In one of a cluster of six shabby little frame houses at Hoyt and Livingston Streets, Brooklyn, stubbornly holding their own there against the huge overshadowing business buildings reared all about them, there lived until yesterday a hermit spinster, Miss Octavia Fredericks. The neighborhood was full of stories of her, many of them purely legendary and most of them second-hand, for the neighbors did not see her. A cripple, she clung to the two rooms around the barber shop at 26 Hoyt Street, never leaving the rooms once in 3 years, and never allowing anyone to enter them except the twelve cats…and the barber.— The New York Times, November 29, 1912

Octavia Fredericks, 24 Hoyt Street, Brooklyn, 1912

The Cat Lady’s Tiny Apartment at 24 Hoyt Street

“Miss Frederich always insisted upon having twelve cats,” the barber said. “She had twelve cats always with her in the two little rooms. She was superstitious about twelve cats. She did not care what kinds of cats there were as long as there were twelve of them, and many times a day she would round them up and take roll call to see that she had the twelve. If one cat died, I’d have to get her another one.”— New York Herald, November 29, 1912

On December 5, 1912, one week after Thanksgiving, hundreds of Christmas shoppers in the Fulton Street department store district of downtown Brooklyn observed what The New York Times called “a lively cat hunt.” About eight cats that had been living with a single elderly woman at 24 Hoyt Street were making a nuisance in the neighborhood, and so the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was called in to round them up.

All of these cats had survived a fire in their mistress’ tiny apartment, which took the life of Octavia Frederich (aka Friedrick, Fredericks, and Friedrich) and four other cats on Thanksgiving Day.


This 1887 Brooklyn map of Hoyt Street shows the Friedrich family’s real estate holdings at the northwest corner of Hoyt and Livingston. In 1912, #24 Hoyt Street was actually two brick buildings occupied by Anthony Oreckinto’s barber shop, a tailor shop, and Octavia Friedrich’s tiny apartment. The small one-story frame building (#26) was a newspaper store, and #30 was a three-story frame building that housed R.C. Eldert upholsterers. In the late 1880s, the family lived at #30 Hoyt (aka #201 Livingston) and Octavia’s brothers, Alphonse and Ernest, operated a stained glass-making facility in the rear of #16-18 Hoyt Street. Across the street, at #19-23 Hoyt Street, was a boarding and livery stable. New York Public Library digital collections.

Although detailed reports of the fatal fire in The New York Times, New York Herald, New York Tribune, and Brooklyn Eagle vary quite a bit – for example, the Times said that Octavia was 70, crippled from birth, and lived in a two-room apartment at 26 Hoyt Street; the Eagle said she was 60, was crippled by a stroke about 10 years earlier, and had four rooms at 24 Hoyt Street – I’m leaning much more toward trusting the Brooklyn paper on this one (although she about 72, not 60).

After all, while the Times reported that Octavia owned six frame houses between Fulton and Livingston streets, the Eagle was more accurate in stating that her property consisted of four dwellings: two small, two-story brick buildings, a one-story frame store, and a three-story frame house at the northwest corner of Hoyt and Livingston streets. One just needs to look at the Brooklyn map above from 1887, this 1904 Brooklyn map, and this 1916 Brooklyn map to see that the Times did not get the story quite right.

The Poor, Land-Rich Woman

Born in Metz, Alsace-Lorraine, Octavia Friedrich was the daughter of Celestine Celestine Friedrich and Charles W. Frederich, a tailor. Sometime around 1862, the family, including 22-year-old Octavia and her siblings, Amelie, 20, Alphonse, 28, Lucy, 21, and Ernest, 18, left France to move to America. They settled in Brooklyn on property once occupied by Brooklyn Mayor Samuel Smith’s farm, and Charles and Celestine began investing in real estate. According to the census, all five siblings were still single and living with their parents in the three-story frame house at 201 Livingston Street in Brooklyn in 1865.

