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Lisa Unleashed: Barnum’s Salamander The Fire Horse 
And Bergh’s ASPCA

Published: August 13, 2017

On a recent trip to the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport I was hoping to find lots of exhibits about the circus, horses in particular, to feed my equine appetite. Unfortunately, since the 2010 tornado that severely damaged the old red Barnum Institute of Science and History, the only exhibit was a single large storage area at the back of the museum in the modern annex detailing restoration efforts to bring the old museum back to life.

As a docent talked about General Tom Thumb, near some of his midget-sized horse-drawn carriages, my eyes wandered around the room. They settled on a small replica of a circus poster declaring that Salamander the Fire Horse could jump through hoops on fire. This was the most interesting find among the stored exhibits. After a quick internet search, I discovered that P.T. Barnum and Salamander were the target of claims of cruelty by Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

But Salamander’s treatment wasn’t the first time Barnum and Bergh clashed over the care of animals. The first time was in 1866, shortly after the ASPCA was founded, when Bergh complained that Barnum was feeding live rabbits to snakes at his New York City museum as entertainment for the public. Barnum retorted by having a reptile expert send him a letter that said snakes won’t eat dead animals and sent that to Bergh. Many of these letters made it into the newspapers, and the “feud” between the two was begun.

By 1880, Salamander the Fire Horse was starring in Barnum’s circus at the New York Hippodrome. Bergh claimed making Salamander jump through fire was cruel. Barnum invited Bergh to the circus performance to see for himself that the he cared deeply for his animals. Here are some excerpts about what transpired from newspaper accounts: …It will be remembered that Mr Bergh compelled Mr Barnum to discontinue the act of the fire-horse Salamander, on the grounds of cruelty to the animal and danger to the audience. …Shortly after the opening of the show Superintendent Hartfield, of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, entered in command of seven of his officers. Police Captain Gunner, who originally made the report that caused Mr Bergh’s interference, was also on hand with a posse of twenty policemen, who were assigned positions around the ring.

Ever the showman, Barnum took to the center ring and announced to his audience that he might be arrested, since the police were in attendance, but he wanted to have one last demonstration. Barnum continued: The patent fact is just this: Mr Bergh or I must run this show. Mr Bergh has published that I have endangered the lives of my audiences. … I know more about animals than he knows. They are taught and governed only by kindness. The fire-horse Salamander’s performance has been witnessed by the Emperor of Germany, Prince Bismarck, Queen Victoria, and many of the most prominent people in Europe, and he, like other animals, being valuable, self-interest demands protection and proper treatment. In this performance not a hair of the horse is singed.

…The horse Salamander was then brought into the ring by Prince Nagaard, its trainer, and the fire hoops were lighted. Mr Barnum ran his hand through the blaze, and then stepped through the flaming circle, hat in hand. Ten clowns performed a number of ludicrous antics through the hoops, and then the horse parsed through without showing any signs of fear and without singeing a hair Mr. Barnum had not yet finished the illustration, however, for he requested Superintendent Hartfield to walk through the still blazing hoops. Without hesitation he did so, and he got more applause than Mme Dockrill in her four-horse act. Superintendent Hartfield then stated that his superior, Mr Bergh, had evidently made a mistake in the matter; that there was neither cruelty nor danger in the performance, and that the society had no cause for action. Amid the wildest excitement and cheers for the plucky Barnum, Captain Gunner, looking somewhat crestfallen, withdrew his officers, and the show went on. Salamander again went through his tricks last night without interruption. Apparently the “fire” was not fire at all but something perhaps resembling a sparkler, the kind you used to play with as a kid on the 4th of July, where you could run your hand over the tops of them, but not singe a single hair.

Bridgeport’s Bergh Statue

Upon his death in 1891, Barnum left money to Bridgeport, where he served as mayor, to erect a statue in his friend Bergh’s honor. Over the years, the two had become respectful of each other’s passion for the care of animals. A tall monument with a fountain topped by a horse was erected in Seaside Park, near the corner of Iranistan Avenue, where Barnum’s grand mansion of the same name once stood. Today, the fountain is filled with plants since there are no longer horses passing by that need a drink from the water trough. The statue is a long-lost reminder that Bergh and Barnum both used each other to forward their own public relations agendas. Some credit them with establishing the animal rights movement in America. I wonder if Bergh and Barnum are having a good laugh at the pearly gates over history’s twist of fate. Earlier this year, the ASPCA, along with other groups, helped to bring down The Greatest Show on Earth. After 147 years, the Ringling Bros . and Barnum & Bailey Circus, closed for good, ending an era of bringing happiness to millions through animal entertainment. As P.T. Barnum once said, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.”

Lisa Peterson writes about history, horses, and hounds at lisaunleashed.com; contact her at lisa@lisaunleashed.com.

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