Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
<<Read Time: 6 Minutes>>
Aptly dubbed the “Barnum of the West,” James McDaniel did not go unnoticed in Cheyenne...
Descending to the train platform in the fall of 1867, the smooth-talking entrepreneur took very little time to open a “museum” of his own namesake. Donning the persona of “The Professor,” McDaniel dabbled in the oddities of the world and shared them freely with anyone willing to patronize his bars. He later claimed that he had the financial support and commodities sourcing of P.T. Barnum himself (which was supported by the fact that Barnum came to speak at McDaniel's establishments in 1870). “Mac” as the town began to refer to him, also built one of the earliest theatres in town, but marketed his “1,001 Marvels” to differentiate him from the other variety theatres rapidly springing up around the dusty streets of Cheyenne. Newspapers of the day showed the reach of his allure, pandering to the “people of Cheyenne, neighborhoods of Cache a la Poudre (Fort Collins, CO) and gigantic Thompson (Loveland, CO).” No doubt, the residents of Denver, too, had heard of this Western spectacle and made a point to stop in while traveling north.
Courtesy of Wyoming State Archives
Mac’s marketing ploys were many – the “sophistication” angle was strong in the newspaper early on, labelling himself as an experienced arts collector. His compilation was impressive for the time and always growing. He contracted artists to don his walls with “frescoed views of Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples,” sure to draw a crowd. And he had a collection of 1,500 stereographs, 375 of them always available to be viewed, bringing the world into his showroom. But the sales pitch also included the age-old lure of titillation. The word of mouth marketing tease? Girls. Risqué stereographs, a 7-foot-tall, 400-pound English “giantess” named Charlott Temple, and the incomparable Zerube Hanan, a 19-year-old Circassian girl, “world-renowned” for her uncontested beauty and conversational grace. Add in some alcohol and the enjoyment was second-to-none.
Courtesy of Wyoming State Archives - Historic Photograph Collection
McDaniel's reputation grew alongside his offerings. With the addition of his ornate theatre, he provided elements of performing arts culture and the museum rotated a wide variety of curiosities from around the globe. He was said to own two Fegee (Fiji) Mermaids (examples of the taxidermy wizardry of the time – typically attaching a young monkey torso to a fish body for the lower half of the chimera, mimicking a small mermaid). His intricate recreation of Noah’s Ark brought in repeat business to inspect every detail. And he contracted with celebrity “dwarfs” such as General Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia Warren and entertainment like Master Willie, a young Shoshone boy trained as a contortionist, world-famous musicians, and traveling acting troupes.
Image courtesy of Wyoming Tales and Trails
Perhaps most exciting to the folks of Cheyenne, though, was his menagerie. Though some were stuffed creatures, the showman dabbled in zookeeping and procured many live animals from around the world including, “(American and African) porcupines, parrots, monkeys, apes, snakes and bears.” The zoo came with its own set of challenges, however. The monkeys were an appealing commodity; once, one was slipped under the jacket of a museum visitor and absconded with to the Magnolia Saloon. The thief’s attempt to sell the critter for $5 at the bar resulted in arrest by the local law enforcement. The Cheyenne Leader newspaper recorded an incident of one of the larger primates escaping confinement and the recapturing process resulted in several severe bites on Mac’s hands! The monkey’s escaping was eclipsed by the escape of the grizzly bear– the massive beast thankfully recaptured within an hour by a number of brave souls!
McDaniel had a flair for drawing in the crowds – from sending out musicians to play in the street each evening to giving his creatures clever names (the llama from Mexico was christened “Como Se Llama”). The museum, theatre, and zoo were all accessible for free – given that you patronize one of his two bars. A Cuban cigar, a pinch of “narcotic weed” (marijuana), or liquor were all sufficient entry fees to the world of wonder (and ultimately brought in much more money than simple entry fees would have). Mac’s skills in mixology were well-known in the region, particularly for the house specialty, the Tom & Jerry. The newspaper ads of the time repeatedly personified the drink as a pair of gentlemen frequenting the bar, or as a stage act in his steady stream of sideshows:
“The celebrated twins, Thomas & Jerry, are still on exhibition at the Prof.’s. They are curious chaps: anomatics in anatomical nomenclature. Their component parts are hen fruit, saccharine substance, lacteal fluid extracted from the mammary glands of a feminine bovine; spirits, not hob-goblins – they can be seen in the back of the room – etc., etc.”
Made popular in literature from the 1820s, a Tom & Jerry resembles eggnog – a warm, frothy cocktail made from eggs, sugar, milk and butter, and rum. Mac claimed to have made 215 of them in 45 minutes – a self-proclaimed world record, but if true, the record quite possibly still stands today! The drink was undoubtably the bar’s forte, as one of the parrots was even trained to say, “Take a Tom! Take a Tom!”
Despite the rough and tumble reputation of the Hell on Wheels town, McDaniel worked hard to keep the “strictest decorum” in his facilities. Women and children were highly encouraged to visit the museum and theatre and Mac often stepped in as bouncer himself. Records claim he broke up a fight of 100 men in less than 2 minutes. He was well-known for his mediation skills, but he also sustained life-threatening injuries when he was thrown “like a dead sparrow” from the upper balcony to the orchestra pit in his theatre – twice! Bullet-riddled bars were not uncommon in saloons back then and Mac’s were no exception. The constant balance of ruckus and propriety was an ongoing job for the Professor.
James McDaniel eventually suffered a great loss in his business – a massive fire and a snow-collapsed roof cost him dearly, but not as much as the boa constrictor he rescued from a failed traveling sideshow. The hungry snake managed to escape and eat much of the curiosity collection and zoo, including a monkey, lots of birds, his Fiji mermaids, an antelope, a deer, as well as a “sacred cow!” A far fall from the reported $500 per day bar income at the height of McDaniel's empire, the Professor was inclined to move on to Leadville, Colorado, to entertain the men drawn west by the silver rush. So ended an era for Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Today, the long-forgotten entertainment genius is simply a footnote in our past, as the Spiker Parking Garage stands on what used to be the amusement hotspot of our fine city. The stories and wonders that passed through those doors have been largely lost to history, but let us not forget Cheyenne’s favorite showman.
Raise your T&J to the Professor, chaps! May we always have the imagination and sense of adventure he infused to our slice of the Wild West!