Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Famous when Barnum was still wondering what peanuts were...

I'm sure it says rather a lot about me that so many of my references and off-hand thoughts come straight out of the movies, and today is no different. There's a great moment toward the end of Casablanca where Captain Renault (Claude Raines) asks where the missing letters of transit were hidden and Rick (Bogey) replies that they were in Sam's piano. Renault responds, "serves me right for not being musical."

My version of that line that is most applicable to my adventures earlier this afternoon would have to be "serves me right for not liking the circus." (As a quick aside, I realllllllly don't like the circus. Clowns in particular I find rather disturbing. I was however, a big fan of Carnivale on HBO and Water for Elephants is among my favorite books...go figure.)

Yesterday I mentioned that there were a few area cemeteries that have lingered on my "to stop" list but I never quite managed to visit. It was as beautiful a spring day as you can hope for in Connecticut, so I decided to check out the Milltown Rural Cemetery outside of Brewster, New York.
I travel this particular back road quite often and the Snow Monkey calls it my own personal Autobahn because it's a very windy rural road with many hills that can be a lot of fun if you know it well enough. Literally, I must have passed by this charming little cemetery a hundred times over the past few years and the one mausoleum that is most prominent always intrigued me. There are some equally prominent obelisks as well, but it is the colonnaded and pedimented mausoleum that I really stopped to have a closer look at.
One of the perks of being new(ish) to an area is that all your discoveries seem pretty exciting--well, that and I'm unusually easy to amuse--so Seth Benedict Howes was a fabulous revelation to me. It was Seth B. Howes whom I always meant to look up and see what he'd done or who he was to have merited such a monument. I'd gone as far as jotting his name down in my little Moleskine notebook and writing firmly, GOOGLE HIM.

None of it happened until today.

I parked my car off to the side of one of the small lanes that wind through the grounds and got out to walk around, working my way up to the Howes' mausoleum. Along the way I passed sections of Crosbys, and a few Barnums. I wasn't overly surprised at the Barnum headstones, after all P.T. Barnum is a native son of nearby Bethel, Connecticut. I don't know that they are relatives of the famous showman, but it should have given my intuition a little nudge toward what I would discover. (P.T. is buried in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at Mountain Grove Cemetery which he himself is said to have laid out.)

As I approached my objective, I stopped to look at the stately obelisk right next to it that also bore the name of Howes. On each side of the base are  lengthy and interesting tributes to members of the Howes family. One side begins with stating that those interred here (Seth B. Howes' parents, Daniel Howes and Ruhamah Reed Howes, among others) are the lineal descendants of Jeremiah Howes, "born on the high seas between England and America." The chiseled panel goes on to pay homage to their forbears and concludes with Until the day break and the shadows flee away.

I now knew who Seth Benedict Howes belonged to, and I knew from the two monuments that this was a prominent local family, but it wasn't until I got home and started to do a little digging that I got the answers to my growing list of questions.
Normal people (and better researchers than I) would have started right off with Google, but I went straight to the NYT. Someone with this kind of memorial was, once upon a time, a high profile somebody, and where better to find that than the Times?

My instinct was right on. Seth Benedict Howes was, in the words of an April 1932 NYT column, "a noted circus man, now dead, who had been famous when P. T. Barnum was still wondering what peanuts were." The column was occasioned by a monthly meeting of the Seth B. Howes Tent of the Circus Fans Association, better known (!) as the New York Chapter of the Circus Fans of America. The guests of honor at the luncheon, held at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, included Miss Wallenda, a high wire girl, and an ex-clown turned circus writer who recounted a circus visit by J.P. Morgan and President Grover Cleveland in 1892. 

See what I mean by it serving me right for never liking the circus? 

Looking through various sources like or (who knew?) and the charming Southeast Museum in Brewster, it's pretty clear that Howes really was BIG in circus circles. Yet nothing about the solemn mausoleum of Seth B. Howes suggests his achievements in the world of circuses and entertainment. Born in August of 1815, Howes and his brother Nathan (buried near the aforementioned obelisk) ventured across the Alleghenies and then down to Mobile, Alabama in 1831. While in Mobile they managed to procure a lioness and her two cubs--said to be the first lion cubs exhibited in America. In the 1850s, after a trip to Paris where Howes met Monsieur Franconi, proprietor of a large hippodrome and they decided to start a similar enterprise in NYC. According to Howes' obituary in the May, 1901 NYT, their big show opened at a Roman type hippodrome in Manhattan in May of 1853 on the NW corner of 23rd street and 5th Avenue. Howes is also credited as having worked, along with his brother Nathan, with Hachalaia Bailey's elephant who was among the first elephants in the US. The legendary little person, Tom Thumb and the Siamese twins, Eng and Chang were also part of one of the Howes' tours. He became famous for the manageries he assembled and toured on both sides of the Atlantic.

