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date: 15 August 2020

Barnum, P.

(05 July 1810–07 April 1891)
  • James Ross Moore

Barnum, P. T. (05 July 1810–07 April 1891), showman, was born Phineas Taylor Barnum in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of Philo F. Barnum, a farmer and storekeeper, and Irena Taylor. While attending public school in Bethel, Barnum peddled candy and gingerbread. He later wrote that he had always been interested in arithmetic and money.

Barnum’s profitable understanding of human nature and the brotherliness of a practical joke may have been partly influenced by his grandfather Taylor, who bequeathed him the gloriously named Ivy Island, which at age ten Barnum discovered to be “an almost inaccessible, worthless bit of barren land” filled with bogs and snakes.

When his father died insolvent in 1825, Barnum began clerking in a general store near Bethel. Purchasing a wagonload of used bottles, he devised a money-making lottery in which the bottles served as minor prizes. It was an early example of the “economy, industry and perseverance” he preached in later life.

After spending 1826 and 1827 clerking in Brooklyn, in 1828 Barnum opened a successful fruit and confectionery store in Bethel, where one of his customers was Hackaliah Bailey, owner of a small traveling menagerie boasting the second elephant ever seen in the United States. Barnum worked as a lottery agent in Pennsylvania before resettling in Bethel. He married Charity Hallett in 1829. They had four children.

In 1831 Barnum started the Herald of Freedom, an abolitionist and “non-sectarian” newspaper in Danbury, Connecticut. Barnum was convicted of libel in 1833 after exposing a usurer. Released from jail, he rode home in an open coach with six horses while cannons boomed and friends sang “Yankee Doodle.” The newspaper collapsed in 1834, and Barnum moved to New York City, where in 1835 he was running a boardinghouse and another grocery store.

In New York what Barnum later called “the least deserving of all my efforts in the show line” propelled him into his “true vocation.” Borrowing $500 of a $1,000 purchase price, Barnum acquired the services of Joice Heth, purportedly the 161-year-old ex-nurse of “dear little George Washington,” whose birth in 1732 she had attended. The seller produced a 1727 bill of sale to Washington’s father that Barnum “honestly believed to be genuine.”

Whatever the truth about the gnarled, toothless, and shrunken Heth, who while smoking her pipe faithfully unreeled such lore as the cherry tree tale, her appearance at New York’s outdoor Niblo’s Garden beginning 10 August 1835 brought Barnum $750 weekly. When Heth died a year later, an autopsy suggested that she was no older than eighty. Barnum responded to an indignant James Gordon Bennett, owner of the penny daily New York Herald, who felt hoaxed, by bruiting the story that Heth was really still alive; Bennett printed that, too. Heth was buried in the Barnum family plot. As Irving Wallace, one of Barnum’s biographers, noted, “In an age of blue laws the harmless hoax was a safety valve and a means of amusement for the public.”

Barnum next engaged a still-walking juggler, published as news a notice of his brilliance in an Albany newspaper, and brought him to New York. When the run foundered in Philadelphia, Barnum hired a heckler who swore he could outdo the signor; thereafter their “duel” brought the customers flocking. In partnership with Aaron Turner, who believed notoriety the best publicity, Barnum led a small circus through the South until 1836. For the next four years he was in and out of show business, losing all in a partnership in shoe blacking, bear’s grease, and cologne water.

In 1841 Barnum learned that Scudder’s New York Museum, for years a losing concern, was on the market. “Lacking gold,” he wrote, he “intended to buy it with brass.” Armed with endorsements he persuaded the building’s owner to buy it for him. When Peale’s Museum outbid them with a public stock issue underwritten by bankers, Barnum wrote a “variety of squibs” ridiculing “the idea of a board of broken down bank directors engaging in the exhibition of stuffed monkeys and gander skins.” The issue foundered, and by 27 December Barnum was in possession; he took over Peale’s collections in New York in 1842 and in Philadelphia in 1850.

Though it charged for admission, Barnum’s American Museum was the first important “public” museum in the United States. Barnum boasted of getting himself out of debt within twelve months by never having “eaten a warm dinner, except on Sundays.” His advertising methods included hiring a man to leave bricks here and there around town; curious, people followed the man—right into the museum. Once paying customers were inside they might be fascinated by the signs leading them to the remarkable “Egress.” Passing through its door, of course they found themselves on the street.

Barnum’s policy was to spend lavishly and reap great rewards. He wrote, “I knew the only way to make a million from my patrons was to give them abundant and wholesome attractions for a small sum of money… . Year after year, I bought genuine curiosities [often genuinely curious, though not always the genuine article] regardless of cost, wherever I could find them in Europe or America.” He brought New York its first floodlights; in 1842 large oval oil paintings “of nearly every important animal known” were placed overnight all over the building’s exterior. “Barnum’s Animals” lived on through the twentieth century on boxes of animal crackers.

