Following the last post on P.T. Barnum and Joseph Leidy, below is a reprint of the Fall 2011 article as it appeared in the Academy’s Members Magazine, Frontiers.
Article by Brandon Zimmerman and Clare Flemming, ANSP Brooke Dolan Archivist.
What could the world’s most famous showman and the father of evolutionary theory possibly have in common? They, among thousands of other 19th-century notables, corresponded with the pre-eminent scientist of their time, Dr. Joseph Leidy (1823-1891). Leidy was an Academy curator for decades and the Academy president from 1882 until
his death. His expertise spanned so many disciplines that he is remembered today for expertise in fields as diverse as vertebrate paleontology and parasitology.
The Academy Archives contain close to 3,000 handwritten letters from a vast and varied selection of individuals who sought Leidy’s opinion. Two of the most legendary and unusual correspondents represent the extremes of the broad spectrum of authorities in natural history: evolutionist Charles Darwin and circus showman P.T. Barnum.
Darwin’s letter, in which he comments on Leidy’s support of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, is an Archival gem; Academy staff display it with great reverence for visiting VIPs and researchers. Barnum’s letter came about after his purchase of Jumbo, an elephant that he believed to be the largest in the world. While touring in Philadelphia, Barnum wrote to naturalist Leidy to request an evaluation of this extraordinary creature’s size. His
letter was newly revealed when Brooke Dolan Archivist Clare Flemming shared the collection of Leidy’s correspondence with scholar Brandon Zimmerman. Not satisfied with reading a list of signatories, the scholar asked to see the actual letters. He may
have been the first to recognize the Barnum letter as having been written by the famous showman. A typo in the Academy’s Guide to Manuscripts listing the letter as belonging to “N.T. Barnum” may have caused other scholars to overlook Barnum’s correspondence. Below we present a few lines from these letters:
March 4, 1860
Dear Sir, Your note has pleased me more than you could readily believe; for I have during a long time heard all good judges speak of your palaeontological labours in terms of the highest respect. Most palaeontologists (with some few good exceptions) entirely despise my work; consequently approbation from you has gratified me much. Your sentence that you have some interesting facts “in support of the doctrine of selection, which I shall report
at a favourable opportunity,” has delighted me even more than the rest of your note. Pray forgive this egotistical note and with cordial thanks for your letter … Believe me Dear Sir, With sincere respect, Yours obliged,
April 28, 1882
Prof. Leidy D[ea]r Sir,
I hope you will examine the Jumbo & write me to Arlington House Washington whether you think he is really an ordinary [or extraordinary] Elephant.
P. T. Barnum
The art of archiving allows a lifetime of messages received and stored by the original owner to be carefully identified, curated, and housed for many years; rehoused and catalogued;
and finally—most importantly—made available to scholars to study, interpret, and present to the world.