Queen Victoria

P.T. Barnum’s Home Was Everything You Might Imagine It To Be

Posted on

By Ken Zurski

Even though the redesign of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England in the early 19th century was the vision of its benefactor, Prince Regent, the future King George IV, the finished product,  a mixture of many styles and influences, was the work of architect John Nash.

Nash’s design suited the future King, but hardly anyone else.  “A masterpiece of bad taste” was one icy reception, while another described it as a “mad house.” Even Queen Victoria, wife of King William  IV, King George’s successor,  was unmoved calling it “odd” then demeaning its purpose. “Most of the rooms are low and I can see a morsel of the sea from one of my sitting windows,” she bemoaned, refusing to spend much time there.

Born in London in 1752, Nash earned a reputation for designing houses, castles really, for the wealthy. Eventually, his work caught the eye of the prince and in 1806 Nash became his personal architect. The re-imagining of the Royal Pavilion, originally called the Carlton House, was their partnership.  Between 1815 and 1822, Nash added flourishing touches like the special dome features and another elaborate wing. The biting condemnations quickly followed.

But attitudes toward the Royal Pavilion would change.

The Royal Pavilion

In 1841, a rail line made it more accessible. Now more people could come and roam the grounds and enjoy the scenic location for themselves. And to the British commoner it was a work of art.  Unfortunately the man who endured the constant jabs about his work from his peers, never lived long enough to see it appreciated.  In 1835, shortly before the Pavilion became a popular tourist attraction, Nash died at the age of 83.

Nearly a decade after his death, Nash would be vindicated again when the Royal Pavilion was paid the ultimate compliment by an American and a visionary in his own right who not only admired the uniqueness of the building, he sought to copy it too.

In 1848 a mansion went up in the scenic countryside of Connecticut that looked oddly out of place for its location. Not only was it very large, occupying 17 acres of land, but the building itself with its exotic Indian influenced architecture looked like something you might spot in far off Mumbai or New Dehli, not Fairfield, near Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city.

All this was the creation of one man who commissioned the building of the mansion as a “permanent residence” for his family. His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum.

Barnum called his new home the Iranistan.


The Iranistan

Barnum’s inspiration for Iranistan was Nash’s Royal Pavilion, a place he visited while doing a tour of England with his star attraction at the time, the 25-inch tall man known as Tom Thumb. Unlike others, Barnum was greatly pleased by what he saw. “It was the only specimen of oriental architecture in England,and had not been introduced into America,” he wrote.

Barnum hired a New York architect named Leopold Eidlitz to design it with the stipulation that he hold nothing back in terms of style and decorative elements. “The whole was finally completed to my satisfaction,” Barnum expressed, and on November 14, 1848, he held a house warming party for “a thousand guests.”

The invitees found a casual but garish palace to explore.  Outside there was a circular carriage way , a fountain, urns and a decorative facade that was filled with symmetrically placed arched openings and numerous decks and porches. Topping the building were onion-shaped domes and minarets.

Inside, there was a circular divan under the dome, a large library adorned in Asian landscapes on its walls and elaborate stained glass windows that filled the rooms with colorful light. The grand ballroom sported a shiny wood floor with an inscription, “Love God and be Merry,” words Barnum used often.

“Elegant and appropriate furniture was made expressly for every room in the house,” Barnum would later write. “The stables, conservatories  and out-buildings were perfect in their kind. There was a profusion of trees set out on the grounds. The whole was built and established literally ‘regardless of expense,’ for I had no desire even to ascertain the entire cost.”

In addition to the design, Barnum filled his home with animals of all kinds, as he did at his popular American Museum in New York City. Roaming the grounds of Iranistan were mandarin ducks, silver peasants, a cow named Bessie, and a pig named Prince Albert. The biggest attraction was Iranistan’s largest resident, an unnamed bull elephant.  This, of course, was all by design. Barnum felt the addition of the animals, especially the elephant was good promotion for the museum. “When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant,” Barnum would later explain.  It all started at his home.

