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Chance encounter on Union Depot platform reveals glimpse into wagon show's history

Hyatt Frost, showman, and long-time proprietor of the Van Amburgh menagerie show. 1827-1895. Photo: Fort Wayne, Indiana, Daily Gazette, Aug. 16, 1885.


Six rail lines served Hannibal in 1889, making it a hub for both north-south and east-west transport. The town’s Union Depot - constructed a decade prior - served the traveling public with hotel rooms and dining facilities during their wait between connections.

One day in 1889, when William H. (Uncle Billy) Dulany was awaiting the arrival of the MK&T train, a bystander accused this well-known and long-established Hannibal entrepreneur of getting old.

Dulany proceeded to dance a jig right there on the depot’s platform in order to demonstrate his spryness.

As he put his foot to the ground for the final step, he proclaimed: “How is that for a seventy-four year old?”

That statement attracted the attention of a nearby, well-dressed stranger sporting a neatly trimmed gray beard, who countered:

“You may know more about Hannibal than I do, but I guess I was here before you were. I was here forty years ago,” the stranger said.

“Pshaw,” said Dulany. “I was here sixty years ago!”

A reporter from the Hannibal Journal newspaper overheard the interchange, and subsequently questioned the stranger as to his identity.

The stranger was none other than Hyatt Frost, one of the proprietors of the Van Amburgh menagerie show which criss-crossed the continent for many decades.

In fact, Frost said, his personal show business roots went back to 1849, when traveled with a menagerie troupe to Hannibal during cholera season when he was just 22.

AND, he told the Hannibal newspaper reporter, that he was a partner of P.T. Barnum when the New American Museum in New York City went up in flames (in 1868).

'Greatest Showman'

The 2017 movie hit “The Greatest Showman” climaxes with the burning of P.T. Barnum’s American Theater in 1865.

According to an interview with Dan Rice in 1892, following this fire, Barnum partnered with the aforementioned Hyatt Frost, who was one of the proprietors of Van Amburgh and Company’s “Golden Menagerie” at 539 Broadway in New York. The new enterprise became known as the New American Museum. Tragically, this building was destroyed by fire in 1868.

Menagerie shows

True to Hyatt Frost’s claim, historical newspapers offer evidence that at least one menagerie company did visit Hannibal during 1849. Messrs. Raymond and Co., advertised shows in New London, Hannibal and Palmyra for July 3, 4 and 5, 1849.

The old time wagon shows traveled by boat along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, stopping at each port, unloading wagons and trained animals to the delight of inland residents. Sometimes the river levels were too high, and other times the rivers - particularly the Ohio - were too low to afford safe passage. But when conditions were right, the shows demonstrated to mid-Americans the likes of animals they would certainly never have seen during their lifetimes, if it were not for the menagerie shows.


In his interchange with William Dulany in 1889, Hyatt Frost mentioned the 1849 outbreak of cholera. Newspapers during the spring and summer of 1849 did devote considerable ink to the threat of cholera in the region. St. Louis experienced a significant outbreak in the spring of 1849, and it was feared that travelers along the river were responsible for transporting the often fatal disease from port to port.

A letter to the editor of the Palmyra Whig addressed this issue in the June 28, 1849 edition:

“The cholera is raging in many places with great violence, and has several times within the last two months approached very near our town. I believe that medical men universally agree that a collection of a large number of persons into one place tends to the production of this epidemic; and many the most eminent physicians in the U. states have repeatedly warned the people to avoid, as much as possible, collecting together into large bodies. I would therefore suggest to the citizens of Palmyra, whether it would not be better for them to request Messrs. Raymond and Co., not to exhibit here until some other time.”

Indications are, however, that the shows did, indeed, make stops in the three nearby towns.


S.B. June was a famous wild beast hunter. P.T. Barnum contracted with him in 1850, and June went to Columbo, Ceylon, to acquire 20-30 elephants for transport to the United States via the American *barque Regatta. (Colombo [Ceylon] Observer, Jan. 3, 1851) He successful captured some 13 elephants.

A.L. Ferguson was one of Van Amburgh’s most experienced and trusted agents, and he was dispatched to Europe by Hyatt Frost in 1865 in search of animal attractions and novelties for the new museum conducted under the partnership of Frost and Barnum.

Van Amburgh

Isaac A. Van Amburgh, born circa 1815, was known as the “lion king,” making his first appearance at the Richmond Hill Theater in New York in the fall of 1833. He developed a show featuring his menagerie, touring abroad at first, and returning to the United States in 1845. Hyatt Frost was a partner in the business, later taking over the duty of active management and eventually ownership of the show.

Hyatt continued operating the show under Van Amburgh’s name. Van Amburgh died in December 1865.

Hyatt Frost

Mr. Frost died at his home in Amenia, New York, on Sept. 3, 1895, following a nearly 50-year profession in show business.

During his previously mentioned stop in Hannibal, Mo., in 1889, he pointed to William H. Dulany, standing on the Union Depot platform, and said: “If I ever come back to Hannibal, I am going to hunt that man up and have a good, long talk with him.”

William H. Dulany died March 11, 1914.

Note: Dan Rice was an American entertainer, most famously as a clown before the onset of the Civil War. During the height of his career, Rice was a household name: Wikipedia. His 1892 interview explaining the business relationship between P.T. Barnum and Hyatt Frost was published in the Aug. 14, 1892, edition of the Wheeling Sunday Register.

Note: The 1889 newspaper clipping on which this story is based is included in the Peter Stone scrapbook, Steve Chou collection.

Barque: A vessel that has at least three masts with the fore and main masts being square. Today many “sailing school” ships are barques.

Hannibal’s railroad depot, built circa 1880. It was on a platform at this depot that William H. Dulany and Hyatt Frost had a chance encounter in 1889. Steve Chou Collection

Advertisement for a menagerie show, published in the June 21, 1849 edition of the Hannibal Courier. This may have been the show in which Hyatt Frost was affiliated with when he was 22 years old.

William H. Dulany, a Hannibal businessman of note. 1818-1914. Photo: Mirror of Hannibal.

Mary Lou Montgomery, retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Books available on by this author include but are not limited to: "The Notorious Madam Shaw," "Pioneers in Medicine from Northeast Missouri," and "The Historic Murphy House, Hannibal, Mo., Circa 1870." She can be reached at Her collective works can be found at


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