P.T. Barnum's great Hoboken buffalo stampede Notorious huckster pulled off one of his greatest pranks in Hoboken
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One of the greatest, cleverest and most profitable feats of showmanship by Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was the "Buffalo Hunt" he promoted in Hoboken in 1843. Barnum purchased 15 docile buffalo calves from Mr. C.D. French and widely publicized the event, which was to take place on August 31 at 3 p.m.

Admission was free, but what Barnum did not publicize was that he was to profit from the round-trip ferryboat fare (12-and-a-half cents at the time) paid by the throngs who crossed the Hudson to Hoboken. He had chartered all the boats, and he would collect all the ferry receipts of the day.

Here, from Barnum's autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, published in 1855 by Redfield, 110 Nassau St., New York, is in Barnum's own words, the story of the great Hoboken Buffalo Hunt (that turned into a stampede):

The hunt is on

"The eventful day arrived. Taking time by the forelock, multitudes of people crossed to Hoboken before ten o'clock, and by noon the ferry-boats were constantly crowded to their utmost capacity. An extra boat, the Passaic, was put on, and the rush of passengers continued until five o'clock. Twenty-four thousand persons went by the ferry-boats to Hoboken that day. Each paid six and a quarter cents going, and as much returning, and the aggregate receipts, including the ferriage of carts and carriages, and the hire for refreshment stands on the ground, were $3500. Many thousand persons were present from various parts of New-Jersey, and these, though bringing 'grist to my mill,' of course escaped my 'toll' at the ferries.

"The band of music engaged for the occasion, did its best to amuse the immense crowd until three o'clock. At precisely that hour the buffaloes emerged from a shed in the centre of the inclosure - my man French having previously administered a punching with a sharp stick, hoping to excite them to a trot on their first appearance. He immediately followed them, painted and dressed as an Indian, mounted on a fiery steed, with lasso in one hand and a sharp stick in the other, but the poor little calves huddled together, and refused to move!

"This scene was so wholly unexpected, and so perfectly ludicrous, that the spectators burst into uncontrollable laughter. The shouting somewhat startled the buffaloes, and goaded by French and his assistants, they started off in a slow trot. The uproar of merriment was renewed, and the multitude swinging their hats and hallooing in wild disorder, the buffaloes broke into a gallop, ran against a panel of the low fence (consisting of two narrow boards) tumbled over, and scrambled away as fast as they could. "The crowd in that quarter offered no obstruction. Seeing the animals approach, and not being sufficiently near to discover how harmless they were, men, women, and children scattered pell-mell! Such a scampering I never saw before.

"The buffaloes, which were as badly frightened as the people, found shelter in a neighboring swamp, and all efforts to disengage them proved ineffectual. French, however, captured one of them with his lasso, and afterwards amused the people by lassoing horses and riders - and good humor prevailed.

"The day after the chase at Hoboken, I met my friend Frederick West, of the 'Sunday Atlas,' who was not in on the secret.

" 'That French,' said he, 'is almost as great a humbug as you are.'

"Thanking him for the honorable exception, I told him that I had been most amused at witnessing the scene.

" 'What amused me the most,' said I, 'was, to see the people running and screeching with fear, when the little harmless calves broke through the fence, and were scampering for the swamp.'

" 'Well,' answered West, with a smile of discontent, 'as I happened to be among the party that fled in affright, I don't see the fun of the thing as you do.' "

Editor's note: A full version of this column was originally printed in Hoboken History Issue No. 4, published by the Hoboken Historical Museum. Please visit the museum at 1301 Hudson St. for more information.

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