The Lost Museum Archive

Letters Between P. T. Barnum and Henry Bergh of the ASPCA

After Barnum's American Museum burned in 1865, he opened a new museum and menagerie several blocks to the north. Shortly after the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866, its President, Henry Bergh, responded to complaints that staff fed live rabbits to boa constrictors in the new museum as a source of entertainment. The following letters reveal the growing tensions between Bergh and Barnum. The New York World published the Bergh and Barnum letters on March 19, 1867, commenting that "the snake controversy is funny as well as instructive." As Barnum's final letter to the Evening Post makes clear, other publications took up the issue in order to poke fun at Bergh.

Letter from Henry Bergh (ASPCA) to the Managers of Barnum's Museum:

December 11, 1866


I some time since called at Barnum's Museum for the purpose of protesting against the cruel mode of feeding the snake which is there on exhibition.

The gentleman, whom I spoke with, who informed me that he was acting for Mr. Barnum in his absence, expressed his willingness to use his influence to have the evil corrected.

Nothing, it seems has been done in that direction, as I am this moment informed by a gentleman who was present some four weeks ago, that he witnessed the feeding of the animal, along with other spectators, and pronounced the scene cruel and demoralizing in the extreme; several live animals having been thrown into its cage, to be slowly devoured!

I boast of no finer sensibilities than other men, but, I assert, without fear of contradiction, that any person who can commit an atrocity such as the one I complain of, is semi-barbarian in his instincts. It is with a view to prevent and punish such offences, that this society has been created and laws enacted.

It may be urged that these reptiles will not eat dead food—in reply to this I have to say, then let them starve—for, it is contrary to the merciful providence of God that wrong should be committed in order to accomplish a supposed right.

But, I am satisfied that this assertion is false in theory and practice, for no living creature will allow itself to perish of hunger, with food before it, be the aliment dead or alive.

I therefore, am led to the conclusion that this cruel deed, is a part of the spectacle; in total disregard of the demoralizing effects of it, or the inhumanity, which results therefrom.

I have therefore, respectfully to apprize you that, on the next occurrence of this cruel exhibition, this Society will take legal measures to punish the perpetrators of it.

Please let me hear from you without delay.

Your obedient servant,
Henry Bergh, President

Letter from P. T. Barnum to Henry Bergh:

New York, March 4th, 1867

Henry Bergh, Esq.

Dear Sir:

On my return from the West in December last, I found your letter of December 11th, addressed to this association, threatening us with punishment if we permitted our Boa Constrictors to eat their food alive. You furthermore declared, that our assertion that these reptiles would die, unless permitted to eat their food alive, was "false in theory and practice, for no living creature will allow itself to perish with hunger, with food before it, be the ailment dead or alive." I enclose a letter from Professor Agassiz, denying your statement.

In addition to threatening us with prosecution you take it upon yourself to denounce us as "semi-barbarians," simply because we choose to conduct our business in the only way which we believe will be satisfactory to that public, who expect to see animals here as nearly in their natural state as they can be exhibited. I, sir, was much rejoiced at the establishment of your society, and believe it can do a world of good in saving dumb animals from abuse, but in the present instance you are unquestionably in the wrong, and I give you notice that this establishment will continue to feed all its animals in accordance with the laws of nature.

If upon reflection, you think proper to write us a letter for publication, stating that since reading Professor Agassiz's letter to us, you withdraw your objections, that will satisfy us. Otherwise we shall feel compelled to self-defence to publish your former letter in connection with that from Professor Agassiz.

Truly yours,
P. T. Burnum
President of Barnum's and Van Amburgh's Museum and Menagerie

Letter to P. T. Barnum from Louis Agassiz, enclosed in above letter to Bergh:

Cambridge, February 28, 1867

P. T. Barnum, Esq., New York

Dear Sir:

On my return to Cambridge I received your letter of the 15th of January. I do not know of any way to induce snakes to eat their food otherwise than in their natural manner: that is alive. Your Museum is intended to show to the public the animals, as nearly as possible, in their natural state. The society of which you speak is, I understand, for the prevention of unnecessary cruelty to animals. It is a most praiseworthy object, but I do not think the most active member of the society would object to eating lobster salad because the lobster was boiled alive, or refuse roasted oysters because they were cooked alive, or raw oysters because they must be swallowed alive.

I am, dear sir, your obedient servant,
L. E. Agassiz

Letter to P. T. Barnum from Henry Bergh:

New York, March 7, 1967

P. T. Barnum, Esq., New York

Dear Sir:

I hereby acknowledge the receipt of a letter from you on the date of the 4th of March, including one to you from Professor Agassiz, relating to the feeding of your boa-constrictor on live animals.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals was chartered by the Legislature of this State for the purpose indicated by its title.

