes fighting Indians in the region during the War of 1812. Harrison's presidential campaign in 1840 was a pivotal event in American political history; it was the birth of populist politics, in which both parties appealed to the nationalistic spirit of the age by nominating war heroes and touting their humble backgrounds.
In an echo of Andrew Jackson's campaign twelve years earlier, Whigs touted the military achievements of William Henry Harrison (nicknamed "Tippecanoe" after the battle he won against Shawnee Indians in 1811) and his running mate, John Tyler. Using popular songs ("Tippecanoe and Tyler, too") and an array of cartoons, Whigs promoted Harrison as a man of the people and attacked opponent President Martin Van Buren as an aristocrat.
Even if most Whigs were from the middle and upper classes, they employed popular rhetoric and masculine, patriotic imagery that appealed to the mass electorate. After Harrison won, he delivered a long inauguration speech on a cold day, caught pneumonia, and died after just a month in office. Yet the true significance of the 1840 election was its legacy for the political process in America. Four out of five eligible voters cast a ballot, raising turnout to 80.2%, the third highest in American history.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was an American novelist and short-story writer, now considered one of the best authors of fiction in the country's history. He crafted his tales with frequent symbolism and allegory and forced the reader to consider questions of morality and faith.
This was in no small part because Hawthorne was a direct descendant of a prominent Puritan family in Massachusetts. Hawthorne thought that perhaps his family's declining prosperity over the years was a form of retribution for the actions of his ancestors, including one who presided over the Salem witch trials. He gained a positive reputation as an author in 1837 with his compilation of short stories, entitled Twice-Told Tales. Yet he was still unable to support himself and, like Herman Melville, had to take a job at the customhouse in Boston.
Hawthorne spent about half a year at the Brook Farm cooperative living experiment in Massachusetts, but he left because he did not share the same philosophy as the transcendentalists who were living there.
He was working as a surveyor of the port in Salem, Massachusetts, when he wrote his magnum opus, The Scarlet Letter, in 1850. The tale of a seventeenth-century Puritan adulteress named Hester Prynne made Hawthorne famous and has been called the first psychological novel to come out of the United States.
He wrote several other novels and enjoyed a consular post in England after the election of President Franklin Pierce, his friend from Bowdoin College.
Joice Heth (c. 1754-1836) was a slave purchased for $1000 and exhibited in 1835 by showman P.T. Barnum. Claiming that she was 161 years old and once the nurse of George Washington, Barnum took her from New York across the North, charging admission to see her and promoting her as a national treasure and a natural wonder.
Whenever public interest in Heth seemed on the wane, Barnum himself would write pseudonymous letters to the local New England papers and charge that Heth was a fraud, or "humbug," which would prompt local residents to go and see her for themselves. When Heth died in 1836, Barnum agreed to a public autopsy on her body that attracted some 1,500 observers.
The surgeon announced that she was probably not older than 80 when she died.
Did it backfire? Nope.
Barnum profited nonetheless from all of the notoriety. Historians have since speculated on Heth's true background. Historian Benjamin Reiss suggests that Joice Heth herself may have made up the idea that she nursed Washington, as her original owner enjoyed tall tales and often spoke of entertaining the Founding Fathers in his home. Heth may have developed a routine to amuse both whites and Blacks in which she satirized her owner's (and white people's) pretensions.
Helen Jewett (1813-1836) was a 23-year-old woman who had been working as a prostitute for six years when she was brutally murdered in her genteel New York brothel. Jewett was axed to death, before her corpse was found smoldering from a fire set in her plush mahogany bed.
A trail of solid if circumstantial evidence pointed to one of Jewett's regular customers, Richard P. Robinson, who had been with her on the night she died in 1836. The murder and subsequent trial prompted a torrent of newspaper writing in New York and across the nation.
In recent years, historian Patricia Cline Cohen discovered that Jewett's real name was Dorcas Doyen, and that she had worked as a servant girl in Augusta, Maine before being expelled from the job and turning up in a Portland brothel.
New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett capitalized on the incident, and his newspaper became the first to publish an account of the sexually-tinged murder. The recent growth of the penny press facilitated this coverage, and reporting on Jewett's murder further popularized the press itself. Bennett became the first editor in the history of American journalism to tour the scene of the crime when he reported on Jewett's dead body, one of many descriptions that took on a quasi-erotic undertone. In his articles on the case, Bennett described Helen's luxurious room in intimate detail, making readers more sympathetic to her.
