Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 12

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Every prominent showman has had some venture into which he has put his whole heart. Nothing in my career touched and moved me like the great New York Aquarium enterprise. Into this I not only put a fortune—more hundreds of thousands of dollars than were ever put into anything of the kind before or since—but I also invested the ambitions of my life.

I was inspired by a profound desire to promote the interests of natural science in what appeared to me its most picturesque and attractive field—the marine world; and everything concerned in this mammoth undertaking exercised a strange fascination over me. All commercialism vanished, and I was as true and devoted a student of the wonders which I had collected as was the most erudite scientist that had ever looked upon that strange assemblage of creatures from the depths of arctic and torrid oceans.

Night after night I remained alone in the great museum for the purpose of studying the habits of those fishes which displayed their most peculiar traits while the world slept. The finale of this enterprise was, it seems to me, in keeping with its remarkable character, and anything less picturesque than that which actually transpired in this connection would have fallen short of poetic justice. It is not too much to say that never before had the scientific world been permitted to view so comprehensive a collection of the varied and almost numberless types of deep sea life.

Neither money nor pains was spared to the end of maintaining an aquarium approximating that of my fondest dreams. Early in the history of this gigantic enterprise I became associated with a member of one of the great animal importing houses, a German, my partner, although I undertook the active management of the institution.

The Aquarium was first opened in October, 1876, the year of the Centennial, and I think I may truthfully say that the former received as frequent mention in the press of the day as did the latter.

My connection with the Aquarium afforded me an opportunity to meet and become acquainted with the leading scientists and literary people of the day. I know of no institution of the kind that has been opened to the public under more favorable auspices. It was looked upon as an institution of education, and public and private schools attended in bodies. Men who have grown rich in the dime-museum business believe that the public do not wish instruction, but prefer to be amused with fakes. Nevertheless, the financial success of the New York Aquarium, during the period when it received its strongest support from the clergy and the men of science, has proved the allegation of the fake museum proprietors to be false.


On the first opening of the New York Aquarium I exhibited a fish from Japanese waters which was no larger than a man's hand. The Japanese name of this species is kingio, and the fish is very handsome in appearance, having three perfect tails, and is so graceful in its movements that these tails resemble folds of beautiful lace. It was presented to me by a friend of mine in Baltimore, who was in the habit of spending a portion of each year in Japan. Knowing how far advanced are the Japanese in pisciculture, this gentleman succeeded in persuading me to interest myself in their methods. I soon learned that these three-tailed fishes were the result of the Japanese system of breeding, of which they alone knew the secret, and when, on investigation, I learned that their waters contain many varieties of fish of gorgeous colors, I determined to spare no expense to possess a collection from this coast, especially after I learned that even Nature itself seemed reversed there, and that there are fishes in those waters that swim on their backs.

Supplying a trusty agent with the necessary money, I first sent him to Yokohama, with letters of introduction to some friends of mine. Here, assisted by the natives, he commenced forming his collection. The captured fish were placed in a series of tanks swung from the deck of the steamer, and so arranged that a constant flow of water from a cheaply improvised reservoir should keep the fish in a healthy condition. However, the use of this device proved the inexperience of the agent, for, although the fish managed to thrive for about twenty days' time, one after another died until, on the twenty-eighth day of the voyage, on landing in San Francisco, he was obliged to wire me that not a single fish had survived the passage. My answer was: "Take the same steamer back to Japan and try again." This he did, with somewhat better success, reaching San Francisco with eighteen live fish belonging to rare and beautiful species. From his description I judged that they could not be worth less than $1,000 each. My hopes were high for the ultimate success of the undertaking. But my pleasure was destined to be short-lived, as my agent arrived at the Aquarium with only one living fish. The changeable climate and the overland journey had been too much for the delicate beauties from Oriental waters, and one by one they had expired, leaving "a sole survivor to tell the tale."

Just as a matter of personal curiosity I figured up the cost of this precious member of the finny tribe from far-away Japan. He cost me more than $2,200 in gold. This may be scoffed at by some as a very fishy fish story, but when it is remembered that this specimen represented the outlay of two expeditions from America to Japan, including expenses for tanks, Japanese assistance, and all the ocean transportation, it will easily be realized that this statement is within reasonable limits.