St. Thomas Church, New York

Alphonse and Ernest Friedrich were both trained in stained glass making. They established a successful business in the rear of a family-owned building at 16-18 Hoyt Street, specializing in masterpieces for wealthy New Yorkers and churches across America. One of their first projects was St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street, shown here around 1883. This church, which was designed by Richard Upton and constructed from 1865 to 1870, was destroyed in a horrific fire in 1905. By that time, Ernest had passed away and Alphonse had moved to San Diego with his wife, Mary Ann Walker.

With both her sisters married and gone (Lucy married a prominent Brooklyn music teacher but died before 1875, and Amelie moved to the Seattle area with Brooklyn attorney Newton H. Crittenden), Octavia continued living at 201 Livingston Street with her mother until Catherine died in February 1893.

According to the terms her mother’s will, Octavia had a life interest in the four buildings comprising #24-30 Hoyt Street, even though the real estate holdings had been divided among the three living siblings. A quarrel reportedly ensued over this division, causing a rift between Octavia and her surviving brother and sister.

Fast-forward 10 years to 1905, when the Friedrich estate sold 16-18 Hoyt Street to Abraham & Straus for a reported $100,000. The department store called the 5-story building the Men’s Building, as it was dedicated to men’s apparel.

Abraham & Straus, Brooklyn, Fulton Street, 1915

Founded in Brooklyn as Wechsler & Abraham by Abraham Abraham and Joseph Wechsler in 1865, the first store was at 285 Fulton Street. The department store became Abraham & Straus in 1893, when the Straus family (including Isidor Straus, who 19 years later died on the Titanic) bought out Wechsler’s interest in the store. Abraham & Straus continued to expand in the early 20th century, acquiring the estate of Josiah T. Smith (442-444 Fulton Street) and constructing new buildings on Livingston Street. By 1912, Octavia Friedrich was living in the shadows of A&S (pictured here on Fulton Street in 1915). Museum of the City of New York Collections

By 1912, all of the remaining Friedrich holdings on Hoyt Street were in bad repair, and, due to a high assessed value, barely paid enough rent to pay the high taxes.

According to the Brooklyn Eagle, Octavia’s apartment comprised a small kitchen and three small rooms that were filled with so much rubbish – boxes, old tins cans, milk and wine bottles — they were impassable. The cats lived in the rubbish-filled rooms, while Octavia spent her time in the kitchen, where she had an old coal stove and rusty range, an upholstered chair, a bureau, a small sink, and a tatterred mattress perched atop boxes (a good bed was wrapped up and propped against a wall and did not appear to be used).

Southeast corner of Hoyt and Livingston Street, Brooklyn

During the early 1900s, construction was taking place all around Octavia Friedrich. This photo of the southeast corner of Hoyt and Livingston, looking east down Hoyt, shows the old Ludwig Baumann Store at #35 on the left. This site had previously been a a paint shop and a carriage making facility in several frame buildings. New York Public Library Digital Collections

The Thanksgiving Fire

On November 28, 1912, Octavia reportedly told a neighbor she would be cooking a small turkey for Thanksgiving. Some reports suggest she fell asleep and hot coals from the stove fell through the cracks and set fire to some gunnysacks; other reports theorize that a cat tipped over a kerosene lantern. Whatever the cause, that night around 6 p.m., Patrolman John Shaughnessy of the Adams Street police station saw flames through the dust-smeared second-floor windows of the building and pulled the fire alarm.

The first fire engine to arrive on the scene was Engine 126 from State Street, just a few blocks away. Brooklyn Fire Department Chief Charles Furey made his way through the unlocked door in the hallway, but the entrance to the three back rooms was blocked, so he had to force the door to the kitchen. By this time the apartment was filled with black smoke, and the fireman could barely see anything as they put out the fire.

Engine Company 126 of the Brooklyn Fire Department

Engine Company 126 of the Brooklyn Fire Department was established in January 1889 as Engine 26 and was stationed at 409 State Street, pictured here. One year after the fire at Octavia’s apartment, when the old Brooklyn numbers were changed to the 200s, the company was renamed Engine 226. Today, Engine 226 is still housed in this Queen Anne firehouse.

The Barber and the Will

When the firemen returned to the streets, they were met by two women who came out of a restaurant yelling, “Did you find the body? Did you find old Mrs. Fredericks?”

