When the “Swedish Nightinagle,” opera star Jenny Lind, sailed into New York Harbor in 1850 the city went crazy. A massive crowd of more than 30,000 New Yorkers greeted her ship.
And what makes that especially astounding is that no one in America had ever heard her voice.
Who could make so many people so excited about someone they had never seen and never heard? Only the great showman, the Prince of Humbug himself, Phineas T. Barnum.
Early Life of Jenny Lind
Jenny Lind was born October 6, 1820 to an impoverished and unmarried mother in Stockholm, Sweden. Her parents were both musicians, and young Jenny began singing at a very early age.
As a child she began formal music lessons, and by the age of 21 she was singing in Paris. She returned to Stockholm and performed in a number of operas. Throughout the 1840s her fame grew in Europe. In 1847 she performed in London for Queen Victoria, and her ability to make crowds swoon became legendary.
Phineas T. Barnum Heard About, But Had Not Heard, Jenny Lind
The American showman Phineas T. Barnum, who operated an extremely popular museum in New York City and was known for exhibiting the diminutive superstar General Tom Thumb, heard about Jenny Lind and sent a representative to make an offer to bring her to America.
Jenny Lind drove a hard bargain with Barnum, demanding that he deposit the equivalent of nearly $200,000 in a London bank as an advance payment before she would sail to America. Barnum had to borrow the money, but he arranged for her to come to New York and embark on a concert tour of the United States.
Barnum, of course, was taking a considerable risk. In the days before recorded sound, people in America, including Barnum himself, had not even heard Jenny Lind sing. But Barnum knew her reputation for thrilling crowds, and set to work making Americans excited.
Lind had acquired a new nickname, “The Swedish Nightingale,” and Barnum made sure that Americans heard about her. Rather than promote her as a serious musical talent, Barnum made it sound like Jenny Lind was some mystical being blessed with a heavenly voice.
Jenny Lind Arrived in New York City in 1850
Jenny Lind sailed from Liverpool, England, in August 1850 aboard the steamship Atlantic. As the steamer entered New York harbor, signal flags let crowds know that Jenny Lind was arriving. Barnum approached in a small boat, boarded the steamship, and met his star for the first time.
As the Atlantic approached its dock at the foot of Canal Street massive crowds began to gather. According to a book published in 1851, Jenny Lind in America, “some thirty or forty thousand people must have must have been collected together on the adjacent piers and shipping, as well as on all the roofs and in all the windows fronting the water.”
The New York police had to push back the enormous crowds so Barnum and Jenny Lind could take a carriage to her hotel, the Irving House on Broadway. As night fell a parade of New York fire companies, carrying torches, escorted a group of local musicians who played serenades to Jenny Lind. Journalists estimated the crowd that night as more than 20,000 revelers.
Barnum had succeeded in drawing enormous crowds to Jenny Lind before she had even sung a single note in America.
Jenny Lind’s First Concert in America
During her first week in New York, Jenny Lind made excursions to various concert halls with Barnum, so see which might be good enough to hold her concerts. Crowds followed their progress about the city, and anticipation for her concerts was growing.
Barnum finally announced that Jenny Lind would sing at Castle Garden. And as demand for tickets was so great, he announced that the first tickets would be sold by auction. The auction was held, and the first ticket to a Jenny Lind concert in America was sold for $225, an expensive concert ticket by today’s standards and a simply staggering amount in 1850.
Most of the tickets to Jenny Lind’s first concert sold for about six dollars, but the publicity surrounding someone paying more than $200 for a ticket served its purpose. People across America read about it, and it seemed the whole country was curious to hear Jenny Lind.
Jenny Lind’s first New York City concert was held at Castle Garden on September 11, 1850, before a crowd of about 1,500. She sang selections from operas, and finished with a new song written for her as a salute to the United States.
When she had finished, the crowd roared and demanded that Barnum take the stage. The great showman came out and gave a brief speech in which he stated that Jenny Lind was going to donate a portion of the proceeds from her concerts to American charities. The crowd went wild.
Jenny Lind’s American Concert Tour
Everywhere she went there was a Jenny Lind mania. Crowds greeted her and every concert sold out nearly immediately. She sang in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Richmond, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. Barnum even arranged for her to sail to Havana, Cuba, where she sang several concerts before sailing to New Orleans.
After performing concerts in New Orleans, Jenny Lind sailed up the Mississippi on a riverboat. She performed in a church in the town of Natchez to a wildly appreciative rustic audience.
Jenny Lind’s tour continued to St. Louis, Nashville, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and other cities. Crowds flocked to hear her, and those who couldn’t hear her marveled at her generosity, as newspapers ran reports of the charitable contributions she would make.
At some point Jenny Lind and Barnum parted ways. She continued performing in America, but without Barnum’s talents at promotion she was not as big a draw. With the magic seemingly gone, she returned to Europe in 1852.
Jenny Lind’s Later Life
Jenny Lind married a musician and conductor she had met on her American tour, and they settled in Germany. By the late 1850s they moved to England, where she was still quite popular, and lived a quiet life. She grew ill in the 1880s, and died in 1887, at the age of 67.
Her obituary in the Times of London estimated that her American tour had earned her $3 million, with Barnum making several times more.