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The Many Fires That Plagued P.T. Barnum

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He was obsessed with money. He didn’t have time to bother with things like tact or good taste. Undoubtedly one of history’s greatest showmen, P.T. Barnum birthed some of America’s greatest amusements. So why did two of his most famous landmarks burn down in spectacular fashion?

By the 1860s, Barnum was one of the most famous men in the world. His tours and shows may have been sensationalistic and even trashy, but they were huge hits in a country that was learning how to enjoy its rare moments of leisure in a new way. Among his accomplishments were hoaxes, freak shows, and something he called The American Museum.

From a modern perspective, Barnum’s “museum” wasn’t a museum of all. It was a cabinet of the weird and the gauche—a bizarre mishmash of history, taxidermy, technology, and outright exploitation. Its rooms boasted oddities like “THE GREAT MODEL OF NIAGARA FALLS, WITH REAL WATER!” and a tiny doll house in which “General Tom Thumb,” a 32-inch man coached and trained by Barnum himself, lived and entertained.

To say the museum was a hit would be an understatement: thousands of visitors forked over a quarter to visit each day. But hard times hit when Barnum’s museum burned not once, but three times during the 1860s.

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The first fire, in 1864, was perhaps the weirdest: as the Civil War peaked, members of the Confederate Secret Service plotted to burn down several prominent hotels in New York City in a bid to disrupt that year’s presidential election, rob treasuries, and free Confederate POWs. They didn’t succeed (the plot was foiled in part by rebels who were intimidated by upped police presence in the city), but a couple of weeks later they went to try again, and one would-be arsonist decided to deviate from the plan when he set fire to Barnum’s museum, which was across the street from the famed Astor House.

The crime is thought to have been partially motivated by Barnum’s outspoken anti-slavery views (even though Barnum, always a man of contrasts, actually owned slaves at one point and did much to further blackface and minstrel shows in the U.S.). Drunk and angry, arsonist Robert Cobb Kennedy walked into the museum, threw an incendiary device known as “Greek Fire,” and walked out again.

Chaos broke out in the museum as thousands of visitors poured out onto the street, but nobody died and property damage was not catastrophic. That wasn’t the case in 1865, when all hell broke loose at the museum. A furnace in an adjacent restaurant sparked the blaze—or did it? By that time, Barnum was even more popular and visible: he was speaking in his capacity as Republican member of the Connecticut House of Representatives when he was told the museum was completely destroyed.

The New York Times mourned the fire, which, "while greatly injuring and materially impoverishing its enterprising and public-spirited proprietor, did a damage to this and the adjacent communities, which neither time nor money can replace.” It memorialized the museum with an extensive catalog of its contents, which included everything from a fortune teller to an aquarium complete with whales to a woman demonstrating a new-fangled sewing machine.

Barnum vowed to rebuild the museum, and soon he had reopened his curiosity. But in 1868, it burned down a third time—in the middle of a cold snap in March, a huge blaze swept through the building. As firefighters battled the fire, the museum froze over in an eerie spectacle almost as amazing as the rebuilt museum itself. Again, Confederate spies were suspected, although the cause of the blaze is uncertain. What is clear is that “a menagerie” of rare animals perished.

The showman suffered even more fires as the years went on. Though the 1868 fire was the last straw in terms of the museum business, Barnum switched his attention to the circus business. But in 1872, a grand circus building called the Hippotheatron burned to the ground, too. Barnum’s circus animals may have died, but his dream of a gigantic entertainment palace didn’t: the site of this final blaze ended up becoming Madison Square Garden.

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Civilian Researchers Discover Wreckage of the USS Indianapolis
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On July 30, 1945, the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank in the Pacific Ocean after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58. More than 70 years after the historic naval tragedy— which claimed the lives of nearly 900 crew—The New York Times reports that the ship’s mysterious final resting place has been found.

The discovery came courtesy of a team of civilian researchers, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His state-of-the-art research vessel, Petrel, located the wreck 18,000 feet below the Pacific’s surface, the team announced on Saturday, August 19.

"To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in a statement. “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances."

Before it sank, the USS Indianapolis had just completed a top-secret mission to a naval base on the Northern Mariana island of Tinian. After delivering enriched uranium and components for Little Boy— the atomic bomb that the U.S. would drop on the Japanese city of Hiroshima about a week later—the cruiser forged ahead to Guam, and then to the Philippines. It was supposed to meet the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare to attack Japan.

The USS Indianapolis never made it to Leyte Gulf. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the cruiser and fired six torpedoes. The USS Indianapolis—which was hit twice—sank within 12 minutes. Around 300 to 400 sailors and Marines were killed in the attack; the rest were stranded in the Pacific Ocean for several days.

Many of these survivors would ultimately lose their lives to sharks, a grisly scene that would be famously (albeit semi-accurately) recounted in the 1975 movie Jaws. Others died from drowning, heat stroke, thirst, burns and injuries, swallowing salt water or fuel oil, and suicide. More than 300 crew members were rescued after a bomber pilot accidently sighted the imperiled men while on a routine antisubmarine patrol.

The mass tragedy—which wouldn’t be announced to the public until August 15, 1945—sparked controversy: Charles B. McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis, was found guilty in a court martial of failing to steer the ship on a “zigzag” course to elude Japanese submarines. A Japanese submarine captain testified that this precautionary measure wouldn’t have thwarted the enemy, but McVay was charged nonetheless. The captain died by suicide in 1968, and wouldn’t be officially exonerated by the Navy until 2001.

For decades, the remains of the USS Indianapolis were lost to the ravages of time and nature. But in 2016, naval historian Richard Hulver found a historic ship log that mentioned a sighting of the USS Indianapolis. Allen’s search team used this information to locate the ship, which was west of where experts assumed it had gone down.

Allen’s crew took pictures of the wreckage, including a piece of its hull, and will search for more of the ship. They plan to keep the exact location of the USS Indianapolis a secret, however, to honor the sunken ship as a war grave.

"While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” Allen said.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.


In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.


In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

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When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.


By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.


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