The men went back into the kitchen, where they found her in the upholstered chair by the stove. Ambulance Surgeon Buckley from the Brooklyn Hospital said he thought she had suffocated from smoke inhalation, which was confirmed by undertaker W. Fred Moore.

Anthony Oreckinto, barber, 24 Hoyt Street, Brooklyn

Anthony Oreckinto told police he collected Octavia’s rents, made deposits into her banks, and watched over her securities.

Police got suspicious, however, when Anthony Oreckinto, the barber with a troubled past (his sister shot and killed her husband, and his mother died in a fire at 325 Atlantic Avenue a few years earlier), told them that he was the sole beneficiary of Octavia’s will.

Anthony, who lived nearby at 159 Hoyt Street, told police he had been collecting all the rents and depositing the money in the bank for Olivia Friedrich for the past few years. The last rents he collected totaled $498, which he turned over to her in cash just two days before. Aside from her cats, he said he was the only one ever allowed in her apartment.

“She told me that I had been her good friend for many years; that she had had a bitter quarrel with her relatives, and that she felt that by making the will she was only doing the fair thing by me,” Anthony said.

The barber also said he had signed the will on September 26 in the presence of two witnesses, and that one copy was in a drawer in her room and the original was in a safe deposit box at the the new Dime Savings Bank on Fulton Street.

Three people came forward to dispute this claim, including R.P. Chittenden, Amelie’s nephew by marriage; Russell Walker, Alphonse’s brother-in-law; and Mrs. Laura Morris, who rented a basement from Octavia in which she operated a restaurant.

Octavia Friedrich's will

Anthony Oreckinto claimed that a piece of paper with a few penciled lines and a signature was proof that he was the sole beneficiary of Octavia Friedrich’s property.

The nephew said Octavia Friedrich was in no condition to write a will because she was “deranged” – hence all the rubbish and cats in her apartment. Russell said she was far less rich than the neighborhood gossip reported her to be because she only had a life interest in the property and could not sell the Hoyt Street buildings. Mrs. Morris said she always paid her rent directly to Octavia, and that Octavia had recently confided in her that a man had approached her and asked her to sign a piece of paper.

Because Lieutenant James Kennedy had noted earlier that Octavia’s clothes smelled as if they had been soaked in kerosene, an investigation was ordered. Lieutenant William Roddy alongside Fire Marshall Brophy conducted a thorough investigation but concluded that the fire accidental, and that Octavia’s death was caused by suffocation and burns.

Amelie Friedrich Chittenden

Amelie Marie Friedrich Chittenden and her brother Alphonse inherited all of the family’s real estate holdings on Hoyt and Madison streets in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of J. Zobel, Amelie’s great-granddaughter.

In June 1913, Kings County Surrogate Judge Herbert T. Ketcham declared the will invalid. Records showed that the only property she owned outright was 323 Madison Street — now the site of the Hattie Carthan Playground — which was valued at about $8,000 (the deed was dated June 4, 1898).

The Hoyt Street property — 140 feet on Hoyt and 60 on Livingston — was valued at $150,000 to $175,000. The judge turned this property over to Alphonse and Amelie.

Eight years after the fatal fire, 24 Hoyt Street was advertised as the Rose Waist Shop (Rose Shirtwaist Company). Next door, at 22 Hoyt Street, a flower shop was operated by Charles Abrams. By 1928, all the old buildings at the northwest corner of Hoyt and Livingston had been demolished to make way for the large Art Deco addition to A&S designed by Van Vlech and Starrett and constructed from 1929-1930.

Today, Abraham & Straus — now Macy’s — is an amalgamation of 8 buildings between Hoyt, Fulton, Livingston, and Gallatin Place. And the old boarding and livery stable that was once across from Octavia’s apartment is a giant parking garage for the department store.

Hoyt and Livingston Street, Brooklyn, Macy's

Samuel Smith, born in Huntington, Long Island, in 1788, purchased the easterly portion of the old Tunis G. Johnson farm on the Old Road (Fulton Street) in 1811 (14 acres), for $6,000. He added to this property in 1815 and 1818, and pursued a farming and milk business until about 1825. Little by little he sold of this land, making him one of Brooklyn’s wealthiest citizens. He was elected 10th mayor of Brooklyn in 1850. Today Samuel Smith’s farm is occupied in part Macy’s Downtown Brooklyn, shown here in Google Earth at the northwest corner of Hoyt and Livingston Street. Imagine, just 100 years ago, twelve cats made their home here in a tiny four-room apartment.