We were equally zealous in our efforts to obtain the largest living creatures of the deep; and the fact that we exhibited live whales from the Isle Aux Condries was proof of our enterprise in this direction. Whales are timid, stupid creatures; in pursuit of small fish they run up close to the shore, and are captured by a comparatively simple method. Across the mouth of some deep bay a line of piles is driven when the water is at low tide; then the fishing fleet only awaits the arrival of a school of cetacea. These will sooner or later be seen rushing madly shoreward in pursuit of the schools of smaller fish on which they feed. When the whales are sighted the fishing vessels separate and endeavor to surround the assemblage of marine monsters. At high tide, when the line of piles is deeply submerged, the fleet crowds in toward the shore, and the frightened whales take refuge in the bay. Here they remain undisturbed, and are generally quiet until they feel the tide receding. Then they become restless, and finally make a dash for deep water, only to run against the line of piles. It would be comparatively easy for a big whale to batter a great gap in the improvised fence, and, in fact, there is frequently room enough between certain piles for him to pass through unharmed, but he is naturally timid and cowardly, and when within a yard or two of the piles, wheels about and darts back in terror toward the shore. This fruitless and exhausting manœuvre is kept up until the tide has completely gone out and he is left helpless and stranded. In all my experience in this peculiar line of live fishing I have never known a whale to break through the barrier of piles and make his escape.

The boxing and transportation to New York of these big fish was a great labor, and it often took fifty strong men several hours to get one of the monsters into its traveling case. Once in its box, water had to be poured over the back and blowholes of the imprisoned whale. The water pouring, by the way, was a monotonous and tiresome job which had to be continued without intermission during the subsequent ninety hours while the whale was being carried by vessel to Quebec, thence by rail via Montreal and Albany to New York. The water in which they lie must not cover their blow-holes, for, having no room to move they would be unable to rise and breathe and consequently would drown. Their boxes, therefore, were tight from the bottom up only as far as their eyes. Above that line there were cracks for the surplus water to flow off, and it was necessary for a man to stand over the whale and constantly drench him until the receiving tank was reached, a difficult undertaking.

I contracted to send a living whale to A. A. Stewart, of the Ætna Insurance Company, a speculator, who with others in Cincinnati decided they wanted a whale. For a certain sum of money, therefore, I agreed to land one alive in that city. This venture made me much trouble and great expense, for, notwithstanding the great care exercised the animal died enroute, and it was not until three had been lost that I succeeded, June 26, 1877, in landing one alive. This was considered a great achievement and was telegraphed all over the nation.


In 1870 my men captured the first seals, or "sea-lions," as we termed them. The hunters experienced no difficulty in ensnaring these creatures by means of wire nets. This observation is a most interesting one in view of the fact that later we found it impossible to procure them by this method, showing that their intuitive sense of self-protection had taught them to fear man and to avoid his devices. No sooner did we find that these curious creatures had learned wisdom from the experience of their unfortunate fellows than we set about to originate some other plan by which we might make captives.

Each of our first seals cost more than would five good specimens to-day, and they died before we could perfect our arrangements for exhibiting them. This was very discouraging, but we determined to try again, and our renewed efforts were rewarded with better success. One of the captives was an enormous creature and lived until the Fourteenth Street fire, when he was burned, together with $300,000 worth of other personal property.

Some of these monster sea-lions are very deceiving when seen in their native element and surroundings. At a little distance they do not appear larger than an ordinary Newfoundland dog, but when captured are found to weigh from twelve hundred to two thousand pounds, and to measure from thirteen to fifteen feet in length. It is a splendid sight to see these glossy creatures leap from overhanging cliffs into the water fully fifty feet below.

After our first capture there was a great demand for these animals from superintendents of zoological gardens in all the large cities of this and foreign countries. Realizing the large profits to be acquired by meeting this demand, I greatly desired to replenish our stock of sea-lions, and made an arrangement to that end with a man in California. We supplied him with all the money he required, which mounted high in the thousands of dollars by the time he had captured about three carloads of the interesting creatures. The man then came on to New York and delivered ten of the animals to us, stating that the others were en route. We at once wrote to the zoölogical gardens at Cincinnati and Philadelphia, offering to supply them with these rare animals. Imagine my surprise and indignation when I received answers to these communications, stating that the gardens had already procured sea-lions—from our agent! Of course we instantly made an investigation, and discovered that this crafty hunter had also supplied various European institutions with sea-lions, for the capture of which we had furnished the money. The fellow disappeared before we were thoroughly alive to the extent of the swindle which he had carried forward to such a brilliant success, and I have never seen him since. As he was "a canny Scot," he probably retired to his native heath and purchased himself a castle in the Highlands. Certainly he could easily have done this on the proceeds of his nefarious enterprise, for at that time the sea-lions commanded from $2,000 to $2,500 each in the European cities, and the market could not be satisfied even at that price. Take several carloads of sea-lions at these figures and the total would represent a snug little fortune.