There seems to be a little discrepancy about whether Howes or Barnum was bigger, etc. (Certainly Barnum was the better showman and is today much more broadly remembered, but Howes was no small character and was one of the wealthiest circus proprietors in the country.) One article notes that Howes managed a circus for Barnum from 1850 to 1853 and another notes the existence of the Howes & Mabie's Circus (in various incarnations as Mabie-Howes Olympic Circus, etc.) from 1841-1846. What is certain, though, is that Howes was a good business man. In addition to his circus tours, he amassed a large fortune in railroad stocks and land near Chicago. His family home, Stonehenge. and his later estate, Morningthorpe, are described as opulent, to say the least, by many sources. Howes retired to Putnam County, New York in 1870. I don't think it's an understatement to call Seth B. Howes the father of the American tented circus.

Seth lived to a ripe old age, 86 years, dying in 1901. His wife, Amy, who was an accomplished circus equestrienne, also lived to her mid 80s before dying in 1927. It is Seth B and Amy M Howes who are interred in the temple-like mausoleum that had called out to me every time I drove by the rural yard. 
Obviously, this is great local history in Putnam County, NY. To a transplant like me, though, it was a real discovery. I'd venture more than a few of my neighbors know all this, but to me it was all new and exciting...just as it was in October when I "found" the Bells at Kensico Cemetery. 

A couple of odd side notes seem in order for this circus impresario who was among other things a great rider--bareback, acrobatic, classical riding, you name it, he mastered it. Who could have expected to scratch the surface of a circus man and find a real horseman, too?

The surprises contained in Seth B Howes's will... (a pair of little known daughters from his first "relationship" and the true value of his estate...valued roughly at 1-1.5 million dollars in 1901, though the column states there was likely a good deal more in Chicago real estate that had yet to be valued. Also noted was his substantial donation to the Milltown Cemetery and his very explicit instructions for the maintenance of--and lack of intrusion to--his mausoleum.)

Finally, a 1978 tag-sale at Morningthorpe, the Howes estate near Brewster, New York, as reported by the NYT.


sid fernando said...

cool investigation...felt like a movie..carol lynley from the 1960s in scarf and shades drives winding road to cemetary....thank god nobody jumped you...that's the intial trepidation i felt until you started researching in the safety of your own home, with a drink and a chewed up pencil.

Mazeppa55 said...

I moved to New Fairfield, CT, five years ago, and still perform theatre in lower Westchester...while doing OUR TOWN in Yonkers, and thinking about the second act where I spent my time as the dead Mrs Gibbs in her grave, I would pass the masoleum each evening on the way to rehearsal, and Seth B Howes always seemed to be saying, "Break a leg!" as I drove by...I started talking to my husband about him (Dr Gibbs!) and saying that, for some reason, I felt the spirit of whoever this was calling to me...that is was not a staid, old fashioned spirit, but a lively, smiling, ENERGETIC spirit...and I started saying "HI SETH!" each time we became a ritual...I always felt like he was wishing me well and greeting me somehow..yes fanciful, but that is what I felt...
After the closing of the play, when I had time, I 'Googled" Seth B Howes and BOY was I RIGHT!! A showman rivalling PT Barnum, with as colorful and UNstaid a life as a person could live in the 1800's...a real go-getter who LOVED show biz! I knew that is what was eminating from that I have all of my theatre friends waving and greeting Seth on their way back and forth to my home from their B'way gigs...he has become our mascot of sorts...and my husband and I can be in the middle of a fight, but when we pass, we HAVE to say "HI SETH!"..or..or what? We don't know! He seems the frienliest of spirits...however, when we come home and it's past midnight...we skip Milltown and go home via the NEXT right turn, near the Brewster post office..I am afraid he will be standing in the road, hitching a ride, like a Disney ghost..and doesn't anybody notice that no matter how warm and clear an evening it is, there always seems to be FOG on that road at night? HM....but great article!( I just read it now...Seth seemed to be a-callin' to me today, so I looked him up again! )

MizRebecky C said...

When looking at Seth's grave, please notice what first appears to be a low round fence... Its a circus ring with the graves in the center. Seth's Brother, Nathan was reported the first person to build a tent big enough to enclose a circus act and thus created "The Big Top" so common with Circuses. Seth is a 4th great grand uncle of mine. The Howes family was involved with the circus in many ways.