George Techow trained cats

Herr George Techow’s trained felines could walk on their front feet, jump through hoops of fire, jump over each other on a tightrope, and perform other acts that astonished vaudeville audiences in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In later years, George’s daughter, Alice, took over the act.

“His collection of tabbies is the only show made up entirely of feline soubrettes that was ever organized in the world. Everything they do is performed with the upmost grace. They are as clever as any trick dogs or monkeys and much more entertaining to watch.” – Los Angeles Herald, September 6, 1896

A Vagrant Catch is the Easiest to Teach

In the winter of 1895, about 18 trained cats dubbed “the latest sensation in European music halls” by the Philadelphia Times in October of that year made their New York City debut at Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Theatre Music Hall on Broadway.

Under the care of trainer Herr Professor George Techow of Hamburg, Germany, these performing felines could walk on their front feet, jump through hoops of fire, jump over each other on a tightrope, and perform other acts that astonished vaudeville audiences.

Herr George Techow's performing cats

Herr George Techow’s performing cats in March 1901 (San Francisco Call). Muller is all the way at the right, wearing his hat and Judy collar.

Herr Techow had been working as an animal trainer at Hagenbach, Germany, when it occurred him that the first person to successfully train cats to perform would be a big hit. He also realized it would take an immense amount of time and patience, but he was determined to give it a try.

Angora and Persian cats were all the rage at this time, so Techow got 10 of the prettiest Angoras he could find. He tried, for over a year, to teach them a few simple tricks, without success. As Techow often told the press – and as was later recalled in the book Concerning Cats: My Own and Some Others — the Angora cats had been bred simply for their good looks. They were lazy, he said, and as a result of inbreeding and generations living with rich folk, they had become “stupid and inert.”

Herr Techow trained cats

“I cannot teach a kitten. I take them from a year to two or three years old, and train them three years longer before it is safe to put them on the stage with confidence in their performing the tricks they may have mastered.” — Herr Techow

“Only one of the 10 showed any intelligence,” Herr Techow said. “I realized I’d have to use cats from the streets, ownerless felines.” He explained that he “picked street cats that had a bad reputation in the quarter where they prowled, cats that were adept at stealing food from kitchens and butcher shops, for I knew these were unusually intelligent.

“A vagrant cat is the easiest to teach, the quickest to learn,” Techow explained. “Just as a street gamin gets his wits sharpened by his vagrant life, the stray, half-starved cat, forced to defend himself from foes and to snatch his living where he can, has his perceptive faculties quickened and his brain-cells enlarged.”

Herr Techow was always quick to point out that he never whipped his cats (although he sometimes tapped a whip on the ground as a signal), because fear and punishment do not work with cats. They simply do not understand the purpose of punishment, and, as he told the press, a cat never forgets a blow, nor licks the boot that has kicked him. Although the cats would often misbehave as cats are wan to do, once they got on stage they were all business.

“It can take years to train a cat,” Techow told The New York Times in 1903. “I can train 12 dogs to perform a number of tricks in the same time it takes to train one cat to perform the simplest act.”

According to Helen Maria Winslow, author of the aforementioned book, the cats were quite fond of their trainer, and would welcome him into a room with purrs and meows. Each cat had a little wire cage for traveling filled with a layer of hay and sawdust, and when Techow opened the cages, the cats would scramble all over him. (At home they slept in an enormous wicker basket with eight compartments. While on stage, the cats occupied little compartments or tables while awaiting their turn to perform.)

Techow's Cats

“They are exceedingly well trained little beasts, even if not particularly intelligent, and they do with moderately well-concealed reluctance many things that are wonderful in that they are directly opposed to all feline methods and principles.” The New York Times, May 19, 1896

Herr Techow’s Trained Cats Wow New York City Audiences

Following their European tour, including some performances at the Empire Theatre and London Pavilion in London, Herr Techow’s trained cats came to America to wow audiences in cities like Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York. The cat’s first tour took place in 1895, but according to news reports, it looks like they came back a few times in 1902 and 1905.

