P.T. Barnum

Courtesy of the Historical Society of Cheshire County

Master showman P.T. Barnum made a big to-do out of a local horse of a

different cover.

Nineteenth-century American showman and circus pioneer P.T. Barnum is remembered today for promoting celebrated hoaxes. Young Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum in New York in 1841. He improved the attraction by upgrading the building and adding exhibits; he then renamed it “Barnum’s American Museum.”

A year after the purchase, Barnum made an announcement that a special expedition to the wild Rocky Mountains had captured “a new wonder of the world, strange and unique beyond description.” This new wonder was a horse covered with wool, like sheep’s wool, rather than hair. Barnum announced that the horse would soon be delivered to his New York museum for exhibition.

While Barnum’s claim that the horse was covered with a woolly appearing substance was true, his publicity about the creature’s capture in the wild Rockies was not quite accurate. In truth, the horse was born and bred on the farm of a Mr. Goodrich of Chesterfield.

Goodrich sold the horse to John Stearns, a horse dealer from Hinsdale. Stearns kept the horse on his farm and frequently used the animal to drive in to the village. Word of the freak reached Barnum, and he purchased the horse for $100.

Barnum delayed delivery of the woolly wonder to New York for several weeks so that he could properly arouse the public with his fantastic publicity, including the statement that the horse had been captured “at the risk of life and limb among the snow-capped impassable crags of the wildest mountains in America.” In a short time, the woolly creature was quietly delivered from Hinsdale to New York, where Barnum undoubtedly realized a handsome profit on his $100 investment.

Alan F. Rumrill is executive director of the Historical Society of Cheshire County, which has been collecting, preserving and sharing the history of the region since 1927. It’s on Main Street. To learn more about its public programs and collections, visit hsccnh.org.