Among the vast number of complaints made to it, imploring its interposition in behalf of suffering brute creature, was one received from a gentleman whose name is purposely withheld but whose entire communication is at any time subject to your inspections, the salient point of which I quote below. In describing what he had witnessed at your place of amusement, he says: "A rabbit was thrust into the cage of a serpent, when it immediately rushed to the furthest corner, and commenced trembling like an aspen leaf. After some time the boa slowly brought its head so as to bring its eyes to bear upon its victim, and then rested. The intense terror of the poor rabbit, and its pitiable helplessness made me sick. I implored the keeper to take it out, but was laughed at for my pains. It was in the evening when the rabbit was put into the cage. I thought of it all night. The next morning I called to see if my little friend was out of its misery. The situation was unchanged. The reptile had not moved a particle. Its eyes still rested upon the rabbit, which was closely crouched in the same corner and trembling violently. In the evening I called again; still the same and the next morning still the same. At length, late in the evening of the third day, I called, and the little rabbit had seemingly fallen into a semi-stupor, from which it would arouse and open its eyes, but close them again after the manner of a man who sleeps and nods in his chair. The serpent had moved his head a few inches nearer. When I called the next morning the little rabbit was gone. The above occurrence took place in the public exhibition room, and was part of the show. If Yankee ingenuity cannot devise some other means of keeping these horrible creatures alive, I am sure we are better without the sight of them."

On the receipt of this letter, I called at your place of business, and on my representation of the case was assured by the gentlemen in charge -- who appeared to be humanely inclined -- that the practice should be discontinued but subsequently, a second letter having been received by me, announcing a repetition of the cruel performance, I wrote you the note referred to, in reply to which a letter was sent me by your agent again deprecating the proceeding, and strongly asserting that it shall not be repeated.

Thus the matter rested until the receipt of your letter of the 4th, transmitting a threat to give my letter to the public unless "upon reflection I thought proper to write you, stating that since reading Professor Agassiz's letter to you, I withdrew my objections, etc. etc.

In reply to this I have to say that the hastily written note to which you refer was not intended for publication, but if you think any business capital can be realized from it, I have no objection to its sharing the fate of everything subjected to the ordeal of your fertile genius.

But I may perhaps, be permitted at the same time to express the surprise I feel that so consummate an adept in the school of humbug as your self published autobiography proves you to be should make the mistake of believing that the same public, after reading that delectable volume, would fail to see through the transparent covering with which the motive is enveloped. This, however, is your affair, not mine.

As to withdrawal of my objection, after reading Professor Agassiz's letter, I have to say that so far from discovering by the perusal of it any reason for changing my long cherished opinions of the necessity of practicing humanity to the brute creation, I am more convinced than ever of the necessity of laboring still more assiduously in that cause, in order to counteract the unhappy influence which the expressions of that justly distinguished savant is calculated to occasion. Permit me to add that I scarcely know which emotion is paramount in my mind, regret or astonishment, that so eminent a philosopher should have seemingly cast the weight of his commanding authority into the scale where cruelty points the index in its favor.

The result is obvious, therefore; the offensive letter must be published, although I predict beforehand that so doing will occasion no convulsion of nature nor otherwise disturb the repose of society, nor will it even realize for its exhibition the results anticipated; but it is possible, on the contrary, that it may cause parents and other guardians of the morals of the rising generation to discontinue conducting them to a mis-called museum, where the amusement chiefly consists in contemplating the prolonged torture of innocent, unresisting, dumb creatures.

Your obedient servant,
Henry Bergh

Letter from P.T. Barnum to Henry Bergh:

New York, March 11, 1867

Henry Bergh, Esquire
President of American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals


On my return from Connecticut, for but a few hours sojourn in the city, I find your letter of the 7th. It is lamentable that a gentleman standing at the head of an institution which, if properly conducted, would command the respect and sympathy of all well disposed persons, should be so incredulous and possess such a superficial knowledge of the subject as to be deceived by so silly and absurd a letter as you quote from. This entire story of the trembling, fearful rabbit is a shallow hoax. And the pretence that during four dark nights and three days this persistent, unwinking snake should be staring incessantly at his terrified little victim, is simply a ridiculous Munchausenism, founded upon the old story of serpent charming birds. But no naturalist will pretend for a moment, that the lazy, dull-eyed boa constrictor possesses any such power, or that any bird or animal placed in his cage has the slightest instinctive admonition that he is in danger. On the contrary, pigeons jump about upon him as carelessly as if they were on the ground, and roost upon his back all night as fearlessly as if he was the branch of a tree. Rabbits lie and sleep among his folds with as much unconcern as if within their own burrows. This whole story, therefore, of those long days and nights of terror, and the gradual wearing out of the sleepless rabbit, reducing him to a "semi stupor like a man who sleeps and nods on his chair," is as ludicrous a piece of fiction as ever was read in the "Arabian Nights Tales," and its publication will inevitably make you the laughing stock of every naturalist in Christendom.

