WE ARE ALL HIS CREATURES
Tales of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman
Much has been written about P. T. Barnum — legendary showman, entrepreneur, marketing genius, and one of the most famous nineteenth-century personalities. For those who lived in Barnum’s shadow, however, life was complex. P. T. Barnum’s two families — his family at home, including his two wives and his daughters, and his family at work, including Little People, a giantess, an opera singer, and many sideshow entertainers — suffered greatly from his cruelty and exploitation. Yet, at the same time, some of his performers, such as General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), became wealthy celebrities who were admired and feted by presidents and royalty.
Much has been written about P. T. Barnum — legendary showman, entrepreneur, marketing genius, and one of the most famous nineteenth-century personalities. For those who lived in Barnum’s shadow, however, life was complex. P. T. Barnum’s two families — his family at home, including his two wives and his daughters, and his family at work, including Little People, a giantess, an opera singer, and many sideshow entertainers — suffered greatly from his cruelty and exploitation. Yet, at the same time, some of his performers, such as General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), became wealthy celebrities who were admired and feted by presidents and royalty. In this collection of interlinked stories illustrated with archival photographs, Deborah Noyes digs deep into what is known about the people in Barnum’s orbit and imagines their personal lives, putting front and center the complicated joy and pain of what it meant to be one of Barnum’s “creatures.”
In a series of interwoven fictionalized stories, Deborah Noyes gives voice to the marginalized women in P. T. Barnum’s family — and the talented entertainers he built his entertainment empire on.
- Candlewick Press
- March 2020
- 288 Pages
“An entertaining, absorbing look at the prominent figures in Barnum’s life that will appeal to his fans and history buffs in general. Recommended.” —School Library Journal
“In these eleven cumulative fictional short stories…Noyes focuses instead on those within the gravitational pull of his American Museum, and how the force that was Barnum affected the trajectory of their lives… Noyes indulges in her own touch of flim-flammery.” —Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (starred review)
“Proceeding chronologically from 1842 to Barnum’s death in 1891, this collection of 11 intertwined stories from Noyes (Tooth & Claw) imagines the inner lives of real people from the Barnum family and business, with the ambitious, exploitative P.T. Barnum serving as a decentered fulcrum…these stories vividly engage with their period images (“her knuckles… were the color of new cream”), providing a picture of what life with Barnum might have been like: “We are all his creatures.” —Publishers Weekly
1. This is a book of linked short stories, and while some characters are in several stories, others appear in only one. Are there any characters you would like to know more about? Which ones? What do you think might have happened to them?
2. P. T. Barnum was a showman who featured Little People, giants, bearded ladies, and others, first in his museum and later in his circus. How do you feel about this? Was he exploiting these people or helping them?
3. The title of this book is We Are All His Creatures. What is meant by this?
4. In the first tale, we learn that despite living in the building that housed the museum, P. T. Barnum’s own daughters had never visited it. Why did Barnum keep them out? And how did he react when they snuck in?
5. Barnum was repeatedly cruel to his first wife, Charity. Why do you think this was? Why was Caroline, the oldest daughter, also mean to her?
6. While Charity and Caroline sailed back to the United States from Europe, Charity considered going to her mother’s house to have her fourth baby because she knew her husband wouldn’t be there when she needed him. “Why should she wait there—indefinitely, interminably—for a husband who never arrived and never quite disappeared?” (page 60). What is meant by the last phrase, “and never quite disappeared”?
7. Opera singer Jenny Lind was a sensation in America before she even arrived, thanks to the hype that Barnum created. How do you think she felt about all the attention and commotion? Is there anyone today who causes as much excitement?
8. Helen purportedly saw the ghost of her sister Frances at Iranistan, the Barnums’ gaudy mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Do you believe she saw a ghost? If not, what might have been happening?
9. We learn conflicting things about the character of Caroline, the oldest sister. She was cruel to her mother, but Helen counted on her to be the politician in the family and to help Helen when she needed it. Are most people all good or all bad, or are they a mixture?
10. In the chapter about Tom Thumb’s wedding, the author talks about Abraham Lincoln’s character, saying, “He never seemed to judge or talk down to another human soul, though many despised him for it” (page 147). Why would anyone despise someone for being kind and nonjudgmental?
11. In Barnum’s time it was perfectly acceptable to put people with differences on display so others could stare at them. How have societal attitudes changed since then?
