At the close of a bareback-riding routine, Barnum himself entered the arena to roaring applause. He calmed the crowd and announced that though he realized he might end the day under arrest, “Mr. Bergh or I must run this show.” The hoops were set ablaze as the “fire-horse” was led into the ring by his trainer. Barnum grabbed his hat and stuck his hand into the flames. Seventy years old but spirited, the entertainer stepped through the fiery hoop, and in short order he was followed by 10 clowns, Salamander and, at Barnum’s invitation, Superintendent Hartfield of the ASPCA. Satisfied on the point of the horse’s safety, Hartfield and a delighted audience called victory for the entertainer.
Reflecting on the performance in his autobiography, Barnum refused to crush Bergh or his agenda in that moment: “Although I was forced to resent his ill-advised interference, this episode did not impair my personal regard for Mr. Bergh and my admiration of his noble works.” Perhaps the most notable legacy of Bergh and Barnum is that despite—or perhaps because of—their public sparring, the two men developed a warm and knowing friendship that elevated the profile of animal-rights advocacy at a key historical moment.
The two were chummy to mutual benefit: Bergh stocked the ASPCA library with copies of Barnum’s autobiography, and Barnum cheerily referred to himself as the “Bergh of Bridgeport” in his work on the board of the local SPCA chapter. (Barnum was the city’s mayor and lived much of his life there.) Thanks in large part to Barnum’s celebrity and the visibility it afforded the animal-rights cause, a public shift was demonstrable. The New York Tribune, which in 1874 had rolled its eyes at Bergh with the admonition that “Christ selected his apostles from a class of men whom Mr. Bergh would have prosecuted for torturing and slaying fish,” later changed its tune on Bergh’s excesses. An 1888 edition claimed: “In any large view of the subject, these ought to be soon lost to sight. The good results of his mission are almost incalculable.”
In his later years, it was clear Bergh had taken his media training to heart. In a typically plainspoken letter to Barnum, he asked: Will your estate provide for the animals whose labor has made your fame and fortune? Barnum obliged, writing sizable donations to humane organizations into his will—and for good measure, he added a bequest to the city of Bridgeport to erect a statue of Bergh. A monument in Bergh’s honor, topped with a prancing horse, was placed in Bridgeport’s Seaside Park in 1897 and stands today.
As the circus performs its last shows this month, it’s worth remembering that Barnum, for all his flaws, believed that his role was not simply to read the public taste and provide corresponding entertainment, but also to work toward the moral improvement of society (so much as the plan fit a certain white, affluent, Christian version of things). Unlike Bergh, who loved service for its own sake, Barnum openly preferred wealth through service. And he was happy to elevate a resonant social cause so long as the tide also carried his own boat. Indeed, had he been alive, Barnum may have even encouraged the elephants’ final bow: For as much as he valued his animal performers and their role in his success, if there were a time when they went so far against public opinion as to be unmarketable, he’d have been behind the final curtain, cooking up the next big thing.