To his museum Barnum brought “educated dogs, industrious fleas, automatons … living statuary, tableaux, gipsies, Albinos, fat boys … rope dancers … dioramas, panoramas, models of Niagara, Dublin, Paris and Jerusalem, the Creation, the Deluge … mechanical figures, fancy glass blowing, knitting machines and other triumphs in the mechanical arts.”

These attractions were supplemented by a variety of entertainments in an adjacent lecture room, expanded in 1849 into a full-scale theater, which gave all-day performances of “moral plays in a moral manner” and in 1850 was able to seat 3,000 for a performance of The Drunkard. On the first floor balcony was played “free music for the millions.”

Barnum’s clientele apparently loved his “humbug.” The Feejee Mermaid (1842), a small amalgamation of dried and wrinkled skin, hair, and scales that looked as if it had once been alive, had been in circulation since 1822, when an English sea captain bought it in Calcutta. Barnum posted colorful bills showing saucy mermaids and hired a man as Dr. Griffin of Pernambuco, who delivered a learned lecture. The crowds gathered.

The Woolly Horse was indeed a horse with sheep-like hair, but Barnum had not, as he claimed, acquired it from the adventurous pathfinder John C. Frémont, newly returned from the Rocky Mountains; it was instead from a farm in Indiana. The horse “with his head where his tail should be” was simply reversed in its stall; “chickens made by steam” came from eggs hatched in an incubator.

In 1842 Barnum’s brother Philo introduced him to a two-foot-tall ten-year-old, Charles S. Stratton. Engaged for four weeks at $3 weekly, Stratton was exhibited at the museum as the “English General” Tom Thumb and quickly became a public favorite. Barnum’s 1844 tour of England with the general (there “American General”) was another turning point in his career. In 1844 British opinion of the United States was at an ebb, largely because of the negative reports of travelers such as Mrs. Trollope and Fanny Kemble and Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit, all stereotyping the Yank as crassly business-obsessed. With his blend of genial optimism, healthy skepticism, and frontierish humor, Barnum reversed the tide.

Though successful neither in Liverpool nor in London, where he was sandwiched between a short play and an opera (at least no missiles were thrown his way), Tom Thumb won British hearts by winning their queen’s. After a campaign of wooing the London press, Barnum and Thumb received an invitation to Baroness Rothschild’s home. Departing with a well-filled purse, Barnum concluded that “the golden shower had begun to fall.” He rented London’s exotic Egyptian Hall, where he began to exhibit Thumb, and in the meantime he plied the American minister Edward Everett with letters of introduction from New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley.

The strategy, helped along by the master of the queen’s household, who had recently traveled with the Pawnee Indians, brought Barnum and Thumb three audiences at Buckingham Palace. A true Lilliputian, Thumb was bright, fresh, and attractive, very unlike the ugly dwarfs usually on exhibit in Europe. He pronounced himself “as big as anybody,” sang, danced, and carried on enlightened conversation with all the courtiers.

Soon Barnum was taking $500 nightly at the Egyptian Hall. The triumphant tour eventually included Paris, where Thumb appeared in a play, and Brussels and Waterloo, where Barnum was bemused by the expert humbuggery of the souvenir-sellers.

At 6′ 2″, Barnum made an imposing appearance on a lecture platform, his high-pitched voice selling American attitudes to the British: “[An American] never builds a house to last above a year or two because he’s gone ahead in that time . . . and go ahead is our motto. Shut the fire door, sit on the safety valve and whop the sun. We’ve no bonds on airth can keep us back.” Returning to New York in 1847 Barnum found that he had become his own best curiosity. In 1848 he built in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a mansion called “Iranistan,” a fantastic replica of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England.

In 1850, though he had never heard her sing, Barnum brought to the United States the soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” mortgaging everything, he wrote, because of “her character for extraordinary benevolence and generosity.” Barnum’s advance work (“She was effectually introduced to the public before they had seen or heard her. She appeared in the presence of a jury already excited to enthusiasm in her behalf”) produced a crowd of 20,000 at Lind’s arrival in New York on 1 September. Soon there were Jenny Lind gloves, bonnets, riding hats, shawls, mantillas, robes, chairs, sofas, and pianos. Lind received $10,000 for her first concert, which sold $18,000 in tickets. Her 93-concert tour, which included Cuba, is credited with opening the United States to major European artists.

Between 1851 and 1856 Barnum also operated the touring Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum and Menagerie, which featured Tom Thumb, ten elephants, and other wild animals. In 1852 a Barnum troupe toured the new state of California. Two years later Barnum began delivering lectures on “The Philosophy of Humbug” and issued the first of many versions of his Autobiography.

Instrumental in 1851 in the founding of East Bridgeport, Barnum became a bank president there and in 1852 a partner in a clockmaking factory. Eventually his booster spirit lured him into underwriting the Jerome Clock Company; this cost his latest fortune, and in 1855 he was forced to sell the American Museum’s collection and goodwill.

Barnum’s recovery from the latest debacle (and the 1857 fire that burned Iranistan to the ground) came partly because of further tours (1857–1858) with Tom Thumb, partly because real estate prices in East Bridgeport boomed, and partly because Charity Barnum had her own money. By 1859 Barnum was also giving 100 lectures yearly on “The Art of Money Getting.”