But it wouldn’t last. Late on December 17, 1857, only nine years after it was built, the Iranistan was gone. Barnum, who was refurnishing the mansion at the time got the news the next morning by telegram while staying at the Astor House in New York. The building caught fire, he was told.  It was a total loss.

P.T. Barnum

The papers were consoling, but skeptical. Barnum’s good fortunes had recently taken a turn for the worse. It all started when Barnum sought to create a “perfect”town in Connecticut that he would call East Bridgeport. He convinced a large business, the Jerome Clock Company, to move their factory there in the hopes of bringing more people and jobs. The clock company agreed to relocate but first needed help to pay down a debt of $100,000 . Barnum loaned them the money, but was tricked into signing more cash notes. Soon he was responsible for a half million dollars of the companies debt and creditors were demanding money. Barnum was forced to go into bankruptcy and lost a fortune.

Many of his friends supported his plight with sympathy, loans and gifts, but others reveled in his misfortune. To his detractors, Barnum’s latest predicament – more like a humiliation – was subject to ridicule. “Here is a terrible illustration of where the practice of humbug will lead,” proclaimed the New York Herald.

The Chicago Tribune’s headline was even more biting. “The deceiver is duped,” it read.

In the midst of all this turmoil, Barnum lost his beloved Iranistan.

Initially, no cause of the fire was given. “It is supposed to have been set on fire,” was one newspaper dispatch, not mincing words, but refusing to elaborate. Later, it was suspected a construction worker dropped a lighted pipe. Barnum had recently moved some of the more expense furniture out of the Iransitan during the renovation and claimed he would soon return. His insurance money was far less then the initial cost of $150,000. “My beautiful Iranistan is gone,” Barnum would write in his autobiography

Barnum recovered financially after going on another successful tour of England with Tom Thumb. Upon his return he set out to build another home, again in Fairfield, called Lindencroft, that in its design was spacious, but far less extravagant than the Iranistan. “All the taste that money can could do was fairly lavished upon Lindencroft so that when all was finished it was not only a complete house in all respects, but a perfect home.” Barnum wrote his memoirs.

The biggest disappointment, however, was for the riders on a train line that would pass by the Iranistan grounds everyday. Not only was the impressive building gone, but they missed seeing the elephant, roaming the yard, helping plow the fields, and giving them all a thrill by raising its trunk and bobbing its head in a friendly gesture.


(Sources” The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming; P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man by A.H. Saxon; various internet sites)

The Man Who Brought the Rabbits to Australia Had No Idea…

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski

Thomas Austin likely had no idea he alone would be blamed for the massive jackrabbit infestation in Australia which grew so expeditiously that it reached epidemic proportions in the late 1800’s.

Austin was an avid hunter and was looking for something, anything, to hunt. Rabbits seemed an obvious choice to an Englishman, but they weren’t native to Australia.  So someone had to bring them in.

That someone was Thomas Austin.

Thomas Austin

Born in Somerset, England, Austin a sheep farmer, came to Australia’s Western District of Victoria in 1831. At the time, Australia was not a unified country but an island made up of five British Colonies. Austin may have been asked to come and help establish the agriculture and livestock footing in the region. He built a retreat of nearly 30-thousand acres called Barwon Park and became a distinguished member of the Acclimatization Society of Victoria, which introduced new animals and plants to the colony. Austin liked birds, so he brought in blackbirds and partridges. His grazing land was used mainly for sheep and horses.

Austin, who was wealthy and socially connected in his native land, liked to hunt and often hosted lavish shooting parties. But there was a problem. Unlike in England where hunting was a sporting good time, in Australia, there was nothing in significant numbers to aim at. So he had an plan. Bring me some rabbits, he ordered.

In 1859, a ship called Lightning on consignments brought 24 wild rabbits to Austin for breeding. Austin let a few go in hopes of hunting their offspring. “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home,” he said at the time.

He had no idea.

