The Lost Museum Archive

Barnum on the Woolly Horse, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, 1855

In the winter of 1849, John C. Fremont—a celebrated Army explorer who had spent the 1840s leading expeditions through the uncharted American West—was surveying a possible railroad route from the Rio Grande river to California. (Fremont, who in 1846 helped to lead an uprising by Anglo settlers in California against Mexican authorities that eventually led to California statehood, went on to become the Republican candidate for President in 1856.) The temporary disappearance of Fremont’s party of explorers provided P. T. Barnum with the opportunity to create another “humbug” for public consumption. In this passage from his autobiography, Barnum describes how he acquired the “ambiguous quadruped,” waited for a suitably astonishing story to attach to its origins, then combined the two and exhibited Fremont’s “Woolly Horse.”

THE WOOLLY HORSE. – In the summer of 1848, while in Cincinnati with General Tom Thumb, my attention was arrested by handbills announcing the exhibition of a “woolly horse.” Being always on the qui vive for every thing curious with which to amuse or astonish the public, I visited the exhibition, and found the animal to be a veritable curiosity. It was a well-formed horse of rather small size, without any manner or the slightest portion of hair upon his tail. The entire body and limbs were covered with a thick fine hair or wool curling tight to his skin. He was foaled in Indiana, was a mere freak of nature, and withal a very curious looking animal. I purchased him and sent him to Bridgeport, Ct., where he was placed quietly away in a retired barn, until such times as might have use for him.

The occasion at last occurred. Col. Fremont was lost among the trackless snows of the Rocky Mountains. The public mind was excited. Serious apprehensions existed that the intrepid solider and engineer had fallen a victim to the rigors of a severe winter. At last the mail brought intelligences of his safety. The public heart beat quick with joy. I now saw a chance for the “woolly horse.” He was carefully covered with blankets and leggings, so that nothing could be seen accepting his eyes and hoofs, conveyed to New-York, and deposited in a rear stable, where no eye of curiosity could reach him.

The next mail was aid to have brought intelligence that Col. Fremont and his hardy band of warriors had, after a three days’ chase, succeeded in capturing, near the river Gila, a most extraordinary nondescript, which somewhat resembled a hoarse, but which had no mane nor tail, and was covered with a thick coat of wool. The account further added that the Colonel had sent this wonderful animal as a present to the U.S. Quarter-master.

Two days after this announcement, the following advertisement appeared in the New-York papers:

“COL. FREMONT’S NONDESCRIPT OR WOOLLY HORSE will be exhibited for a few days at the corner of Broadway and Reade street, previous to his departure for London. Nature seems to have exerted all her ingenuity in the production of this astounding animal. He is extremely complex – made up of the Elephant, Deer, Horse, Buffalo, Camel, and Sheep. It is the full size of a Horse, has the haunches of the Deer, the tail of the Elephant, a fine curled wool of camel’s hair color, and easily bounds twelve or fifteen feet high. Naturalists and the oldest trappers assured Col. Fremont that it was never known previous to his discovery. It is undoubtedly ‘Nature’s last,’ and the richest specimen received from California. To be seen every day this week. Admittance 25 cents; children half price.”

The building where he was exhibited, exactly opposite Stuart’s immense dry-goods store, was mounted by several large transparencies representing the “Nondescript” in full flight, pursued by the brave Fremont and his hardy handful of soldiers. The streets were also lined with handbills and posters, illustrating in wood-cuts the same thrilling event. On the next page is a fac-simile of the picture. It was drawn by my favorite artist, T.W. STRONG. He is a regular original, as his popular “Yankee Notion” abundantly proves. If the nondescript had made the fearful leap here represented, he would have jumped not less than five miles and if he was alive when he struck on the other side of the valley, I imagine that even the speed of the gallant Fremont’s horses would have been inadequate to his capture.

But the public appetite was craving something tangible for Col. Fremont. The community was absolutely famishing. They were ravenous. They could have swallowed any thing, and like a good genius, I threw them, not a “bone,” but a regular tit-bit, a bon-bon—and they swallowed it in a single gulp!

My agent tried “Old Wooly” in several of the provincial towns with tolerable success, and finally he was taken to Washington city, to see if the wool could be pulled over the eyes of politicians. It was successfully done for several days, when Col. Benton, ever regardful of the reputation of his son-in-law, caused my agent to be arrested on a grand-jury complaint for obtaining from him twenty-five cents under false pretences, and the Senator from Missouri testified, that having no mention of this horse in any of the numerous letters received from his son-in-law, he was sure Col. Fremont never saw the animal.

Such testimony could not prove a negative. The complaint was ruled out, and “Old Woolly” came off victorious. The excitement which Col. Benton unconsciously produced added materially to the receipts for the succeeding few days. But, always entertaining the greatest respect for “Old Bullion,” and out of regard to his feelings, I ordered the horse back to Bridgeport, where in due time he gave his last kick.

For some time, however, he was turned loose in a field lying on the public road, where occasional New-York patrons recognized their wooly friend in his retirement.

Source: The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself, 1855