You came here to learn about P.T. Barnum from someone who knew him personally. I appreciate that, but I’ll tell you the same thing I told the others: my job was to clean up elephant dung. Don’t misunderstand me: it was an important job. A circus that is mired in animal droppings doesn’t turn a profit. People don’t want to stay very long in a circus tent that reeks of elephant crap. If I were to write my autobiography, that’s what I would call it: Elephant Crap. Sure, I knew Mr. Barnum. Sure, Mr. Barnum hired me to clean up after the elephants. But I’ll tell you again what I told the others: If you want to know more about Mr. Barnum, talk to Dead Clown and Magnet Head. I don’t know where they can be found or even if they can be found, but isn’t that what you reporters are paid to find out?
Who are Dead Clown and Magnet Head? They were two of Mr. Barnum’s most popular sideshow attractions. You may recall his most infamous quote: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But guess what? Mr. Barnum never said that. What he did say was, “The people like to be humbugged,” which is absolutely true. People love a good lie, especially if it is delivered in an entertaining manner. Take a look at our country’s political history and tell me that’s not true.
I’m sure you heard about Mr. Barnum’s first sideshow attraction: Joice Heth, the 80-year-old blind slave he purchased and put on display in his sideshow. Mr. Barnum told the public Ms. Heth was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. He charged customers 50 cents each to listen to her spin tales of “dear little George.” I knew Dead Clown and Magnet Head, and I can tell you they were nothing like Joice Heth: what you saw was what you got with those guys.
So, Mr. Barnum was a liar: probably America’s most financially successful liar, if you take most politicians out of the mix. But he treated me well. He treated Dead Clown and Magnet Head well too, as far as I know. In fact, he once gifted me with a brand-new pair of custom-made shoes and a custom-made shovel. After looking them over, I found that Mr. Barnum had welded an intricate letter “V” to the sole of each shoe. He had welded a similar letter “V” to the blade of my shovel as well. The “V,” of course, could have represented my first name (Victor) or my family name (Vega). By the way, you can stop calling me “Mr. Vega.” Call me “Vic.” You took the time to visit me and ask questions, so it’s the least I can do. Mr. Barnum, however, always liked to keep things professional between us. He always called me “Victor.” When he gave me these gifts, he said “Victor, a man should leave his mark on his work.” So, every time I finished scooping up some elephant shit, I would look around the tent and see the little “V”s in the dirt and say “Thanks, Mr. Barnum!”
Dead Clown and Magnet Head were both veterans of the War Between the States. Dead Clown was a big Irishman named Seamus Doherty. Seamus came back from the War with his body more or less intact, but his mind full of bad dreams. He tried to drown his sorrows in booze and make a living by using his natural gift for telling jokes. Mr. Barnum found him in a saloon and hired him to keep the crowd entertained at his American Museum in Manhattan. The crowd would line up to see General Tom Thumb and the Fejee Mermaid. When they got bored, Mr. Barnum would get Seamus to don his clown suit, tell jokes to the adults, and make balloons for the kiddies. All this went very well for Seamus until Mr. B decided to try something called the “Saw a Clown in Half” trick. The Museum’s magician was talented but wet behind the ears. Long story short, Seamus was accidentally decapitated in front of the crowd. Mr. Barnum asked his assistants to bring Seamus’s body and head into his private quarters as soon as possible. Believe it or not, Seamus walked out and told more jokes a mere two hours later. The crowd was shocked. Hell, I was shocked, and I had seen some pretty weird stuff since signing on with Mr. Barnum.
The really strange part was that Seamus’s head was alive but still separate from his body. He could balance his head on his shoulders, but he could also hold a conversation while carrying his head in his arms. This scared the kids at first, sure, but Seamus had such a flair for comedy that the crowd eventually lost their fear of him. Mr. Barham even set up a bowling alley in the Museum, and Seamus (now known affectionately as Dead Clown) would bowl a strike, using his own head as a bowling ball! I kid you not.
The young magician, whose name was Damien Morgenstern, was mortified when he thought he had killed Seamus. But when he saw Dead Clown walking around and cracking jokes, he wept tears of joy. Mr. Barnum assured Damien he would not be charged with murder: “Seamus is alive,” Mr. B told him. “You didn’t kill anybody.”
Damien was a special case: he had returned from the War jobless and homeless. On top of that, he had a war wound that wouldn’t go away. Toward the end of the War, Damien had been part of a special unit that was tasked with raiding Jefferson Davis’s house. Army Intelligence had learned the Confederacy was experimenting with new bullets made from meteoric iron. Damien’s men managed to capture Davis and confiscate the meteoric bullets, but not before Damien was shot in the head by one of Davis’s guards. When he woke up in an Army field hospital, the surgeon told Damien he would have to live with a piece of meteoric iron in his skull: to remove it would have killed him. When Damien was hired by Mr. Barnum, he was plagued by nightly headaches. Having a steady job as a magician seemed to help him, though: he told me the headaches nearly disappeared after he met Mr. Barnum.
