Phineas T. Barnum
The greatest showman on Earth.
Phineas Taylor Barnum (b. July 5, 1810, currently age 62) was an American showman remembered for hoaxes and for founding the circus that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum never flinched from his stated goal “to put money in his own coffers.” He was a businessman, his profession was entertainment, and he was perhaps the first “show business” millionaire. He never said “There’s a sucker born every minute” but his rebuttal to critics was often “I am a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.” The Tufts University Biology Building is named in honor of Barnum.
Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of inn-keeper, tailor, and store-keeper Philo Barnum (1778-1826) and second wife Irene Taylor, who had ten children. He was the third great grandson of Thomas Barnum (1625-1695), the immigrant ancestor of the Barnum family in North America. His maternal grandfather Phineas Taylor was a wag, legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and lottery schemer, and he had a great influence on this favorite grandson. Barnum was adept at arithmetic but hated physical work. Barnum started as a store-keeper, and he learned haggling, striking a bargain, and using deception to make a sale. He was involved with the lottery mania in the United States. He married Charity Hallett when he was 19; she’d be his companion for the next 44 years.
The young husband had several businesses – a general store, a book auctioning trade, real estate speculation, and a state-wide lottery network. He became active in local politics and advocated against blue laws promulgated by Calvinists who sought to restrict gambling and travel. Barnum started a weekly paper in 1829, The Herald of Freedom, in Danbury, Connecticut. His editorials against church elders led to libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in imprisonment for two months, but he became a champion of the liberal movement upon his release. In 1834, when lotteries were banned in Connecticut, cutting off his main income, Barnum sold his store and moved to New York City. In 1835 he began as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, claimed by Barnum to have been the nurse of George Washington, and to be over 160.
Joice Heth died in 1836, no more than 80. After a year of mixed success with his first variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater”, followed by the Panic of 1837 and a three years of difficult circumstances, he purchased Scudder’s American Museum, at Broadway and Ann Street, New York City, in 1841. Renamed “Barnum’s American Museum” with addition of exhibits and improvements in the building, it became a popular showplace. Barnum added a lighthouse lamp which attracted attention up and down Broadway and flags along the roof’s edge that attracted attention in daytime. From between the upper windows, giant paintings of animals drew stares from pedestrians. The roof was transformed to a strolling garden with a view of the city, where hot-air balloon rides were launched daily. To the static exhibits of stuffed animals were added a changing series of live acts and “curiosities”, including albinos, giants, midgets, “fat boys”, jugglers, magicians, “exotic women”, detailed models of cities and famous battles, and eventually a menagerie of animals.
In 1842, Barnum introduced his first major hoax, the “Fejee” mermaid, which he leased from fellow museum owner Moses Kimball of Boston, who became his friend, confidant, and collaborator. it was a tail of a fish and the head of a monkey. He justified his hoaxes or “humbugs” as “advertisements to draw attention…to the Museum. I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”  Later, he crusaded against fraudsters (see below). Barnum followed that with the exhibition of Charles Stratton, the dwarf “General Tom Thumb” (“the Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone”) who was then four years of age but passed off as 11. With heavy coaching and natural talent, the boy was taught to imitate people from Hercules to Napoleon. By five, he was drinking wine and by seven smoking cigars for the public’s amusement. Though exploited, Tom Thumb enjoyed his job and had a good relationship with Barnum free of bitterness.
In year 1843 Barnum hired the traditional Native American dancer fu-Hum-Me, the first of many Native Americans he presented. During 1844-45, Barnum toured with Tom Thumb in Europe and met Queen Victoria, who was amused and saddened by the little man, and the event was a publicity coup. It opened the door to visits from royalty across Europe including the Czar of Russia and let him acquire dozens of attractions, including automatons and other mechanical marvels. He tried to buy the birth home of William Shakespeare and almost got away with it. Barnum was having the time of his life, and for all of the three years abroad with Thumb, except for a few months when his serious, nervous, and straitlaced wife joined him, he had piles of spending money, food and drink, and lived a carefree existence. On his return to New York, he went on a spending spree, buying other museums, including Peale’s museum in Philadelphia, the nation’s first major museum. By late 1846, Barnum’s Museum was drawing 400,000 visitors a year.