12. Barnum’s youngest daughter, Pauline, didn’t see the difference between how Mr. Mumler, the spirit photographer, and her own father fooled people. Do you think there is a difference? Why?
13. Nancy, Barnum’s second wife, identified with the huge elephant named Jumbo. What did they have in common?
14. We see P. T. Barnum obliquely in these tales, through the eyes and observations of others. How would you describe his personality based on these stories?
15. What do you find most fascinating about P. T. Barnum? What would you like to know more about?
The animal was an ugly, dried- up, black- looking, and diminutive specimen, about three feet long. Its mouth was open, its tail turned over, and its arms thrown up, giving it the appearance of having died in great agony.
August 1842, New York City
Mother snored on the daybed. There was a mermaid swimming just upstairs somewhere, in the museum, and Mother snored.
Caroline lifted her mother’s heavy arm to tug out the news sheet, letting it drop again. The mermaid was in the paper today. Daddy’s museum was often in the news, but more so since the ladyfish arrived.
Her father had read the article aloud over breakfast. An engraving showed the creature at rest on a rock beside two elegant sister mermaids. She stared into a hand mirror, and her breasts were bare. Caroline knew Mother was scandalized by the set of her mouth and the way she blew on her tea to avoid their eyes. “Questions?” she chirped, in a tone that warned, don’t ask.
Caroline shrugged. Though she was nine and Helen two, they saw breasts all the time — Mother’s, while baby Frances sucked.
When their mother fed Frances right at the breakfast table that morning, Daddy had called her a “fishwife.” At first, this confused Caroline. Did he mean Charity Barnum was the ladyfish, the same mermaid on display upstairs? But how? Mother mostly stood by the window or dozed on the daybed, as now, but she never left their sight. And when she unfastened her dressing gown to feed Frances, her bosom did not in any way resemble the graceful mermaids’.
Caroline knew to guard her questions. She would rather solve them herself when she could, and Madge had used the same word last week, only differently. Fishwife meant “common,” Caroline deduced with pride.
But this morning she had another question, one she couldn’t answer herself.
Daddy replied with his back to her, riffling through a pile of contracts. “It’s the medicine.”
Answers made more questions sometimes, especially Daddy’s answers, but with his back to her, he couldn’t see her furrowed brow. He had found the page he was looking for and scanned it triumphantly, crushing the paper in his hands. “That’s what makes her sleep so much.” He looked up sympathetically. “The medicine.”
Whatever was on the paper had brightened his mood. Daddy felt sorry for his “wild three,” he confided, kneeling by them, but “for the old girl’s sake”— he pointed his dimpled chin at Mother on the lounge —“you’ll have to keep your voices down today.”
He paused over the cradle to fuss with Frances’s blanket. Daddy hated baby talk (there was altogether too much “ pootsy-wootsy mamby-pamby” spoken to children, he maintained) but resorted to it now to make his point. “Let my girls be doves”— he looked back at them —“and coo like this — coo, coo, coo — until she wakes.”
Two of three Barnum daughters cooed on command until Helen broke off, boldly asking the real question: “But when will Mother get up?”
A Helen question was a thorn lodged in your thumb. You carried it around until someone saw your discomfort and removed it. Daddy admired her candor — yet another reason Caroline often itched to slap Helen or shake her; however clever she might be, Helen was young enough to fall for the same games over and over. Look into my hand, Caroline would coax, opening a fist. Closer . . . see? You trust me, right?
Daddy tied a silk cravat at his throat. The hired girl would be here soon, he said. Madge came mornings to tidy and heat broth for their lunch. Sometimes, when Frances wailed for no reason and Mother shut herself in her room after Daddy left for the day, Madge bounced the furious infant round the house on her hip. “Colic,” she’d say, scowling at Mother’s door.
“You said after this week we would never drink broth again,” Helen observed with her air of being disappointed in advance. Daddy said it made her sound more like the old men who played chess outside Philosophers’ Hall, his favorite barbershop, than a child. “You said we’d dine with the Astors.”
“And I am a man of my word.”
He chucked Helen’s chin — dimpled, like his. Everyone said they looked alike, while Caroline had Mother’s sleepy eyes if not her underwater slowness — no mermaid moved like Mother. Mermaids were bullet swift.