The locals clearly stood by Austin. A little sport couldn’t hurt the neighborhood, in fact it might actually help the economy, they thought. “We hope that the common interest will be felt in saving them from being destroyed until they have so far increased to render shooting of one of them now and then as a matter of trifling importance,” an editor of the Southern Australian opined.

Austin’s plan worked perfectly.

Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh

In 1867, Queen Victoria’a second son Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, came to visit and stayed at the Austin ranch. Together the two men spent the day hunting and in just over three hours had shot and killed nearly 1000 rabbits. The Duke got nearly half of the kills and was so pleased that he came back for more the following year with even better results: more than 1500 rabbits down.  The local press was quick to point out the obvious absurdity of it all. “In such an indiscriminate slaughter,” they reported, “ we cannot see how any precise conclusion can be arrived at.” Already the apparent growth of the bunny population was getting notice.

But the hunting was glorious.

Austin however was embarrassed that he could only offer the Duke modest accommodations at his ranch and certainly nothing befitting royalty. The slight, in Austin’s mind, gnawed at his English pride. So after the Duke left, Austin began construction of a larger home, a lavish 42-room mansion in hopes of having more royal visits and more successful hunting parties. The Barwon mansion as it is called today was completed in 1871. Six months later, Austin was dead at the age of 54. His widow, Elizabeth ,and most of their 11 children stayed at the mansion for many years.  The hunting parties stopped, but the rabbits did not.

They would become Thomas Austin’s legacy.

Well, that and the fence.


But first lets backtrack a bit to May of 1787. That’s when 11 ships sailed from Great Britain and landed at Port Jackson, Australia, an area already explored and claimed by Captain James Cook nearly two decades before. The ship was loaded with a large crew and hundreds of “convicts” whose sentences were years of “transportation,” or in effect deportation. Until 1776,  they were deposited in the thirteen American colonies, but since the colonies were now free of British rule, the new Americans understandably didn’t want them. The convicts, mostly petty thief’s, including women and children, would serve their sentences on unspoiled land, working to establish a new colony, or penal colony, in this case. But first they had to survive the harsh conditions of the journey. Stuck in cramped quarters below deck, with closed hatches, and filled with rats, parasites and other maladies, dozens either died or were sickened. The crew had no morals either. Women were raped and many were kept without food and water as punishment. Land was a welcome sight.

On January, 26 1788, now known as Australia Day, a new British settlement was born on the island. Among the new residents were several caged rabbits (reports are there were five) who were brought along for reasons unclear. Later a dispute between two colonists over their ownership was reported. But not much else is known of the rabbits fate. Likely they became someone’s dinner. But it is worth noting in regards to this story, that it was the first time rabbits were introduced to Australian soil, but only a few.

More stories of rabbit-farming enclosures in Australia appeared after that, but nothing more than controlled breeding. Basically rabbits were bred to be eaten, like chickens or turkeys are today. That is until Austin was looking for something to hunt.

By 1864, while Austin was still alive, complaints started coming in from farmers throughout the region. Their crops were being overrun and decimated by the bushy tailed critters. Although the jackrabbits certainly weren’t native to the land, the land was perfect for them to thrive. Winters were mild and ideal for year round breeding and widespread farming on the rich soil meant they always had something to eat.  Bunny families quickly grew in very large numbers until they were not only destroying crops but plant species as well. Young trees in orchards were felled by “ringbarking,” a process by which an animal strips away a portion of the bark completely around the tree. also known as girdling.  Girdling eventually kills the tree. Austin must have known about this, but was powerless to stop it. He could only kill so many.

In 1864, government officials stepped in and offered a substantial reward for “any method of success not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits”. More than a thousand suggestions were received. Many were deemed unsafe, but that didn’t stop the use of  poisons and other widespread killing methods including one called “ripping” where sharp tillers were dragged along the ground dismembering the rabbits in their burrows and effectively destroying and burying them at the same time. Other animals like ferrets and cats were used, but to little impact. And besides, no one wanted more cats. (The feral cat population was actually a problem like the rabbits in Australia, but on a much smaller scale).