Afterwards when I opened the New York Aquarium, I bought a large sea lion, had an immense tank built, and a rock cliff made for him so he could jump into the water and sport around; but he kept up such a constant barking that he became a great nuisance. Having a showman friend who intended to spend the winter in Bermuda I permitted him to take the animal for exhibition purposes. Some few weeks afterwards I was surprised to receive a note from my friend saying he had returned the sea-lion and that he would follow on the next boat. No sooner was the sea-lion comfortably ensconced in his old quarters than he again began barking to such an extent that I heartily wished him in the Atlantic. His appetite, too, was most voracious, and we could scarcely get enough live fish to satisfy him. The strange thing about it was, as I learned on the arrival of my showman friend from Bermuda, the old fellow had refused food during the whole trip, and instead of barking and attracting attention, as we had hoped he would do, he had silently sulked until once more in the old home in the Aquarium. From this I gather that the barking which was so disagreeable to us must have been his expression of joy. The fact that he lived so long without food is most remarkable.


So far as I am able to learn, no enterprise of the magnitude of the New York Aquarium was ever disposed of on the flip of a penny. This transaction may not, at first thought, appeal to the church people of the country as being right, and the average business man will doubtless condemn it as unbusinesslike. The attending circumstances, however, were peculiar. This true story was never made public by my partner or myself, and the transaction always had a touch of mystery in the eyes of the showmen of the country.

From the opening of the Aquarium until a certain eventful day its success, financially, scientifically and morally, was unqualified. This, as I have already intimated, was in large measure due to the enthusiastic support of clergymen, scientists and educators, whose commendations brought us the patronage of the intelligent masses with whom these eminent leaders of thought had the greatest influence.

I received scores of letters from celebrated divines indorsing the Aquarium, and these were, of course, made use of in the way of advertising. My partner was a German and could not appreciate the American feeling for the Sabbath.

He was determined to open the doors of the museum for Sunday patronage, declaring that this would bring in a very large number of people who were naturally inclined to Sabbath-day pleasure-seeking, and were quite generally interested in things of a scientific nature. He continued this campaign of argument for two years, during which I steadfastly urged that such a step would be an offense to the belief of the majority of our patrons; that it would bring into the place an undesirable element, from which it had been entirely free, and that the enterprise was enjoying a steady prosperity with which it would be wise to remain content.

Then I repeatedly tried to buy his interest in the Aquarium, but he steadfastly refused to yield a single point, and became more imperative in his demands for Sunday opening. This persistency and increasing aggressiveness at last wore me out. One Monday morning, as he dropped in at the office and once more brought up the old contention, I determined that it should be settled, in one way or another, before he left the room. Instinctively I felt there was no use offering to purchase his interest, for I had previously gone to the limit of reason in that direction.


Calmly and coolly I took a mental survey of the whole situation during a moment of silence between his arguments for Sunday opening. In addition to the Aquarium, we also had a joint interest in four giraffes and five small elephants. The Aquarium was worth at least half a million dollars, as it included the two acres of land at Coney Island, on which was located our storage and supply aquarium, from which the exhibition house was replenished with attractions.

Suddenly, as if waking out of a reverie, I fairly startled my partner with the exclamation:

"See here! we can never agree on this Sunday business in the world. I'll stump you to flip a penny to see which one of us shall take those giraffes and elephants as his portion and walk out of this place next Saturday night, leaving the other in full possession of all the Aquarium property."

"All right," he calmly answered, and led the way into the private office. There he drew up a brief statement embodying my proposition. We both signed it, and then I reached into my pocket and drew forth an old-fashioned copper cent.

"Heads I win, tails you win," said the German, as I poised the coin on the nail of my thumb. As I nodded assent to this I realized that not only my fortune, but the dearest dreams of my life depended upon the fall of that copper. More to me than this, however, was the thought that my wife had become intensely interested and strongly attached to this undertaking—so much so that it was her personal pride and joy. Still another consideration which flashed through my mind at that instant was the realization that if I lost it would mean months and years of the same sort of homeless wandering life that I had lived while building up the fortune invested in the Aquarium. These thoughts and many others flashed through my mind in less time than it takes to tell them. After scarcely a moment's hesitation I sent the coin spinning into the air. It dropped upon the desk, and I can now see just how the light fell upon the fateful "head" which transferred my fortune to my partner! Instantly I executed to him a bill of sale, covering my entire interest in the concern.