As the Morning Telegraph reported on April 6, 1905:

It is usually considered that the cat, while a useful as well as ornamental feature in domestic life, is rather difficult to train, but George Techow has succeeded in bringing fifteen or twenty of these midnight prowlers to a point where they are really cultured animals and capable of furnishing no end of amusement. To be sure, many of the feats partake of the usual stunts on the back fence, but they are quite cultivated in spite of that and show the care taken in their education.

Herr Techow's cats

Before coming to America, Herr Techow’s cats amazed audiences in London and other European cities.

In October 1895, the performing cats took the stage for the first time in New York City at Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Theatre Music Hall on Broadway. One of the stars of the show was Muller, the clown cat, who always brought down the house with his antics. Muller wore a hat and a “Judy collar,” and would run circles around his feline co-stars in the way a circus clown would run around the elephants to get a few laughs.

Other stars of the show included Fuchs, a ginger cat from Switzerland who could box with his master or turn a spinning wheel (when he had enough of spinning the wheel, he’d scratch Herr Techow as if so say, “I’ve had enough.”) Peter and Paul from Saxony performed on a trapeze, and other cats like Angot, a white cat from Paris, Bossy, Max (angry but clever) Mietze, and Muller’s son, took part in other various stunts.

Herr Techow's trained cats

Several cats were trained to walk across a tightrope, which they did easily by using their tails like balancing poles. Herr Techow said he tried to teach some cats to do somersaults, but that just made them go crazy.

Cat on a Cool Roof at the Olympia Theatre

In the summer of 1886, Herr Techow’s cats were invited to perform at Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Theatre roof garden. At 44th and Broadway, the Olympia Theatre took up an entire city block and was covered with a 65-foot high frosted-glass roof. The roof garden was lit with 3,000 electric lights (this illumination initiated a trend that would transform the emerging theater district into the Great White Way), and water pumped from a refrigerated tank in the basement flowed through pipes in the roof to keep it cool.

Olympia Theatre

The massive, block-wide structure of Indiana limestone was designed by J. B. McElfatrick & Son. When it opened on November 25, 1895, the Olympia Theatre was only the second theater to open in what is now known as the Theater District. The first was the Empire Theatre, on the southeast corner of 40th Street and Broadway, which opened in 1893. Museum of the City of New York Collections

The cats must have been very tempted to break free from their performance and explore the roof’s rustic alpine features. The roof featured rock crags and a stream that flowed into a 40-foot-long lake. Not unlike Hammerstein’s “Dutch farm” atop his Paradise Roof Garden at 42nd Street and 7th Avenue, the roof garden at the Olympia had live swans imported from Russia, South American monkeys, a duck pond, little cabins, gardens, and a wooden bridge. There was also a promenade around the building that provided views of New Jersey and beyond Central Park.

Oscar Hammerstein's Olympia Theatre

The Olympia Theatre, also known as Hammerstein’s Olympia, was located at 1514-16 Broadway, at 44th Street. The theater complex, built for use by Oscar Hammerstein I in what was then called Longacre Square (today’s Times Square), featured two main auditoriums (Lyric and Music Hall), two small theaters (Concert Hall and Roof Garden), an Oriental café, billiards and bowling facilities. One 50-cent ticket admitted patrons to the entire entertainment complex.

Unfortunately, the giant theater complex proved a quick failure and bankrupted Oscar Hammerstein (although he quickly re-established himself at the aforementioned theater on 42nd Street). On June 29, 1898, the debt-laden Olympia was auctioned off to new owners, who remodeled the Olympia into three theaters:

The 2,800-seat Olympia Music Hall was reduced to a 1,675-seat playhouse called the New York Theatre. The Olympia’s other playhouse, the 1,700-seat Lyric, was reduced to about 900 seats and renamed the Criterion, and the roof garden was enclosed into a conventional 925-seat theater called Jardin de Paris.

