Publication Date

April 2, 2018

Perspectives Section

Perspectives on Culture




Contemporary journalists had little pity for the animals that perished in the fire. New York Public LibraryToday, visitors to Lower Manhattan can shop at a Zara clothing store that inconspicuously occupies a corner near City Hall Park. But in the mid-19th century, this was the site of P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, the global epicenter of humbug. On July 13, 1865, a fire destroyed the museum, which helped push Barnum toward his circus work. Yet despite the continuing fame of his endeavors—some recently depicted in Twentieth Century Fox’s film The Greatest Showman—most people don’t know that Barnum kept live whales there on the southeast corner of Broadway and Ann Street. The museum’s two belugas died in the blaze.

The fate of Barnum’s whales brings to mind 21st-century critiques of animal displays in circuses and oceanaria. Due to sustained public outcry against large animal captivity, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus retired its 145-year-long elephant act in 2016. The circus that still bore the showman’s name had been swept up in a backlash stimulated by the 2013 film Blackfish. The documentary pressed for the release of the orcas owned by the SeaWorld network of marine parks. By 2016, SeaWorld announced that it would end its orca breeding program, leaving its current whales to live out their lives at its parks without performing. The human-animal relationship is undergoing a transition across the American cultural landscape. Given this apparent close of a chapter in history, it’s worth reflecting on Barnum’s whales to understand what large animals in captivity have meant in US history.

SeaWorld’s move away from high-energy jumping and splashing spectacles returns its whales to a state resembling Barnum’s original vision: predators perpetually at rest. Though he had never seen a live whale before, Barnum prepared the basement of the American Museum in 1861 as a “small ocean” to receive two belugas taken near L’Isle-aux-Coudres (Elbow Island) in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River. The museum proprietor settled on a tank made of brick and cement, 40 by 18 feet—the depth apparently not worth noting in his 1869 memoir, Struggles and Triumphs. Barnum oversaw the belugas’ fitful capture and journey by train to New York City in boxes filled with just enough salt water to periodically sponge their blowholes and mouths.

Two days after Barnum moved his “monsters” to his basement, they died. The museum had accommodated the subarctic whales in tepid, noncirculating fresh water, and they had to breathe air permeated with gas lamp fumes. But the short-lived attraction bolstered Barnum’s reputation so much, both along the 700-mile rail route from the St. Lawrence River and in Manhattan, that he declared in Struggles and Triumphs: “Thus was my first whaling expedition a great success.”

Still, Barnum wasn’t satisfied with his all-too-brief experiment and tried again. This time, he bribed City Hall to rig the water system to route sea water from New York Harbor to the museum. “Having a stream of salt water at [his] command at every high tide,” Barnum created the world’s first functional oceanarium. He moved a new set of whales to the second floor, giving them what he figured was adequate fresh air. Presaging the future cetacean display industry, Barnum wrote in his “Ancient and Modern Humbugs of the World” column for the New York Mercury in 1864 that he told visitors, “I am sorry we can’t make him dance a hornpipe and do all sorts of things at the word of command.”

Barnum did not have the treated, clear blue water of today’s oceanaria, but rather unfiltered and dark harbor water. The whales usually remained at the bottom of the tank, hidden from the visitors, but could be seen for a moment when they surfaced to breathe. One day, a woman attending the museum with her daughter got several quick glimpses of a whale after watching for a half hour, then marched to Barnum’s office and declared: “Mr. B., it’s astonishing to what a number of purposes the ingenuity of us Yankees has applied india-rubber.” She insisted that the whale was actually made of india-rubber, powered by steam and machines, allowing it to surface at regular intervals and blow air through a bellows. The magician let her believe she had cracked his secret, even telling her he was impressed that she was the only visitor shrewd enough to uncover his trick. His priority as a budding oceanarium director—as with his other amusements—was to give visitors what they came for.

Barnum captured whales throughout the 1860s, a key decade in the history of the American whaling industry. The use of whale oil peaked in the 1850s, declining after 1859 when oil emerged from the ground in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Harvesting oil from the ground was less risky than sending out wooden whaleships on voyages lasting up to five years. At the same time, whale populations frequenting warmer waters were so overharvested that American whalers seeking bowhead oil pressed into the Arctic—beluga territory.

