Herbert Barnum Seeley inherited a large portion of his grandfather P.T. Barnum’s estate, but none of his common sense.
In December of 1896, Clinton Barnum Seeley was getting married. His brother, Herbert Barnum Seeley, decided to send him off with a bachelor party worthy of the grandson of Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum. Grandpa Barnum, circus entrepreneur, had of course created the Greatest Show on Earth.
The party would feature a 17-course dinner, music and drinking. Scantily clad dancing girls would hand out gifts for each of the guests. Herbert Barnum Seeley drew up the guest list from the who’s who of young society – the dissipated offspring of the robber barons and impresarios of the Gilded Age.
The capstone of the evening was to be a belly dance by a French-speaking dancer of Lebanese descent. Using the stage name “Little Egypt,” Ashea Wabe wowed audiences with her “hoochie coochie” dance.
She had unveiled the dance at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.
Little Egypt was to do one better for the Barnum grandsons. She would dance and then perform a pose, as in a nude pose the way a model would for a painter. Or, as Little Egypt would later put it, “a little Egyptian pose on a little pedestal in ‘zee altogether’.”
Then Teddy Roosevelt’s cleanup-minded New York Police Department got wind of the party. And at 1:30 in the morning, the cops shut down the big bash at Sherry’s restaurant on Fifth Avenue.
Herbert Barnum Seeley was charged with indecency. Just how lewd the party grew was never fully exposed, however. Then as now, charges against the wealthy could be silently squelched. And these were.
Instead, the police commission held an inquiry into the evening’s proceedings, airing some details of the debauchery, but protecting the identities of many in attendance.
Herbert Barnum Seeley
The ensuing scandal cost Herbert his wife, who found greener pastures by marrying the son of Boston stockbroker Thomas Lawson. The glare of the coverage also highlighted just how far the apples had fallen from the tree in the famous Barnum family of Bridgeport, Conn.
Herbert Barnum Seeley was no doubt the sillier of the two Barnum namesakes who inherited a large portion of the circus millions. But Clinton was no prizewinner either. Nonetheless, P.T. had shaken the family tree in search of a successor and selected Clinton as the best option.
He took Clinton into the circus business for a very short time – just long enough for the younger Barnum’s laziness and ineffectuality to truly blossom. P.T.’s fellow ringmaster, James Bailey, swore he would break up the company and go forward alone rather than carry the insufferable Clinton with him. The episode, as such things do, ended in lawsuits between Clinton and the circus.
When P.T. Barnum died in 1891, there was then little to urge the clan toward profitable endeavors. Herbert, however, was restrained from his worst instincts by his aunt and brother Clinton who held his inheritance in trust for him. Herbert fought in court for years to remove them from the trust. In 1900, with Herbert approaching 30, the aunt and brother finally stepped aside. They let Herbert get down to the serious business of squandering his funds.
“Now that Herbert Barnum Seeley has come into the possession of a large and scrumptious fortune, he may dine daily, but it is hardly likely that he gives another dinner,” the Boston Home Journal drily reported.
A regular at the summer hot spots of Newport and Narragansett, R.I., Poland Springs, Maine, and Saratoga, N.Y., Herbert Barnum Seeley also traveled regularly to Europe.
Gusto, Then Scandal
Herbert Barnum Seeley embraced his future with gusto. He entered the Army’s military academy at West Point, but dropped out after two years. He went to Mexico to try to find his fortune in mining. When that failed, he took a quick stab at following in his grandfather’s footsteps as a showman. But he lacked an aptitude for that, as well.
Finally, Herbert found his true calling – buying race horses in Europe and America. For a time he prospered, but he eventually got swept up in scandal at New York’s Morris Park and Narragansett. He had to refund bets made on his horses because they weren’t – strictly speaking – trying to win.
By 1904, he had been jailed for passing bad checks in Arizona and was selling off bits of P.T. Barnum’s estate left to him. Clinton, who had hung onto more of his money, declined to bail out his brother. Other relatives had to step in.
In July of 1914, his health flagging, Herbert Barnum Seeley checked into a hospital. He died at the age of 43, best known for what the newspapers described as “Seeley Bachelor Party Orgy.”
His obituary noted: “While his passing will bring a thrill to those who knew him in his heyday of prosperity; the services at Mountain Grove cemetery today, where but a few of his kindred were able to gather, owing to their absence in various parts of the world, brings only pangs of sorrow to those closely related.”
This story about Herbert Barnum Seeley was updated in 2020.