The Olympia Theatre Music Hall,

The Olympia Theatre Music Hall, where Techow’s trained cats once performed, featured six tiers of box seats and five balconies. In 1899, it was reduced to a 1,675-seat playhouse called the New York Theatre.

For a brief time the New York Theatre operated as the Moulin Rouge (1912), but it reverted to the New York Theatre a year later. In 1915, a young Marcus Loew took over the New York Theatre and the roof theater, and converted them into movie cinemas. Admission prices were the lowest on Broadway – just 10 or 15 cents depending on time of day.

In 1935, the buildings were demolished to make way for a new cinema built by B.S. Moss called the Criterion, plus retail stores and a dance hall called the International Casino nightclub (historians are unclear as to whether some or all buildings in the complex were demolished and rebuilt, or the shells were gutted and remodeled). The 1,700-seat Criterion Theatre opened in September 1936 and was later leased to Loew’s for about 20 years.

The Criterion Theatre at the northeast corner of Broadway and 44th Street

The Criterion Theatre at the northeast corner of Broadway and 44th Street in 1920.

In March 1980, the Criterion Theatre was converted into five large movie screens. The theater — named the Criterion Center Stage Right in 1988 — continued to operate in the seedy Times Square district until the spring of 2000, when it was gutted to become the massive Toys R Us flagship store with 60-foot Ferris wheel we know today.

As for Herr Techow’s cats, they went on to continue performing with George’s daughter, Alice, until about 1925. More recently, the Moscow Cats Theatre made its debut in New York City — I had a chance to attend this show, and although it certainly made me laugh, I do have to wonder if the cats are being treated humanely.

If you didn’t get a chance to see the show when it came to the United States, you can check out this and other videos–or should I say videows –on You Tube.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Toys 'R Us on Broadway, think about Muller the clown cat and all the other cats that once performed where this Ferris Wheel now stands.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Toys ‘R Us on Broadway, think about Muller the clown cat and all the other cats that once performed where this Ferris Wheel now stands.

Giraffes at P.T. Barnum

In September 1853, two giraffes that had been captured in Africa for the Royal Menagerie of Cairo appeared at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. The male, Colossal, was 17 feet tall, and the female, Cleopatra, was 15½ feet tall. Barnum advertised the pair as “The Only Giraffes in America.”

When most of us hear the name P.T. Barnum, we automatically think of the circus and “The Greatest Show on Earth.” But many years before P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus made its debut in 1870 — and 40 years before he partnered with James A. Bailey – Phineas Taylor Barnum rose to fame with a very large collection of artificial and natural curiosities from around the world that he displayed at his American Museum in New York City.

P. T. Barnum's American Museum

P.T. Barnum’s American Museum occupied a large, 5-story marble building on the southeast corner of Broadway and Ann Street from 1841 to 1865.

In Part I of the American Museum story, I wrote about the history of the museum, which once stood at the southeast corner of Ann Street and Broadway. Then in Part II, I explored the fascinating history behind the land at this famous Manhattan intersection. In this final post, I write about the animals at Barnum’s museum — including the whales and the Happy Family — and the horrendous fire that took their lives in 1865.

Whale Watching on Broadway

On July 1, 1861, the New York City Board of Alderman granted permission for Phineas T. Barnum to lay a six-inch cast-iron pipe from the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, down Fulton Street, under the Washington Market, and into what was then called the North River (Hudson). The work, which was supervised by the Croton Aqueduct Department, cost Mr. Barnum $7,000.

Looking at the whale

Although the Beluga whales were originally kept in a large “pool” in the basement, P.T. Barnum later put his whales on display in a large tank on the second floor of his museum so that it would be easier for the people to observe them. The tank was about 25 feet long and six feet deep.

When it was completed, the pipe allowed Barnum to use a powerful steam engine to pump salt water – at the rate of 300 gallons per minute – into a large Beluga whale tank on the second floor of his American Museum.

Beluga whale in tank Boston Aquaria Gardens

P.T. Barnum got his idea to bring live whales to his American Museum after watching a young girl being pulled around in a clam-shell boat by a Beluga whale in a large tank at the Boston Aquarial Gardens sometime around 1860.

