Perhaps more devastating (and certainly more exciting) than the Civil War for nineteenth-century New Yorkers was the great fire that consumed P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in 1865.  On this day in theatre history–July 13–Barnum’s famed establishment burned to the ground taking with it several nearby buildings and flooding the streets of lower Manhattan with scores of escaped exotic animals, along with scores of impromptu and intoxicated ersatz big-game hunters on the lookout for that rare moment of imagined heroism that only alcohol can enhance.  The next day, local papers were full of extraordinary tales of self-reported bravery from the many people who witnessed (or claimed to have witnessed) the event, in addition to many graphic and lurid details of the animals’ sad deaths happily provided by the partially sober.

Ned the Seal survived, thank goodness--while tales of hunting kangaroos on  Broad Street persisted for days... or at least until the beer ran out.

Ned the Seal survived, thank goodness–while tales of hunting kangaroos on Broad Street persisted for days… or at least until the beer ran out.

While indeed a number of display animals were incinerated–including two beluga whales who were left on the upper floor after their giant tank was smashed to provide instant water for quenching the fire–New Yorkers were greatly relieved when it was reported that “Ned” the trained seal was rescued.  Fortunately, no humans lost their lives.  Officials estimated that some 30,000 people milled about in the streets for hours to watch one of Barnum’s most spectacular displays.   And although it might have seemed like a devastating event for him, as usual Barnum took the bull by the horns and made the most of the conflagration–immediately announcing the building of a bigger and better museum.  In fact, the fire actually convinced Barnum to get out of the museum business once and for all.  Instead, he turned his attention to a new idea:  traveling circuses.  And the rest, as they say, is history…

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