200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 57: “Evolution at the Circus ”

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photo of an archival letter
The letter from P. T. Barnum to Joseph Leidy requesting an evaluation of his new circus elephant, Jumbo. Ewell Sale Stewart Library & Archives coll. 1.

Evolution at the Circus

The Academy Archives contain close to 3,000 handwritten letters from individuals who sought the opinion of the Academy’s Dr. Joseph Leidy (1823–1891), the pre-eminent scientist of his time. Among the most legendary and unusual correspondents is circus showman P.T. Barnum. 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.

Barnum’s 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 letter.

What else is hiding in the Academy’s archives? Follow our 200 stories to find out!

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