Barnum’s original plan was to keep his live whales in a “pool” that he and his partner, Professor Henry D. Butler, built in the basement of the large five-story marble building. The first whale to use this pool was a nine-foot Beluga from Isle Aux Coudres on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. The whale was transported to New York in a refrigerated train car and lived just nine months in captivity.

According to Professor Butler, who spoke to The New York Times in 1897 about his whaling adventures, Barnum later moved the whales to the second floor, where he installed a large 25-foot tank that he had purchased from the Boston Aquarial Gardens. All total, the American Museum spent $17,000 in 1861 in attempt to exhibit a living whale.

The Museum having expended altogether a sum not much less than $17,000 in the whaling business, this is probably the last attempt that will be made to exhibit a living whale in connection with the other expensive attractions of the Museum for only twenty-five cents. With these remarks, I leave this monster leviathan to do his own “spouting,” not doubting that the public will embrace the earliest moment (before it is forever too late) to witness the most novel and extraordinary exhibition ever offered them in this City. — P.T. Barnum, November 1861

Between 1861 and 1865, at least nine known whales were placed into captivity and put on display at the American Museum. The last two whales arrived on June 26, 1865, as was announced in The New York Times.

The Aquaria

In addition to whales, Barnum’s American Museum featured a second-floor Aquaria with about 40 large tanks made of marble, glass, and iron that contained turtles, eels, alligators, crocodiles, snakes, and an “educated seal” named Ned (Ned lived in an small tank on a sand bank surrounded by bird cages).

The Happy Family

While traveling in Scotland sometime in the 1850s, P.T. Barnum visited an exhibition called The Happy Family, which featured about 200 birds and animals, including predators and prey, supposedly living in harmony in one cage. Barnum bought the exhibition and installed it in his American Museum. The Happy Family suggested that love really could conquer all, and was designed to demonstrate how so many different species could dwell together in peace and unity.

Considered one of the most interesting of the many curiosities exhibited at the museum, the Happy Family was located on the third floor, south side of the building, and consisted of a long wire cage, about 10 x 5 feet. Inside were dogs, cats, monkeys, anteaters, squirrels, mice and rats, parrots, chickens, ducks, turkeys, quails and pheasants, guinea pigs, rabbits, turtles, snakes, frogs, robins, pigeons, and more.

P.T. Barnum's Happy Family

The Happy Family was described in An Illustrated Catalogue and Guide Book To Barnum’s American Museum (1860) as “a miscellaneous collection of beasts and birds (upwards of sixty in number), living together harmoniously in one large cage, each of them being the mortal enemy of every other, but contentedly playing and frolicking together, without injury or discord.”

The Great Fire of 1865

Those animals and other creatures may have been happy, but they didn’t smell nicely; they doubtless lived respectable, but…to tell the truth, they frequently fought fiercely, and were badly beaten for it. However, they are gone; all burned to death, roasted whole, with stuffing au naturel, and in view of their lamentable end we may well say, “Peace to their ashes.” — The New York Times, July 14, 1865

On July 13, 1865, Thomas Floyd-Jones, the assistant foreman of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Hose Company No. 1, happened to be on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane when he saw flames shooting out from the front of the museum. Floyd-Jones later wrote about the American Museum fire in his book Backward Glances, Reminiscences of an Old New Yorker.

The fire had reportedly started in the basement engine room, which was used to produce the steam to pump fresh air into the Aquaria and propel the fans that kept the halls cool. By the time Mr. Tiffany, the treasurer, had run to the roof to open a large water tank, flames were bursting through the second floor and observed on the third floor near the stage. The water tank in which the whales were kept was reportedly broken in attempt to flood the floor and extinguish the fire.

American Museum fire

The American Museum burned to the ground on July 13, 1865. Museum of the City of New York Collections

At this time, the New York Fire Department was in the process of merging into a paid system. Although many of the volunteer firemen were disgruntled, several of the old volunteer companies stepped in to help out at the fire, including a few companies from the Brooklyn Volunteer Fire Department, which responded by way of the Fulton Ferry.

Alfred Dorlon

Alfred Dorlon was known as the Great Oysterman of Fulton Market. I imagine Ned the seal considered himself very lucky to escape the fire and land in a giant fish tank filled with oysters.