An instance of his enterprise was the engagement of Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale”, to sing in America at $1,000 a night for 150 nights, all expenses paid by the entrepreneur in advance – an unprecedented offer. “Jenny Lind mania” was sweeping Europe and she was a favorite of Queen Victoria. She was unpretentious, shy, and devout, and possessed a crystal-clear soprano voice projected with a wistful quality which audiences found touching. The offer was accepted in part to free her from opera performances which she disliked and to endow a music school for poor children. The risk for Barnum was huge. Besides never having heard her or knowing whether Americans would take to her, he had to assume all the financial risk. He borrowed heavily on his mansion and his museum. With bravado, he drummed up publicity but conceded, ”’The public’ is a very strange animal, and although a good knowledge of human nature will generally lead a caterer of amusement to hit the people right, they are fickle and ofttimes perverse.”
As a result of months of Barnum’s preparations, close to 40,000 greeted her at the docks and another 20,000 at her hotel, the press was in attendance, and “Jenny Lind items” were available. The tour began with the concert at Castle Garden on September 11, 1850 and turned out a success, recouping Barnum four times his investment. Washington Irving proclaimed “She is enough to counterbalance, of herself, all the evil that the world is threatened with by the great convention of women. So God save Jenny Lind!”
Using profits from the Lind tour, Barnum’s next challenge was to change attitudes about the theater from ‘dens of evil’ to palaces of edification and delight, respectable middle-class entertainment. He built the largest and most modern theater and named it the “Moral Lecture Room”, to avoid seedy connotation and to attract a family crowd and to get the approval of the moral crusaders of New York City. He started the nation’s first theater matinées to encourage families and to lessen the fear of crime. He opened with The Drunkard, a thinly disguised temperance lecture (he had become a teetotaler after returning from Europe with Tom Thumb). He followed that with melodramas, farces, and historical plays, put on by highly regarded actors. He watered down Shakespearean plays and others such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin to make them family entertainment.
He organized flower shows, beauty contests, dog shows, poultry contests, but the most popular were the baby contests (fattest baby, handsomest twins, etc.). In 1853, he started a pictorial weekly newspaper Illustrated News and a year later he completed his autobiography, which through many revisions, sold more than one million copies. Mark Twain loved it but the British Examiner thought it “trashy” and “offensive” and “inspired…nothing but sensations of disgust…and sincere pity for the wretched man who compiled it.”
In the early 1850s, Barnum began investing in real estate to develop East Bridgeport, Connecticut. He made substantial loans to the Jerome Clock Company, to get it to move to the new industrial area he was underwriting. But by 1856, the company went bankrupt sucking Barnum’s wealth with it. So began four years of court litigation and public humiliation. Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed that Barnum’s downfall showed “the gods visible again” and other critics celebrated Barnum’s moral comeuppance. But his friends pulled hard too, and Tom Thumb, now touring on his own, offered his services again to the showman and they undertook another European tour. Barnum also started a lecture tour, mostly as a temperance speaker. By 1860, he emerged from debt and built a mansion “Lindencroft” (his palace “Iranistan” had burnt down in 1857) and he resumed ownership of his museum.
Despite critics who predicted he could not revive the magic, Barnum went on to greater success. He added America’s first aquarium and expanded the wax figure department. His “Seven Grand Salons” demonstrated the Seven Wonders of the World. He created a rogues gallery. The collections expanded to four buildings and he published a “Guide Book to the Museum” which claimed 850,000 ‘curiosities’.
Late in 1860, the Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, came out of retirement (they needed more money to send their numerous children to college). The Twins had had a touring career on their own and went to live on a North Carolina plantation with their families and slaves, under the name of “Bunker”. They appeared at Barnum’s Museum for six weeks. Also in 1860, Barnum introduced the “man-monkey” William Henry Johnson, a microcephalic black dwarf who spoke a mysterious language created by Barnum. In 1862, he discovered the giantess Anna Swan and Commodore Nutt, a new Tom Thumb, who with Barnum visited President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. During the Civil War, Barnum’s museum drew large audiences seeking diversion from the conflict. He added pro-Unionist exhibits, lectures, and dramas, and he demonstrated commitment to the cause, inciting a Confederate arsonist to start a fire in 1864. On July 13, 1865, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground from a fire of unknown origin. Barnum re-established the Museum at another location in New York City, but this too was destroyed by fire in March 1868. This time the loss was too great, and Barnum retired from the freak business.
Barnum did not enter the circus business until late in his career (he was 61). In Delavan, Wisconsin in 1871 with William Cameron Coup, he established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome”, a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks”, which by 1872 was billing itself as “The Greatest Show on Earth”.