Unless you had Daddy’s promises in writing, Mother said, he rarely kept them, and anyway he made everything up. Unlike those of the boys in school stories — who tied your braid to the back of your chair — his jokes were on whole cities. All of New York suffered Daddy’s whims and hoaxes, and he had crowned himself the Prince of Humbug.
“ Receipts tripled this week, my girls.” With his document tucked under an arm, he bent to kiss their foreheads. Caroline winced when he gave the cradle a shove so sleeping Frances tipped on roily seas. “Our ladyfish will extend her stay.”
Caroline sat on her hands. It did not do to betray enthusiasm. “Please let me see the mermaid?” she blurted. “Is she beautiful like the picture?” She had other questions, too. Were the mermaid’s scales as sharp as steel blades? Did you have to cover your ears when she sang or be deafened?
But Mr. Barnum was needed at the office. “ Proceeds will not count themselves.” He tipped his hat.
“I would like to see the mermaid also,” Helen added, almost too quietly to be heard.
Caroline gasped. The audacity. Daddy despised repetition.
But he turned his wrath on her, not Helen. He leaned on Caroline’s chair arms and nearly knocked his forehead against hers while she held admirably still. “ Nownownow,” he teased with a mean twinkle in his eye — in the same tsk voice he sometimes used on Mother, who withdrew into herself like a duck into its feathers — and out he went, the hall door clicking shut behind him.
Patience is a virtue.
The first-floor apartment, which had once been a billiard hall, felt profoundly hot and stuffy. Caroline scowled at Helen.
In the sitting room, where they waited for Madge while Mother snored, it might have been day or it might have been night.
Caroline put a hand to her heart, as Mother often did, concentrating. It would be a long morning.
Patience is a virtue.
When the lump in the cradle began to stir, the girls exchanged looks, united in dread.
Caroline rocked Frances with her right hand and lifted the newspaper with her left. The engraved advertisement said the city had “mermaid fever.”
Closing her eyes, she imagined the world past the long hallway with its hollow ticking grandfather clock, past the filmy glass of the entryway window.
The street would be full of steaming manure and spit, and a snuffling pig or two. Pretty ladies in bustles and tall bonnets were stepping from carriages, too many to count, with their escorts — one after another, like paper dolls tipping forth from a fathomless black. The museum lived between two worlds, Daddy liked to say. It lured fashionable customers from uptown right alongside people from the Bowery tenements and Five Points.
She could hear his brass band making a clamor on the balcony. Above that, on the roof of the museum, people would be lining up for ice cream. But inside — oh, inside! — there were serpent charmers, ropedancers, glassblowers, and industrious fleas. There was a Gypsy fortune- teller and a professor of phrenology who read your skull by feeling the bumps on your head. This and a ladyfish . . . right upstairs. Yet Caroline Cordelia Barnum (and Helen), the proprietor’s own flesh and blood, had never even been inside.
Daddy had no trouble boasting about everything they were missing, especially at bedtime, though the evening ritual of parting was more satisfying than the morning’s.
Daddy always tucked them in at night, and his excuses were better than a storybook. “You will kindly forgive Mr. Barnum,” he would say, “proprietor of the American Museum, who must now slip away to see to the important work of lighting up the night sky.”
While she and Helen waited to fall asleep each night, they watched the beam of his Drummond light circle Broadway, sweeping the street below and the front and sides of the museum. It crept in their window, slashed the ceiling, and turned dizzy circles before retreating again.
Mr. Barnum’s other important work, he reminded them — covering first Helen and then Caroline to the chin with their blankets — was to tuck in the animals.
There were huge placards all around the outside of the museum, and it was Helen’s job, at this point in the ritual, to make Daddy list the animals they advertised: orangutan and polar bear, elephant and ostrich, camel leopard, tapir, pelican, eagle, gnu, lion, kangaroo, peacock, elk, rattlesnake, tiger, fur seal, and cormorant.
She had memorized the menagerie in a particular order, every animal, and made him start over if he omitted anyone.
When Daddy didn’t have time for a proper good- night, he would tuck them in with the museum catalog for their bedtime book, inviting them to imagine, in their dreams, the midnight snuffling and turning of creatures and the soft bickering of giants and dwarfs playing cards. “And when you wake up,” he would say with his big laugh, “I’ll be at the table waiting.”
And he promised that on the day they finally got upstairs to visit his “wilderness of realities,” they would have the whole of five floors to themselves, and the mermaid, too.
Copyright © 2020 by Deborah Noyes