The fire burned the whole front on Broadway between Ann and Fulton, including Knox’s and White’s hat stores, and destroyed all the buildings down Fulton Street, nearly reaching the New York Herald offices at Nassau Street. The fire also took the lives of all the animals in the Happy Family exhibit and all the fish and other creatures in the Aquaria, including the two new whales that had just arrived two weeks before (one whale carcass was reportedly left to rot on Broadway for several days after the conflagration).

One of the animals that was rescued from the fire was Ned, the learned seal. Ned was quite popular with the public for his ability to “play” the hand organ, and had performed for many visitors over the years, including Abraham and Mary Lincoln and their sons Robert, Todd, Willie, and Thomas (they visited in February 1860), and Joseph F. Smith, who was very impressed with Ned when he saw him in July 1863.

According to Thomas Floyd-Jones, Ned was saved by Clifford C. Pearson, a member of the Atlantic Hose Co. No 1. Pearson reportedly took the seal under his arm, placed him in a basket, and pulled him by cart to the Fulton Street Market, where he placed him in Alfred P. Dorlon’s fish trough.

Fireman's Hall, Henry Street, Brooklyn

One of the companies that responded to the American Museum fire was the Atlantic Hose Company No. 1, the oldest hose company in Brooklyn. Organized as the Atlantic Hose and Relief Company on November 27, 1835, in a vacant store at 132½ Fulton Street, the company was made up of merchants, lawyers, and other professionals. Its first headquarters was a shed on High Street, but in 1836 it moved to the old Firemen’s Hall on Poplar Street. In 1851 the company moved to the new Firemen’s Hall on Henry Street, pictured here, and later, it was stationed at 12 High Street. The company remained active until 1869, when Brooklyn’s first paid professional Fire Department went into operation and the volunteer system was disbanded.

In addition to Ned the seal, two bears also reportedly survived the fire. Samson, a grizzly bear, had been removed just before the fire began, and another large bear was reportedly lowered down from a fire escape by a chain. Some news reports tell of of a polar bear that escaped and walked down the street to the Custom House (where it then fell from a balcony and broke its neck), and of animals jumping from windows to escape the flames.

The ruins of P.T. Barnum American Museum

The remains of several animals were reportedly discovered in the ruins, including a whale and a crocodile. Museum of the City of New York Collections

Barnum’s New American Museum at 539-541 Broadway

Not easily defeated, Barnum quickly picked up the pieces and began looking for new curiosities to replace those he lost in order to fill his new museum at the old Chinese Museum building at 539-541 Broadway, between Prince and Spring streets.

As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on July 15, 1865:

“He is already in negotiation with the leaders of the Republican party, who are expected to be a welcome substitute for the Happy Family. The man who tamed that cat so that it took the rat to its embrace, is confident that he can keep the discordant leaders of the Republican ranks quiet in the same cage.”

Maybe today’s Republican Party would be open to a similar suggestion…

Barnum's New American Museum

Barnum reopened his museum in the old Chinese Rooms, formerly known as Buckley’s Opera House, home of Buckley’s Serenaders, a famous minstrel troupe in the 1850s. The museum featured a large lecture hall, pictured here.

In addition to setting up shop at a new location, Barnum was also able to quickly sell his land lease for $200,000 to James Gordon Bennett, who bought the property from Olmstead for $500,000. Out of the ashes of the old museum then arose the new marble building of The New York Herald.

In May 1895, the New York Herald building was razed to make way for a skyscraper built by Henry Osborne Havermeyer, the president of the Sugar Trust, who had reportedly purchased the property for about $900,000. Called the St. Paul building, the skyscraper stood at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street from 1899 until 1958, when it too was razed in the name of progress to make way for the Wester Electric Building, which still stands today at 222 Broadway.

The New York Herald Building around 1875.

The New York Herald Building around 1875.

St. Paul Building, New York

At 315 feet tall, the St. Paul Building was one if the tallest buildings at the time when it was completed in 1899.

Incidentally, P.T. Barnum’s New American Museum was destroyed by fire in 1868. I’ll save that for another story some other time.