Twenty-five years ago I witnessed the eventful workings in London of an institution of the same title as that of which you are president, and I have frequently urged the importance of organizing a similar society here. But sir, discretion, civility, and good judgment are requisite in securing to the objects of that institution the best results. Letters "hastily written," charging a man with being a "semi-barbarian" and haughtily threatening him with punishment for doing what no man with a well-balanced mind could imagine he had done, are not in my humble judgment, the most effective means for a person in your position to make use of. Your last letter, which seems not to have been so "hastily written," but evidently intended for the public press, in as uncharitable as it is unjust. When you attribute to me a desire to make "business capital" out of a transaction originated by yourself, wherein you have unwarrantably applied to me insulting epithets, and treated me in a most ungentlemanly manner, simply because I wished to be set right on a point wherein you have clearly attempted to place me in the wrong, is not worthy of a person filling the honorable and responsible position to which you, sir, have been elected. Your vulgar allusions to "hum" and that "delectable volume" betray low breeding and a surplus of self-conceit which will but tend to deepen the impression which many sensible and humane men have formed in regard to your unfitness for the office of "President of the American Society, etc." Your abrupt charges and sweeping insinuations are offensive and without reason. For instance, your assertion that the letter of Professor Agassiz confirms you still more in the opinion of "the necessity of practicing humanity to the brute creation," from which the public are to infer that the learned and honorable Professor did not so zealously believe and practice on that belief as you do. Herein seems to be one of your greatest foibles. You apparently consider everybody "brutal" and "barbarous," and opposed to "practicing humanity," unless they agree with you in the attempt to set at defiance the laws of nature. Your dictatorial air is unsufferable, and your concluding threat that the publication of your former letter in connection with that of Professor Agassiz will drive children and their mothers away from a museum in which I have but a partial pecuniary interest, and for the financial returns of which I don't care a "tuppence" so that the public get, as usual, four times more genuine instruction and innocent amusement than they pay for, is a specimen of petty malice which will accords with the general tenor of your conduct in your new position. And then, again, your offensive and unwarrantable charges of the "insults anticipated" by me in such publication, emanates only from the brain of a man mounted upon stilts, who seems to be delighted in seeing himself in print in whatever shape circumstances may place him there. When private enterprise has invested half a million of dollars, and incurs a yearly disbursement of $300,000 in which to place before the public a full representation of every department of natural history for a mere nominal sum—and enterprise never before attempted in any city in the world without governmental aid—it simply is disgraceful for you to assert that the "amusement chiefly consists in contemplating the prolonged torture of innocent and unresisting dumb creatures." How weak must a person feel his position to be when he attempts to fortify it by such thoughtless and absurd statements, and how little does he appreciate the true dignity of his office when he thus descends to miserable pettyfogging and the unjust imputation of bad motives to those who take quite as humane and much more rational view of the subject than himself. The officers of your institution, sir, are gentlemen of too much worth and command too generally the respect of the community for its president to degrade it and them by "hasty" unreflecting, and unjust deportment toward others. In attempting to prevent the abuse of beasts your influence will not be increased by your abuse of men. As you seem to court the pillory by asking for the publication of your last letter, I bow to your request, wondering at you temerity, but thinking to use your own language, "It is your affair, not mine." Of course no public officer like yourself has a right to consider his official orders as "private" and exempt from publication. The public all have an interest in the proper management of a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and have a right to know whether its chief officer is fit for his position.

Your arbitrary conduct, however, compelled my associates to send their reptiles to a neighboring state to be fed; but we shall have no more such tom-foolery until driven to it by that legal decision which you threaten and to which we most willingly appeal.

Your obedient servant,
P. T. Barnum

Letter from Barnum to the Evening Post:

American Museum, June 22, 1867

To the Editors of the Evening Post:

Your paper of yesterday gives a remedy, proposed by the London Punch, to meet the objection of the president of "The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals" to feeding serpents in the only manner which nature permits. Mr. Punch may overcome English sensitiveness by rejecting live rabbits as food for the boas constrictor, and substituting "Welsh rabbits" in their places. But Shakespeare tells us of "maggot ostentation," and from my experience with the tender susceptibilities of Mr. Bergh, I tremble lest the keen scent of that gentleman might enable him to smell danger to animal suffering by that process, and that he would, therefore, offer a small mite of objection even to feeding serpents upon toasted cheese!

Truly yours,
P. T. Barnum