Science  /  Book Excerpt

How P.T. Barnum Brought Beluga Whales to New York City

On museum ethics and animal welfare in 19th century America.

The showman had already provided a thrilling account of the whale hunt to newspapers in Quebec and Montreal, and telegraphed communities along the train route announcing the impending arrival of the crated whales. “The result of these arrangements may be imagined: at every station crowds of people came to the cars to see the whales which were traveling by land to Barnum’s Museum,” Barnum crowed, “and I thus secured a tremendous advertisement, seven hundred miles long, for the American Museum.” Upon the belugas’ arrival at their destination, a writer for the New-York Tribune gushed, 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.”

Barnum’s advance publicity effort ensured that by the time the whales sloshed into their ice-cooled tank, in the dank basement of the American Museum, thousands of New Yorkers crowded the entrance, impatient to lay eyes on the great “white whales.” They would have to hurry: These two belugas would not be at the museum long. “I did not know how to feed or take care of the monsters, and, moreover, they were in fresh water, and this, with the bad air in the basement, may have hastened their death, which occurred a few days after their arrival, but not before thousands of people had seen them,” wrote Barnum, with evident overall satisfaction, in one of his autobiographies.

Barnum being Barnum, he “resolved to try again.” Weeks later, he had installed a new tank made of slate and thick glass plates, twenty-four feet square, on the museum’s more commodious second floor. Fresh water from city taps was replaced with murky brackish water from the mouth of the East River; Barnum had situated a steam-powered pumping apparatus at the harbor’s edge and laid a network of iron pipes under city streets (with the purchased permission of a Manhattan alderman) to ensure that his next two Labrador whales bobbed before visitors in a circulating supply of untreated harbor water.

Alas, these whales quickly died as well—“their sudden and immense popularity was too much for them,” Barnum later quipped. If museum visitors were troubled by the serial cetacean fatalities, it did not deter them from paying their twenty-five-cent admission fees and lingering in the second-floor galleries to behold their short-term antics. And so, Barnum continued to exhibit whales on the second floor of his museum, one pair after another, in cheerful, morbid succession. “NOW IS THE TIME to see these wonders,” declared a newspaper advertisement announcing the most recent arrivals in 1865, “as THEIR LIVES ARE UNCERTAIN.”