Bartholomew Fortuno: Read an extract

07 February 2011

Read a chapter extract from Ellen Bryson's The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno.

In the late 1860s, as America was recovering from Lincoln's assassination, a man named P.T. Barnum opened a museum in New York City. Filled with oddities from around the world, it also hosted a number of sideshow freaks - including Bartholomew Fortuno's narrator, the Human Skeleton. This is the atmospheric and utterly original story of how he fell in love with the Bearded Lady.

Light from April's full moon swept over the Museum's fa├žade and down the building's marble veneer. It illuminated the man-sized letters that hung high and large enough for a person as far uptown as Canal Street to see, spelling out Barnum's American Museum. From where I sat in my fourth-floor window, nearly all of Manhattan's sky was visible.

I pressed my back against the window frame and watched the moonlight dissolve a fistful of clouds. Its glow rolled across Broadway to cover the spires of St. Paul's and the front of City Hall, the mourning flag for Lincoln still listlessly hanging there, then spilled across the stables and roofs of houses abandoned to haberdashers and tailors. Most of higher society had stampeded uptown toward Fifth Avenue years ago, sticking to the highest part of the island and avoiding the land that sloped down toward the rivers on either side.

A bum staggered to a halt below me on a Broadway emptied by the encroaching night. He bellowed something indistinguishable, then tipped back on his heels to gawk, open- mouthed, up, up, up along the high Museum walls. He gazed in awe at the oval paintings of exotic tigers, whales, and a white-horned rhinoceros that were strung between each story of windows like pendants across the bosom of a well-endowed harlot. Who could blame the poor man for staring? Thousands before him had fallen for the gussied up old place, everyone from the city's poorest paupers to the families of its Upper Ten - and once even a prince. They, too, had all been enticed by the Museum's glitter. And why not? The place was irresistible. Banners and fluttering flags beckoned from the roof like welcoming hands, and a pied-piper band spewed out terrible music from the balcony twelve hours a day, every day except Sunday. "I take great pains to hire the poorest musicians I can find," Barnum liked to say. "They play so badly that the crowd moves into the Museum just to get out of earshot." Colossal gas lamps flanked the front doors, and just inside stood a huge golden statue of Apollo, his horses rearing, a lyre dangling from his naked shoulder. The great illuminator's index finger pointed toward the ticket window, just in case a visitor failed to see its shiny plaque.

The truth was, even I still found the place impressive after living here for nearly a decade. I'd been one of Phineas Taylor Barnum's Human Curiosities (viewed thrice daily under the moniker Bartholomew Fortuno, the World's Thinnest Man) since 1855, and, all in all, I could not complain about the way my life had unfolded. Few talents managed to make their way as far in the business as I had - Barnum's Museum was the pinnacle of our trade - and I made a good living off the gifts nature had given me. I had found a comfortable home.

So it was with a great sense of satisfaction that I sat on my windowsill that chilly spring night, just after the end of the War of the Rebellion, unaware that change twisted its way to me through the darkened New York streets. Mindlessly, I ran a hand lovingly across my right shoulder, never tiring of the intricacies of socket and bone, then lit a cheroot in defense against the fetid air; the local breweries, tanneries, slaughter houses, and fat- melting establishments smoldered away even in the middle of the night. Looking north I could make out Five Points, the Bowery, and the mean area around Greenwich Street that was jammed with immigrants and other unsavory folks. So many Irishmen, Italians, and Germans had crammed themselves below Houston Street that I could all but hear the clang of their knife fights. I avoided visiting that part of town. In fact, whenever possible, I avoided leaving Barnum's Museum at all. A man like me had no business in the wider world. Let the outside world come to me and pay to do it.

Catching a whiff of spring blossoms from the West Side orchards, I couldn't help but turn to Matina, who sat on my divan, tatting a lace doily to replace the one she'd stained with lamb gravy the week before. Next to her rested a tray of empty dishes from her evening snack and a pillow she'd embroidered for me years ago with the words He Who Stands with the Devil Does Himself Harm.

"I told you it was possible to smell the orchards from here, my dear. Come and sniff for yourself."

"All I smell is garbage," Matina answered, from her seat."Come away from the window, Barthy. I've something I want to show you before I leave for the night."

Matina, my friend and frequent companion, had spent the evening with me as she often did, and I was glad to have her company. She'd been a permanent fixture at the Museum for four years that spring, having come from Doc Spaulding's Floating Palace, the great boat circus that barged up and down the Mississippi. Her stage name back then was Annie Angel the Fat Girl, and although she no longer performed under that sobriquet, it suited her well. Matina was as charming as a beautiful child. With her blond finger curls, alabaster skin, and great blue eyes that gazed out at the world as if she were seeing it for the first time, 
she resembled a great big porcelain doll.

***

Around midnight, Matina complained of heartburn and said she was ready for bed. I thought she would soon leave for her own quarters, but she surprised me by walking toward my bedroom.