One day, Mr. Barnum’s knife thrower was practicing, and Damien accidentally got in the way. I thought he was a goner, because the knife was headed right for his heart. But then something strange happened: the knife flipped up and stuck to the top of his head. The blade didn’t even touch him: a flat side of the knife just stuck to his head like his skull was a magnet. This is when everyone started calling Damien “Magnet Head.” Mr. Barnum had a pretty good thing going with Dead Clown and his headless bowling alley, but now, he had a great knife-throwing act: Magnet Head would stand against the wall with a bull’s-eye drawn on his chest. Our knife thrower would aim at the target, but the knife would flip up and stick to the top of Damien’s head. We all figured it had something to do with the meteoric iron he picked up in the War, but we had no idea how it worked. I still have no idea.
Dead Clown and Magnet Head became friends, but they didn’t really team up until that night in the Fall of 1870 when Mr. Barnum was killed. Mr. B had decided to bring an elephant from the Big Top to the Museum in Manhattan. I was in charge of a crew whose job was to clean up after the elephant. After a few nights, I walked into the elephant’s pen to find Mr. Barnum lying face-down in the straw, dead as a doornail. The Metropolitan Police started an investigation and told us Mr. B had been bludgeoned to death. There was a mark from a blunt object on his forehead, but nothing else as far as evidence.
Dead Clown and Magnet Head took Mr. Barnum’s death harder than anyone. I remember Dead Clown swearing through a veil of tears and runny grease paint that he would bring the killer to justice or die (again) trying. Dead Clown even confided in me how Mr. B had restored him to life. “Mr. Barnum has a very old book called the Necronomicon,” Seamus told me. “He knew a librarian at Miskatonic University in Massachusetts that loaned it to him. This is a very special book, and it contains spells that can bring the dead back to life. However, it also contains secrets about the world man was not meant to know. Mr. Barnum used the book to bring me back, but he knew he was risking his sanity to do it. I owe it to Mr. Barnum to bring him back now. If I only knew where he kept that book!”
So, Magnet Head helped Dead Clown in his quest to find the Necronomicon and bring Mr. Barnum back to life. Dead Clown was confident at first that they could find it. He once shared a quote with me: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” After Mr. B was killed, Seamus used the quote again. Dead Clown told me this quote was from the year 1890, and I asked him, “Are you saying this line will not be written for another twenty years?”
Dead Clown looked around to be sure nobody was listening before he answered. “That’s right, Victor. Mr. Barnum once showed me how to use the Necronomicon. Using the book, I was able to find information about the future. The quote I just told you will be written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his character, Sherlock Holmes, twenty years from now.”
“What else did the book tell you?” I asked.
“It told me things about the 20th century. For example, it told me these Sherlock Holmes stories will be read by millions of people.”
I laughed. “Okay, Seamus. The Necronomicon told you lots of interesting things about the future. But did it tell you who killed Mr. Barnum?”
“No, but it helped me discover on my own who killed Mr. Barnum, by giving me access to Sherlock Holmes’s methods.”
“Okay,” I said. “So, who killed Mr. B?”
Dead Clown removed his head from his shoulders and thrust it at me. “You did, Victor.”
I ran but didn’t get very far. Magnet Head was waiting for me at the Museum’s back entrance. I had a steel hammer on my tool belt that I flung at him, but it was no use. The hammer just stuck to the top of his head. Magnet Head grabbed my shoulders and turned me toward Dead Clown. I glared at Seamus. “How did you know it was me?”
Dead Clown answered, “There was a letter ‘V’ imprinted on Mr. Barnum’s forehead. It matches the shovel he gave you.”
I smirked. “So why did I do it?”
“That’s easy,” Dead Clown said. “You wanted the book: the Necronomicon. You asked Mr. B for it, but that was the one thing he wasn’t willing to give you. You killed him and took it from his office. Magnet Head and I found it in the straw under your bed. It has your fingerprints on it, Victor.”
So, now you know the story of Dead Clown and Magnet Head. They now call themselves Sideshow Consulting Detectives, whatever that means. And here I am on Death Row, waiting for the hangman’s noose, all because of these Sherlock Holmes stories that won’t be written for another twenty years! Where is the book, the Necronomicon? It’s back at Miskatonic University (where it belongs, I suppose). Where are Dead Clown and Magnet Head? How should I know? Like I said, that’s your job: you’re the reporter. If you find them, tell them I said “Arrivederci.”