Barnum’s Brothel: P.T.’s “Last Great Humbug”
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Barnum’s Brothel:
P.T.’s “Last Great Humbug”

In death as in life P. T. Barnum continues to surprise. For years contemporaries and historians accepted at face value that Barnum’s marriage to the actress Nancy Fish in New York City on 16 September 1874—ten months after the death of his first wife, Charity—was unusual only in the forty-year age difference between Barnum and his twenty-two-year-old bride. But historians recently discovered that the New York marriage ceremony was pure Barnum. The service was a sham, a secret Barnum and Fish revealed to no one. In fact, the couple were clandestinely married in London on Valentine’s Day, 1874, only thirteen weeks after the death of Barnum’s first wife. The marriage certificate was only discovered in 1994 by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt. “This secret Barnum took to his grave,” they wrote, “his last great humbug.”1 [End Page 486]

In both his time and ours Barnum’s name is equated with humbug. The showman did more than just consciously exploit the term: he personally redefined it. Beginning in the 1830s, Barnum deliberately confused the boundaries between truth and deceit, between authenticity and fabrication. He invited patrons of his many and varied entertainments to discover the duplicity, a playful challenge to consumers to seek out and identify the trickery. Barnum’s humbug, in the words of historian James W. Cook, was “artful deception.”2 The American public, simply put in Barnum’s words, “appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.”3

The impresario was renowned not only for his circus, museum, “curiosities,” and other popular forms of entertainment but also for his moralistic politics. In 1848 Barnum forswore liquor and became a teetotaler.4 When he developed and sold residential real estate in East Bridgeport, Connecticut, he included covenants prohibiting the use of liquor and tobacco by future owners.5 During the 1850s Barnum not only banned intoxicating spirits in his American Museum, but he also employed plainclothes detectives to monitor the behavior of museum patrons. When necessary, Barnum instructed the officers to expel from the premises “every person of either sex whose actions indicated loose habits.”6 Even his circus performers were eventually required to renounce alcohol.7 [End Page 487]

As a public figure Barnum was even more evangelistic. During his tenure as mayor of Bridgeport from 1875 to 1876 Barnum initiated crusades against Sunday liquor sales, arguing that alcohol “fires the brain and drives [its] victims to madness, violence and murder.” Barnum proclaimed that the municipal expenditures for trying and punishing criminals as well as welfare support for the poor “are mainly caused by this traffic.”8 The self-righteous showman cracked down on local prostitution during his mayoralty, even threatening to publicly expose the identities of the patrons frequenting Bridgeport’s brothels.9 In Barnum’s words, “Laws are made to be obeyed and should be rigidly upheld by those whose sworn duty it is to enforce them.”10

Barnum’s secret marriage, however, was not his final or perhaps his greatest humbug. On 28 April 1883 Minnie Fischer was arrested for “keeping a bawdy house” at 47 Bond Street in Manhattan. The following day Fischer, a thirty-five-year-old German immigrant who described herself as a “housekeeper,” was charged in a complaint submitted by Michael Crossley in the police court of Justice Hugh Gardner.11 Dr. George Schlereth, a thirty-six-year-old physician and Bavarian immigrant residing four blocks away on Avenue B, raised the five-hundred-dollar bail on her behalf. Gardner rendered no immediate decision in the case, and on 10 May Fischer was indicted in the Court of General Sessions. The case, however, never went to trial; several days later Fischer’s household property was put up for auction. A week later police captain John Brogan reported that the “nuisance” was “abated,” the lease surrendered to the landlord, and Fischer evicted.12 The landlord was Phineas T. Barnum (see Figs. 1, 2). [End Page 488]

Figure 1. The indictment of Minnie Fischer for running a house of prostitution at 47 Bond Street in 1883. Note that the landlord, Phineas T. Barnum, is mentioned in the handwriting on the left side of the document. New York City Municipal Archives and Records Center.
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Figure 1.

The indictment...