"Do you mind if I rest here a minute or two? My stomach is bothering me something terrible. I won't stay long." As she passed, I caught a whiff of the sweet smell that always hovered about her. Tonight: a potpourri of pork shanks, braised leeks, and apples mixed with her usual lavender perfume.

Down went Matina's massive body on my bed, the wood frame groaning in protest, and within minutes she fell into a snoring sleep. Much as I would have preferred her to go to her own rooms, I could hardly have said no. It was my duty as a friend to accommodate Matina's physical problems. She suffered from a number of ailments, ranging from sleep difficulty to the swelling of her legs and, most recently, a racing of her heart even at rest, but anyone with gifts like ours knows to take a philosophical view of such complaints. I myself often suffered from swollen joints, the pain of bony knees knocking together, the bumps of exposed elbows, a lightheadedness appearing at inopportune moments, or an unpadded chair torturing my hips and spine. Every gift has its price.

I laid my comforter over Matina's bare arms - her off-the-shoulder gown was charming but not very sensible - and left to tidy up my parlor. After lowering the gas lamps, I swallowed a nip of tonic for my aching joints and shimmied back out onto my bedroom window ledge to watch the evening pass.

The clatter of a carriage in the street soon caught my attention. Gripping the window's frame, I tilted out to find the source. At first I saw nothing, only street shadows and lamplight and a gray dog darting between the sycamores across the road. And then there it was, a grand carriage appearing at the far end of Broadway, the clop-clop of its horses drawing it toward the Museum. How curious. One might expect to see a two-seater at such an hour, carrying someone's mistress home or taking a gentleman from the fancy brothels like Flora's or the Black Crook down to the scruffier waterfront ballrooms, but this was a landau coach, posh and stylish, its top latched down and its lacquered sides glinting in the moonlight.

Rather than turn west toward the more pleasant Church Street, the coach continued straight, passing the twin gas lamps that stood guard before the Museum's entrance. I leaned a bit farther out the window, straining to keep the carriage in sight. It came to a stop a few paces later. One of the horses whinnied as the driver jumped from his perch and drew open a cushioned door, ceremoniously rolling out the steps. A glimpse inside the cab attested to its luxuriousness: its walls were plush with padded fabric, its seats were covered with fine leather, and its floor was elegantly tiled. It was much finer than any coach I'd ever had the pleasure of riding in. I considered waking Matina, who took great delight in mysterious happenings, but the next thing I saw kept me riveted to my place.

Out of the coach, a tiny foot emerged, followed by a gloved hand reaching delicately toward the extended arm of the driver. An apparition appeared. She wore a full veil of white attached to a fashionable bonnet, and her traveling coat was of unquestionable excellence. This was a woman of quality if ever I saw one. She faltered on the stair, and the driver took her by the waist to assist her. She brushed aside his hands and gently stepped onto the wooden planks of the walk in front of the Museum.

"How dare you manhandle this woman, sir?"

A booming voice that could only belong to Barnum rang out from inside the carriage. Most intriguing. Had the great Phineas T. returned early from his scouting trip? Barnum often left us to chase down rumors and ferret out new talent, and usually he stayed on the road for months at a time, scouring the traveling circuses, the carnivals, and the other grand cities for the unnatural, the exotic, and the new. According to the Museum manager, Benjamin Fish, Barnum was not due back from his current trip until mid-June. That was still nearly two months away, but here he was, forcing his bearlike body out of the carriage door and stomping across the dirty planks of the walkway, sending the rats below scurrying into the street. I gazed down at the great man. Barnum's receding hairline hinted at his age, but his eyebrows - as bushy and wild as ever - spoke to how vital he still remained.

Barnum puffed out his chest, his belly protruding above his satin waistband, and approached the driver, who looked around the abandoned street as if Barnum were addressing someone else.

"Have you heard me, man?"

"I ain't done nothin,' sir," the driver yelped."Tried to help her down is all."

"You've acted beyond your position," Barnum said."You've forgotten your place."

I realized that I'd lost sight of Barnum's mysterious companion, but then I spotted her resting against a post. She straightened her veil with a small gloved hand as the driver shifted back on his heels. Barnum advanced. The driver clenched his fists in what looked like an acceptance of Barnum's challenge, but then he scuttled back and hopped onto his coach, barreling away in a storm of scattered stones and dust.

Barnum and the veiled woman, alone now, lingered in the gaslight below. I could make out only the muffled rise and fall of Barnum's voice against the soft murmurings of the woman's responses. Moments later, the great front doors opened and they disappeared into the Atrium. I retreated from the window back into the bedroom, calmed by the sound of Matina's rhythmic breathing.

 

In the late 1860s, as America was recovering from Lincoln's assassination, a man named P.T. Barnum opened a museum in New York City. Filled with oddities from around the world, it also hosted a number of sideshow freaks - including Bartholomew Fortuno's narrator, the Human Skeleton. This is the atmospheric and utterly original story of how he fell in love with the Bearded Lady.

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