Anyone who knows me knows I’m all about the theatre. Some of my favorite songs are show tunes, and I’ve seen numerous shows both professional and amateur, and been in as many, if not more, also both professional and amateur (although admittedly, far more amateur). And then there’s Hugh Jackman. Who is simply, well, Hugh Jackman!
This is one show, however, that I wish hadn’t been made. The protagonist is P.T. Barnum, a man responsible for the exploitation of humans and animals, and who practically single-handedly reinforced the capture, imprisonment and enslavement of thousands of wild animals over the course of the last 100 years.
Barnum’s legacy is a long list of offences, one of the earliest happening when he was only 25 years old. In that year, 1835, Barnum leased a black slave named Joice Heth for 1000 dollars a year in order to market her as a 161 –year –old former nanny belonging to George Washington. During that time, she worked 10 to 12 hours a day on display for Barnum. Even in her death she was not left in peace, as Barnum charged 1500 people 50 cents each to witness her “live autopsy.”
In 1841, Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum in Manhattan, replaced the previous owner’s name with his own, and there he exhibited exotic live animals, among them monkeys, birds, and snakes, the latter to which he fed live rabbits and sheep, charging visitors to watch, although why anyone would want to watch such horrors is beyond me. He also had hundreds of exotic fish, and even had a tank for two beluga whales and a hippopotamus. His most successful exhibits there, however, were various hoaxes such as a monkey’s head sewn onto the tail of a fish, calling it the Feejee mermaid. Surely, the most offensive exhibit there was an African-American man who was billed as “a mixture of the wild native African and the orang outang, a kind of man-monkey.”
Or let’s talk about “General Tom Thumb,” who in real life began working for Barnum at the age of five years old, drinking alcohol and smoking cigars as part of the exhibition. Or the two sets of conjoined twins Barnum managed to obtain as children, one source saying he had kidnapped them. Or the African American boy who had microcephaly, meaning his head was abnormally small. Called the Wildman of Africa, he was made to wear a furry suit, scream and pretend to be violent in a cage. Or was he pretending?
During one of the two fires that ravaged the museum during its existence, the animals were not rescued. The human exhibitions barely managed to escape. The whales were burned alive, and possibly also the hippo. The snakes were either burned or got loose in Manhattan; it is not known how many actually escaped. None of the animals, which had no business being in a building in Manhattan in the first place, are known to have survived the fire which burned the museum entirely to the ground.
Barnum’s treatment of animals has left a legacy that is just now being seen for what it is: cruel and inhumane. During his tenure as owner of the circus, cruelty to animals was de rigeur. It is known that he stole animals from the wild, including one group of either nine or eleven elephants, one a calf, from Sri Lanka. He kept them in a lightless, airless hold of a ship for four months where they could barely move. Barnum admitted that they had killed many more in trying to capture these few. Handlers shoved hot pokers up their trunks to break them. Hot pokers! Barnum himself beat elephants with sharp metal bullhooks. One died en route and was pushed overboard.
The suffering of Kenny is well-known, because of the level of cruelty that garnered public attention in 1998. The three year old elephant was forced to perform while deathly ill, bleeding from the rectum, despite a veterinarian’s recommendation against it, and was later found dead in his cage. You can read about it here in an article by Deborah Nelson. Admittedly, Barnum was long dead by this time, but the show was HIS former business, and it was certainly his legacy. Elephants were treated as he had demanded, so that his show could earn maximum profit.
Can you remember the circuses of the 20th century? I can. I attended at least one as a child. The tigers and lions who lived in tiny cages for many hours every day, made to perform tricks for our entertainment. How did they get so tame? Fear. Beatings. Electric prods. It is only now that circuses are giving up their wild animals, the lucky ones going to sanctuaries where they get to live out their days in peace, the not so lucky sold to circuses in other countries, which have not yet given up their market in cruelties.
P.T. Barnum’s legacy will keep me out of movie theaters for this show. I can’t give my money to be entertained by that which glorifies something I spend so much of my life fighting against. I won’t say I love animals and then patronize a show whose protagonist was responsible for the suffering of so many.