The Lost Museum Archive

The Whales, New York Tribune, August 9, 1861

In the summer of 1861, Barnum trumpeted his latest American Museum exhibit: two live white (or beluga) whales. This newspaper report on the arrival of the whales reflects the excitement and wonder that, in an era before zoos, New Yorkers might have felt at seeing live animals in captivity. This was Barnum's first attempt to exhibit live whales (the museum was on its eighth and ninth whales when it burned down in 1865), and his promotion of the animals highlighted the enormous undertaking of capturing them in Canada and transporting them New York.

A real live whale is as great a curiosity as a live lord or prince, being much more difficult to catch, and far more wonderful in its appearance and habits. After all people are people, and have much the same ways of feeling and doing. But when we get among the whales, we catch glimpses of a new and neat thing in the nose, recall the narrative of Jonah without throwing a shadow of doubt upon its authenticity, and appreciate keenly the difficulties with which mermaid society must have to contend.

We owe the presence of two whales in our midst to the enterprise of Mr. P. T. Barnum. He has had them in tow for a long while, but has kept his secret well, and it was not until his own special whaler telegraphed from Troy that he had come so far into the bowels of the earth with his submarine charge, and all well, that he felt warranted in whispering whale to the public. The public was delighted but not surprised, because it feels that the genius that is equal to a What Is It is also equal to the biggest thing, and would experience no unusual thrill of wonder if a real iceberg, or a section of the identical North Pole, should be announced on the bills of the Museum.

But flocks of the public sought the Museum yesterday, and were not disappointed. They saw not, as Pelonius, something "very like a whale," but the original animal in his original element. The bears, and the anacondas, the hatchet, and the seal, sank into merited insignificance, although they will have their day again if the whales should expire. The transfer of the fish was neatly effected. They traveled the whole distance in first-class hermetical boxes, filled with water and thickly lined with sea-weed, and were landed, if the expression may be used, in the new and excellent tank provided for them in the basement of the Museum. This tank is 58 feet deep and 25 in width, has 7 feet of sea water in it, and seems to suit the whales eminently. Mr. Barnum has fears that the pets will have but a brief, if brilliant, career, in their new quarters, but we prefer to predict for them a long and happy one.

These are white whales and were taken near the Labrador coast by a crew of thirty-five men. The largest has attained the extreme size reached by this species, and is about 23 feet long; the other is 18 feet long. Their form and motion are graceful and their silver backs and bellies show brightly through the water. A long-continued intimacy has endeared them to each other, and they go about quite like a pair of whispering lovers, blowing off their mutual admiration in a very emphatic manner. Just at present they are principally engaged in throwing their eyes around the premises and paying small attention to visitors, upon whom, indeed the narrative of Jonah has a strong hold. Yet neither of these whales should make a single mouthful of a man of ordinary size. Even if one of them should succeed in swallowing a man, he could just stand up with the whale, and make it at least as uncomfortable as himself.

Here is a real "sensation." We do not believe the enterprise of Mr. Barnum will stop at white whales. It will embrace sperm whales and mermaids, and all strange things that swim or fly or crawl, until the Museum will become one vast microcosm of the animal creation. A quarter seems positively contemptible weighed against such a treat.

Source: New York Tribune, August 9, 1861