For all of the public's condemnation of prostitution, the profession had enabled Jewett to maintain an exceptional degree of financial independence for a single woman in the nineteenth century. Robinson was ultimately acquitted of Jewett's murder after the judge acknowledged that the testimony of the key witness—the brothel madam—came from a "polluted" source.
Jenny Lind (1820-1887) was a Swedish soprano who debuted in Europe in 1838 and made a spectacular American debut from 1850-52 thanks to marketing by her manager, P. T. Barnum. She then got married and lived in Dresden and London.
Unlike most of Barnum's other gimmicks, Lind was real. Barnum's magic in selling her American debut was his ability to expand her appeal to a mass audience, who would appreciate the natural quality of her voice and the way she sang from the heart. Although Americans had never heard her voice, Lind's ship was greeted by thousands, who then followed her to her hotel. The first tickets to her grand national tour sold for $250, and she was guaranteed $187,000 of committed money from her promoters. Jenny Lind thus became the first modern music superstar.
William Macready (1793-1873) was an English actor and manager who made a name for himself when he played Richard III at Covent Garden. The American actor Edwin Forrest quickly marked Macready as his rival.
To many Americans, Macready symbolized aristocratic snobbery and oppression, mainly due to his English nationality. By this point, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants had disembarked at American ports, seeking refuge from the potato famine. They tended to vote Democratic and support urban political machines, and had a long history of oppression at the hands of the English. Thus, their anti-Anglo resentment mixed nicely with the residual sentiments of Americans who still remembered the War of 1812 and the American Revolution, both fought on North American soil against the British.
These convictions were bolstered when news spread that Macready was appearing at Astor Place—an elite, high-priced theater—in May 1849. A mob of Forrest partisans—primarily working-class men—stormed the hated Astor Place Opera House in an attack on Macready, who was performing in Macbeth that night; 22 were killed and over 100 were injured. It was one of the most violent conflicts in urban America between the Revolution and the Civil War. This became an important turning point in the history of theater. Soon thereafter, legislators, theater managers, and the police ended such uprisings for good and regulated the theater as a primarily middle-class domain.
Herman Melville (1819-1891) is one of the most prominent authors in the history of American literature. From 1841-42, Melville spent eighteen months on a whaling ship, but escaped with a friend during a stop in the Marquesas Islands.
The two men were captured by a tribe of cannibals but treated kindly, and were later rescued by an Australian whaler. After returning to America in 1844, Melville wrote two books on his traveling experiences. His time on the whaling ship later provided the basis for Moby-Dick, his 1851 masterpiece about a deranged whaling captain's fanatical search for the great white whale for whom the book was titled.
Despite its current status as a great work of literature, Moby-Dick was not really appreciated in Melville's time. After its publication, Melville had to support himself by working in the New York Custom House, where he remained for nineteen years. The term "Confidence Man"—which survives today as "con man"—was most famously memorialized as the title of Melville's last major novel, published in 1857.
In the story, a man sneaks aboard a Mississippi steamboat and proceeds to engage the passengers in a number of cons, deceiving them by misrepresenting himself in various guises. Underappreciated in his own time, Melville and his genius have clearly shaped American culture in the years since.
James K. Paulding (1778-1860) was an American author, a dramatist, and a public official who is remembered for his engagement of Native American subjects in his work.
Paulding began by writing satires on local figures, and then authored more nationalistic works that targeted the British during and after the War of 1812. He also later wrote of the hardships and triumphs of western settlement. His 1830 play, Lion of the West, starred Nimrod Wildfire, a character who was based on Davy Crockett. Wildfire (and Crockett, his real-life counterpart) provided audiences with a sort of anti-European hero whose physical strength could defeat the pretensions of his neighbors.
The play was wildly popular, elevating Crockett's reputation and character to legendary status. Paulding employed a plain style that was infused with a sense of irony characteristic of contemporary writers.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) was a tortured literary genius and borderline alcoholic who mastered the genre of the Gothic horror story.
Poe wrote one of the first "detective novels" in 1841 with his short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which was inspired by the sensational stories of the metropolitan penny press. The real catalyst for Poe's fame, however, was The Raven and other Poems which he published in 1845.
Poe's tales were infused with the pain and anguish he endured throughout his life and his fascination with intense beauty, brutal violence, and death. He often experienced tormenting dreams, which he spun into enthralling stories. In particular, Poe's work reflected the romantic genre of the time and its fascination with matters of the occult and the afterlife. A man with a weak heart, the author died at the age of 40 after a drinking binge in Baltimore, Maryland.
Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808-1860) was an aspiring white actor from New York who gained notoriety in the 1830s when he delivered a performance in blackface before a theater audience in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Blackface was makeup, initially burnt cork or coal, applied to the faces and limbs of white performers to give them an exaggeratedly Black appearance—far darker than any real African American. Rice's "Jim Crow" song and dance won rave reviews from white audiences in major cities throughout the North.
Rice claimed to have based his "Jim Crow" number on the dance of a crippled slave who Rice saw performing it when he was traveling through the South. Many slaves had developed a dancing technique of shuffling their feet, because crossing your feet in a dance was considered sinful.
Rice took the already-distorted dance of the crippled slave and further exaggerated it on stage. The term "Jim Crow" would later become synonymous with the system of separate and unequal segregation and discrimination that prevailed in the South for over a century after the Civil War. The "Jim Crow" performance was so popular that in a Bowery neighborhood theater in New York City on December 1, 1832, a crowd of some 300 people made Rice repeat his famous "Jim Crow" dance (in blackface) twenty times.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an American abolitionist and novelist who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the most influential books in American history. Her father was Lyman Beecher, pastor of the Congregational Church in Litchfield, and her brother was the famous Congregational preacher Henry Ward Beecher.
After the death of one of her children made her contemplate the pain slaves must endure when family members are sold away, she decided to write a book about slavery. With the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852, she became a national celebrity, and went on to write several more books on the topic, many of them in response to Southern critiques of the original.
During her twenties in Cincinnati, Ohio, Stowe developed the idea of an unbreachable boundary between right and wrong. In the context of a renewed sectional debate over slavery, the acquisition of new territories, and the infamous Fugitive Slave Law that formed a part of the Compromise of 1850, Stowe began publishing Uncle Tom's Cabin in serial installments in The National Era, a popular weekly paper. Through her writing, Stowe sought to shock her readers' Christian consciences on behalf of African Americans.
In 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in its entirety in book form, and sold 500,000 copies within four years. It was translated into a variety of languages, and by the end of the century, Stowe's book had sold more copies in America than every other book except the Bible. Despite the popularity of her publications, the mother of six never made much money from writing. She remained deeply religious and a supporter of reform movements for temperance and women's suffrage.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was an author, essayist, naturalist, and poet whose work went on to influence some of the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century. Thoreau expounded upon his love of nature and the doctrines of Transcendentalism in Walden (1854), and passionately defended civil liberties and pacifistic protest in the essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849). His friend and mentor was Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most prominent intellectuals of the nineteenth century.
Thoreau's essay, "Civil Disobedience," emerged out of his experience opposing the Mexican-American War. He had refused to pay a poll tax as a demonstration against what he felt to be an unjust, imperialistic war and a government waging it to expand slavery's domain. He spent the night in jail before someone paid the tax to set him free.
In his essay, Thoreau argued that not all civil laws are just, and that humans have an obligation to obey a higher law—their sense of morality. If obeying the conscience necessitates violating the law, then so be it. Thoreau advocated that others who disapprove of the war follow his lead and refuse to pay their taxes as a gesture of protest. "Civil Disobedience" received little notice at the time it was written but enjoyed a revival in the twentieth century with the self-determination movement of Mahatma Gandhi and the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) was the eighth president of the United States and a founder of the Democratic Party. A master political strategist, he was one of the most influential advisors in Andrew Jackson's administration.
After serving as Jackson's Vice President, he became President himself in 1836. Yet Van Buren did not possess Jackson's military record or charisma, and his popularity suffered after the Panic of 1837. He lost to the recently-formed Whig party in 1840, which attacked him as an aristocrat and employed many of Van Buren's old tactics in their "log cabin and hard cider" campaign for war hero William Henry Harrison. Van Buren was known as "Old Kinderhook" (for Kinderhook, his hometown in New York state) and used to initial "O.K." in the margins of paperwork that received his approval. The expression soon caught on after the Boston Morning Post published it in 1839.
For most of his career, Van Buren won elections by avoiding the topic of slavery to prevent dissension between Northern and Southern Democrats. But in 1844, when he stood perhaps the best chance of receiving the Democratic presidential nomination for the third time, he made public his stance against the annexation of Texas because he opposed the extension of slavery and the possibility of war with Mexico. Democrats who supported annexation and western expansion prevented Van Buren from receiving the two-thirds majority and "dark horse" candidate James K. Polk became the nominee instead.