Jenny and Barnum

Jenny and Barnum by Roderick Thorp Read Free Book Online

Book: Jenny and Barnum by Roderick Thorp Read Free Book Online
Authors: Roderick Thorp
thought I was the evidence of her sinfulness,” Tom Thumb said.
    â€œI’m afraid so, yes,” said Barnum, pouring himself another glassful in great dollops. “My youthful experience as a terrorized Methodist gave me a valuable understanding of what transpires in the hearts of Presbyterians. Her sense of her own sin was the reason. That’s why she had people on both sides of the family check back to see if there had ever been midgets in your family before. In fairness to her, it must be said that there are many people like your mother, and that New England particularly breeds them like rabbits, people who cannot help but see every element of life, including family, friends, love, and children, even religion—especially religion (and it doesn’t matter which brand)—as some infernal competition they must struggle to win. Finding midget twins on your father’s side must have comforted her, but she remained, until I met her, a woman in search of deliverance, the warmth and light of God’s grace. People like your mother are always yearning for something, and they have it all mixed up in their minds like soup.” Barnum smiled. “I sold a ring to buy the suit and rent the carriage that made your mother think that I was the man wealthy enough to ride to her rescue. That’s why I took two weeks to write that first letter, for every word had to convey to your mother that first, most important message, that I was the personification of her religious, social, and financial salvation.”
    Tom Thumb remembered the furor that the letter created, how it rested for days on the kitchen counter next to the water pump, how his mother read it aloud again and again until she settled on the parts she considered pertinent. The letter was addressed to the head of the household, Mr. Stratton, but the five-year-old Charlie, about to be renamed Tom Thumb, sitting like a little gentleman on an inverted pot beside the pump, heard all the phrases Barnum had worked into the letter about “fiduciary security” and “continuing income”—each preceded by a critical if—“ if the little fellow proves capable of learning how to perform on stage,” and “ if your son is in fact as small as the rumors suggest.” Just as his mother discerned the message encoded in the letter for her, the five-year-old felt something being said to him, too. That was the wonderful, true thing about Barnum: in telling a story, he really told all , more than you could have possibly imagined beforehand, filling the entirety of your mind with his vision. In the days the family waited for the showman to travel up from his American Museum in New York, Charlie Stratton was the one being lifted to a higher order of reality—and here was Barnum telling exactly how he had made the little boy feel it.
    And so that raising up was confirmed, from the moment of Barnum’s arrival that day so many years before, in his gleaming carriage so delicate it didn’t look strong enough to hold him, the liveried footman to open his door, and Barnum’s gracious acknowledgment of the crowd that was gathered in the street outside. Word had been spreading through the neighborhood for days that the scandalous, fast-talking young man who had exhibited George Washington’s 161-year-old slave mammy was coming to investigate The Tiny Child of Bridgeport, Connecticut.
    Everyone knew something of the story of ancient Joice Heth, lying withered in a cradle and singing the songs she claimed to have sung to the Father of the Country himself in his infancy, but not all that many knew the rest of the tale, however freely admitted by Barnum after the decrepit black woman passed on to her just reward. There never had been any proof that the woman had been as old as she’d claimed, and Barnum had never actually said he had such proof. He’d bought the old soul in Philadelphia from a slaver who had been the

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