Finally in 1901, the idea of building a wall was raised and quickly approved by the Colonel Government. But a wall in a practical sense was a bit of an exaggeration. Typically a wall to keep large predators – or people – out is built high, sturdy and solid. But in this case the offender was only five inches tall. So, in essence, the “wall” would be more like a fence and similar to one you would put up in your garden for the same purpose – only straighter and much longer.  The fence was planned at a little over three feet in height and made mostly of wood or iron; then covered in barbed wire and wire netting. The bottom would sit six inches below the surface.

The fence would extend from new South Wales to Southern Australia a distance of about 346 miles, effectively creating a border along the northern mid-territories. The fence’s objective was to keep the rabbits from spreading into the western territories. A rabbit plague across the entire land mass would be irreversible and devastating. If anything, the makeshift “wall” would contain the rabbits in an area where exterminating them was somewhat more feasible. Two more fences would be be built extending the length to nearly 1500 miles total.


It was a massive undertaking and would take nearly seven years before all three proposed sections were completed. In the southern regions, known as the Great Victoria Desert, camels were used to pull carts and transport material since they could survive the heat and go for days without water, a scarcity in the outback.

The fence had limited success. Rabbits were wily creatures who found ways to breach it. Some were agile enough to simply jump over it. Still for a time, population was being controlled at least in some respect by slowing the rabbits down at the fence border and rounding them up for mass killings. But there were still millions more left. In 1898, it was reported to be nearly 300-million. By comparison, the human population in all of Australia at the time was 3-million.

Across the world, and especially in the U.S., Australia’s rabbit dilemma was treated seriously, but also with a humorous tone. “Br’er rabbit is a terrible pest in Australia” the Chicago Daily Tribune reported in April 1901, tying the article into the upcoming Easter holiday and a cutesy tale about Mollie Cottontail, Br’er’s wife in the Uncle Remus stories, who is “responsible for all the [Easter] eggs.”

The situation in Australia was dire enough, however, to warrant several paragraphs of startling comparisons and anecdotes. “Geniuses who love to calculate, have figured out that the tails of the 25,000,000 [yes, that’s 25 million!] rabbits killed in a year in Australia if sewn together would girdle the earth [a reference to girdling, no doubt].” Hunting them down, the article goes on to report, had been as successful as “drying up the ocean by dipping the water out a spoonful at a time.”

Austin was not mentioned in any coverage at the time. Only later would his name become synonymous with the bunny epidemic.

Elizabeth Austin

Too bad really because after Austin’s death , Elizabeth, his widow used her husband’s money to open up a hospital for incurable diseases in Heidelberg, a suburb of Melbourne. She also founded the Austin Home for Women, in Geelong, a port along the Barwon River, and Victoria’s second largest city by population.

Elizabeth died in 1910. In her obituary, she was lauded for her philanthropic contributions. “Since the incorporation of the institution in January of 1882, it has won for its benefactress the affection and gratitude of hundreds of unfortunate incurables who were denied admission to the general infirmaries.”

For her efforts, Elizabeth should be the Austin best remembered in Australia today.

Instead her husband, Thomas, the hunter, for completely different reasons, gets the nod.

After all, he brought the bunnies.

When The World Met Queen Marie of Romania

Posted on Updated on

By Ken Zurski

Queen Marie of Romania

In the summer of 1919, King Ferdinand of Romania sent his British born wife Queen Marie to Paris to attend the Treaty of Versailles, a historic meeting of allied leaders designed to form a peace treaty and draw a new map of Europe at the end of the First World War.

“My God, I simply went wherever they called me,” the Queen said, stating the obvious.

The glamorous Marie did more than just attend. She hobnobbed with the press, flirted with world leaders, including the Big Four (Italy, England, France and the U.S.), and although she had an important job to do for her country, found time to go on lavish shopping sprees too.