The quintessential showman thus popularized whales as spectacle at a time when their role was (slowly) shifting in the American mind. From formidable prey that could sink a pursuing whaleboat to carnival act supporting an aura of humbug, whales seemed to possess a charisma bolstered by the exoticism of their distant, deep-sea environs.

The current debate over animal confinement has roots in this context. Nature became less threatening in the 18th and 19th centuries as exploration facilitated by advancements in rail, ship, and air transport brought knowledge of faraway places and animals close to home. As the natural world became more knowable, Europeans and Americans enjoyed seeing to what purposes they could put nonhuman animals. Many consumers of these amusements recognized and accepted their participation in the process of imperial conquest and domination, according to Harriet Ritvo’s The Animal Estate (1987). Yet, as Louise E. Robbins has shown (in Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots, 2002), a number of people in 18th-century Paris compared displaying animals to slavery: some ships carried both humans and animals into captivity.

Barnum too faced contemporary criticism for his zoological practices. Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the 1860s, famously blasted Barnum’s habit of throwing live animals to snakes in front of spectators. The zoo industry today actively avoids such depictions of the food web, instead constructing a world that promotes a false sense of harmony and even suggests that captive habitats are best for animals.

Whales seemed to possess a charisma bolstered by the exoticism of their distant, deep-sea environs.

As fire consumed the American Museum in the summer of 1865, the salt water in the whales’ tank started boiling. Someone broke its inch-thick glass wall in hopes that the cascading water would quench the flames. Instead, the two beluga whales—captured in Canada only one week prior—were beached on a scorching floor before plunging to the street below as the building began to collapse. The scene was grisly, but newspapers like the New York Herald recounted the story with glee, peppering the reporting with phrases like “boiled whale.” The carcasses lay rotting for several days on Broadway, far too heavy to dispose of quickly.

These were only the last two of the nine belugas that died on Barnum’s watch. As he wrote in Struggles and Triumphs: “Of this whole [whale] enterprise, I confess I was very proud that I had originated it and brought it to such successful conclusion.” His “success” in enclosing beluga whales caught on throughout the eastern United States and Europe. Barnum, the experimental whale owner, popularized large marine mammal captivity as he did so many other controversial entertainment forms. Yet just as Americans rejected his “freak shows,” so they are slowly rejecting other entertainments embedded in pre-abolition culture. What people will accept as “family friendly” is constantly in flux.

The American Museum’s aim in the mid-19th century was to entertain. But by the late 20th century, parks like SeaWorld felt the demand to justify their existence with a vague ethos of education—while not markedly changing their practices. The civil rights debates of the 1960s eventually extended to animal rights and a deeper conversation on the forms of animal suffering. A large swath of the public was convinced that capturing animals solely for entertainment’s sake was not enough. One of SeaWorld’s key lessons for visitors was that its orca whales—first caught in the 1960s, a century after Barnum’s belugas—were better off under company supervision. SeaWorld argued that the ocean lacked veterinary care and was a scary and dangerous place for orcas—despite their position at the top of the food chain.

On January 18 of this year, Vancouver Aquarium sent a carefully worded e-mail to its supporters announcing that controversy over its beluga whale and dolphin menagerie was distracting so much from its mission of ocean conservation that it would move forward without cetaceans. More oceanaria are following suit. Large animals now seem uniquely ill-equipped for survival indoors and in enclosures, but they also have the capacity to kill human visitors and caretakers, as did SeaWorld’s Tilikum in 2010, inspiring Blackfish.

The conversation about animal captivity and display is still evolving. Large animals are easy to imagine (and fear) as quasi-adult humans, while small animals might remind us of children whom we can easily dominate. Small animal captivity thus might require a more nuanced conversation, given that many people keep their own small animals as pets. Perhaps these animals too will be swept up in the confinement debate. Barnum wasn’t cowed by the impressive size of the belugas he first saw in Quebec. Yet after nine whales and two fires, he decided that keeping cetaceans wasn’t a good business plan—a lesson that his successors are only now learning.

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Amanda Bosworth is a PhD candidate in history at Cornell University. She is currently in St. Petersburg, Russia, conducting dissertation research on Russian-American-Canadian maritime relations starting from the 1867 transfer of Alaska.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.