Aside from “go-aheaditiveness” Barnum advocated reserving a nest-egg, wearing old clothes, taking cold baths and brisk walks, and abstaining from tobacco, “the noxious weed.” He pointed out that a little advertising was a dangerous thing and noted that the one liquid a man could use in excessive qualities without being swallowed up in it was printer’s ink.

Barnum reacquired the American Museum in 1860, presenting Grizzly Adams and his bears, wolves, lions, tigers, buffalo, elk, and sea lions. Though a sensation, the mountainman Adams suffered a gaping scalp wound and did not live long. In the next few years Barnum presented the first hippopotamus seen in the United States as well as several Indian chiefs, who left when they found that Barnum was making money from their exhibition. In 1863 several thousands attended the marriage of Tom Thumb to the dwarf Lavinia Warren.

Early a Jacksonian Democrat, Barnum had been asked in 1852 by Connecticut Democrats to run for governor, but secession turned him into a Republican. In 1865 he became a Connecticut legislator and on 13 July was speaking against price-gouging railroad schemes when the news came that the American Museum had burned down. He replaced it on a new site nearby. In 1867 Barnum lost his bid to become a congressman.

Barnum’s Humbugs of the World was published in 1865. Noting that the title “prince of humbug” had first been applied to him by himself (“I made these titles a part of my stock in trade”), Barnum argued that humbuggery was “an astonishingly widespread phenomenon, whether secular, moral or religious,” and if “humbugs” gave a customer his money’s worth they were quite all right. Asserting that the greatest humbug—a fool—believed that everything and everybody are humbugs, Barnum concluded, “When all are kind and just and honest, want only what is fair and right, judge only on real and true evidence, and take nothing for granted, there will be no place for any humbug, harmless or hurtful.”

In 1866 Barnum began a series of lectures on Success in Life, and in 1868 his second museum burned. In 1869 he filled a private railroad car with friends and took them the length of the newly opened Union Pacific Railroad. In 1870 he began to prepare a new show, combining museum, menagerie, caravan, hippodrome, and circus. He asked, “Can the Public Be Satisfied With Only 11 Camels?” The show opened in Brooklyn on 10 April 1871 before a crowd of 10,000.

Originally wagon-drawn, within the decade Barnum’s circus was using sixty to seventy railroad freight cars, six passenger cars (one a Magnificent Advertising Car filled with press agents), and three engines. This “Great Travelling World’s Fair” became Barnum’s first two-ring circus during the 1872–1873 season, and a year later, on the principle of giving the public more than it can digest, there were three rings. By 1874 the show was housed in huge canvas tents. Barnum made sure that cheap excursion trains ran to all his stops. At the circus grounds Barnum’s latest autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs (1869), selling at bookstores for $1.50, could be had for $1. Produced for nine cents, these sold 100,000 yearly. Barnum did not copyright the book, assuring that his words flowed everywhere.

Barnum was again in Europe when he learned of Charity’s death in 1873. In 1874 he married Nancy Fish; they had no children. In 1875 Barnum was elected mayor of Bridgeport. Two years later he returned to England, lecturing on “The World, and How to Live in It.” By this time his show, annually visiting 140 towns and covering 12,000 miles from Nova Scotia to California, was called P. T. Barnum’s New and Greatest Show on Earth.

By 1880 Barnum was seriously threatened by a competitor, the Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and Grand International Allied Shows. Run by James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, this combination merged with Barnum’s in 1881 to form the Barnum and London Circus.

This new “Barnum and Bailey” circus out-Barnumed Barnum, speeding up the action so that no act took more than six minutes. Although it was generally known that Barnum’s main contribution to the new circus was his name, in 1882 his negotiations with the Regent’s Park Zoo in London reaped the mighty Jumbo, a huge elephant (fourteen feet long, eighteen feet around, twelve feet tall, and weighing seven tons), which was the Greatest Show’s major attraction until its heroic death in 1885, run over by a locomotive while saving the life of a baby elephant.

In 1887 the circus’s Bridgeport winter quarters burned. Barnum took the Greatest Show to London, where it opened on 1 November 1889 at the vast Olympia and drew an initial crowd of 15,000, quickly clearing £15,000 weekly. The Dramatic News pronounced it “undoubtedly the most colossal exhibition ever produced in the metropolis,” and Barnum was once again the fad of the season. Lecturing once more, Barnum “told yarns about Irish pilots, Irish waiters, funny deacons … [the Pall Mall Gazette called him] … a born storyteller, and in his hands the stalest chestnut would make you roar with laughter.”

In 1890 Barnum wrote from Colorado, “I eat, sleep and walk like a boy of 16 … I have an old heart and the doctors cannot cure an old heart.” After reading his own specially prepared obituary, Barnum died in Bridgeport. Various theatrical versions of Barnum’s life followed; the most successful was the Cy Coleman musical comedy Barnum (1980), which ran for nearly three years on Broadway and achieved similar success in Great Britain.