By the time the historic Treaty was over, everyone knew a little bit more about the outlandish Queen Marie. And thanks in part to her unorthodox efforts, Romania, at least on paper, had doubled in size.

Born into royalty as Princess Marie of Edinburgh in 1875 in Kent, England, Marie was the eldest daughter of her mother also named Marie, the only surviving child of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, and Alexander, the second son of Queen Victoria and a naval officer who moved the family extensively throughout her childhood.  The Princess was a good catch, even as a youth, and gentleman came calling for her including a first cousin George (later George V of England) who professed his love for Marie, but was turned away.

In 1893, at the age of 18, Marie married Ferdinand, a third cousin, who by default, was the heir to the Romanian throne. King Carol I, Ferdinand’s uncle, and his wife had only one daughter so the succession fell to his brother Leopold, who renounced his rights in 1880. Leopold’s son did the same in 1886. So even before the turn of the 20th century, Ferdinand was the heir-presumptive.  In 1916, when Carol died, Ferdinand became the King and Marie the Queen of Romania.


Marie was a different kind of Queen, less submissive and daringly independent. During the start of World War I, Marie spent time with the Red Cross in hospitals risking her own life in the disease filled tents. Although she was British born, she had great respect for the Romanian people and would venture into the countryside unaccompanied by guards. Many villagers crowded her in adulation; kissing her hands and falling down at her feet. “At first it was difficult unblushingly to accept such homage,” she wrote, “but little by little I got accustomed to these loyal manifestations; half humbled, half proud, I would advance amongst them, happy to be in their midst.”

In contrast to Marie’s adventurist spirit her husband, the King, was far less dynamic. Quiet and shy and as one writer described “stupid” too, Ferdinand’s most enduring feature was his ears which stuck out the sides of his head like a teddy bear. He said little and mattered even less.

Marie, however, was the complete opposite. Pretty and intelligent she spoke out when asked and seemed to have a good knowledge of foreign affairs. She also had little interest in being a committed wife. Blaming a loveless marriage, she was boldly unfaithful and found multiple lover’s in dashing figures like a Canadian millionaire miner from the Klondike.  (In her later years, rumors abounded that one of her longstanding paramours, the nephew of Romania’a Foreign Minister  Ion I. C. Brătianu, was the father of her children (six in all, three girls) except for the one that eventually became a bad King. That one was Ferdinand’s, went the biting accusation.)

Related image

In November of 1918, when war activities ended, Marie was the outspoken one not her husband.  Sending her to the Treaty in Paris instead was an obvious choice for the King, if unprecedented.

So Marie went and brought her three daughters along with her. Together they shopped, dined and were generally the life of any party they attended. The Queen wore out those who tried to follow her. She charmed her way to negotiations and gained admirers along the way. “She really is an unusual woman and if she was not so simple you would think she was conceited,” chimed the British Ambassador to France. David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, was just as forthright: “{Marie] is a very naughty, but a very clever woman.” he professed.  Edward House, an American diplomat and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s chief adviser on European diplomacy and politics, was even more complimentary, calling her, “one of the most delightful personalities of all the royal women I have met in the West.”

Instead of being intimidated, which many had predicted, Marie intimidated others with her saucy manners and speech. In one instance, she invited herself to lunch with President Wilson, then showed up fashionably late with an entourage of ten in tow. “I could see from the cut of the President’s jaw,” one guest noted, “that a slice of Romania was being looped off.”

According to reports, Marie dominated the conversation.  “I have never heard a lady talk about such things.” remarked Wilson’s traveling doctor. ” I honestly do not know where to look I was so embarrassed.”

In the end, Romania grew in size and population. In fact, of all the contributors at the conference, Romania is widely considered to have picked up the greatest gains, including Transylvania which became – and still is – a part of “Greater Romania.” King Ferdinand could only wait for word back home. He sent letters of encouragement and advice to his wife, which she mostly ignored.

“I had given my country a living face,” she said about her visit.

(Sources: Paris 1919 by Margret MacMillian;  My Country by Queen Marie; various internet articles)