The Lost Museum Archive

Letter from P. T. Barnum to John Greenwood, 1864

P. T. Barnum wrote this letter to his employee John Greenwood during Greenwood’s 1864 trip to Cyprus in search of “a beautiful Circassian girl.” Barnum’s instructions to Greenwood reflect the showman’s careful attention to the smallest details in his manipulation of public perception. Barnum emphasized the elements that would make his newest “human curiosity” appear exotic, regardless of her actual origins. In 1865 Barnum exhibited Zalumma Agra, the “Star of the East,” in the American Museum, promoting her as “the purest example of the white race.”

Museum, 14 May 1864

My dear G,

I still have faith in a beautiful Circassian girl if you can get one very beautiful. But if they ask $4000 each, probably one would be better than two, for $8000 in gold is worth about $14,500 in U.S. currency. So one of the most beautiful would do, but be sure & get a decent-looking chap of 16 years old or more. If you can also buy a beautiful Circassian woman for $200 [$2000?], do so if you think best; or if you can hire one or two at reasonable prices, do so if you think they are pretty and will pass for Circassian slaves. But in any event have one or two of the most beautiful girls you can find, even if they cost $4000 or $5000 in gold. Don't fail to have rich-appearing costumes for her and the eunuch, & bring one girl alone with eunuch if you think they will be attractive enough to pay. But of course one or two additional girls will help it if they can be hired right & are pretty, especially if one can pass for a Grecian. But after looking the thing over, if you don't find one that is beautiful & possesses a striking kind of beauty, why of course she won't draw and you must give it up as a bad job & not get them, for there is nothing in her to attract & fascinate, and the papers would cry her down & it would prove a loss. But if she is beautiful, then she may take in Paris or in London or probably both. But look out that in Paris they don't try the law and set her free. It must be understood she is free. . .

Yours truly,

P. T. Barnum

If you get the woman with horns, let American newspapers & correspondents understand that you had a big race for her with European showmen & that the price paid for her was immense. Remember to find every avenue for publicity of the fact that an agent of Barnum's Museum is in the East seeking curiosities. Also, when you get to Paris you had better advertise that an agent for Barnum's Museum, now in Paris, is anxious to secure novelties for America. You had better write all the French which would be likely to give you any new ideas. Write here to the editors giving items of intelligence, among which name the agency. Also describe any curiosities that you may secure, then give the editors here your address (privately). They will publish your letter because it comes from so far.

Source: Harry Ransom Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin