P.T. Barnum: a Short History


Hello all! Now I’d be lying if I said that there wasn’t a very specific reason for the topic of this blog post. Last Wednesday I went to see The Greatest Showman and to say that I enjoyed it would be a huge understatement. If you get the chance seriously go see it. After the film I got to thinking about what the real Barnum was like and if he was anything remotely similar to Hugh Jackman, it’s fair to say I was slightly disappointed. While the film never claimed to be historically accurate or a biopic in any way, I still wanted to get into the crux of who P.T. Barnum was, and if you want to know too, keep reading!

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 and was an American showman, politician and businessman. He was most famously known for founding the Barnum and Bailey circus 1871-2017 and was also an author, publisher, philanthropist and politician.

In 1835 Barnum began his career as a showman and purchased and exhibited a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman named Joice Heth, who Barnum claimed was 161 years old. While slavery was outlawed in New York at the time, Barnum exploited a loophole that allowed him to lease her for a year for $1000 and borrowed $500 in order to complete the sale. She ended up dying in 1836 and was no more than 80 years old. This is where the demonization of Barnum really takes root. Barnum was said to have worked her for 10-12 hours a day and then went on to host a live autopsy of her body in a New York saloon where spectators paid 50 cents to see her be cut up. I’m not trying to defend his actions but I think what people have to remember is the time he was living in. It was the Victorian era, levels of poverty were incredibly high and it was every man for himself, as the saying goes. I feel like this one instance overshadows every other achievement he made.

In 1842 he displayed the Feejee mermaid in Barnum’s American Museum which had the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish. As a result, many argued that he was a fraud and should not be trusted. However, Barnum argued that they were simply, ‘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’. I think there’s a lot to be learnt from this quote, is this not true in every aspect of life? Look at clickbait for example, it’s exactly the same thing and very many successful people do it! Barnum was actually referred to as the ‘prince of Humbugs’ as he saw nothing wrong in entertainers or vendors using hoaxes or humbugs to promotional material so long as the public was getting good value for money. While this was true, apparently he was contemptuous of those who made money through deception such as spiritualist mediums or illusionists. In some ways, this depicts Barnum as being somewhat hypocritical. The reason I think he argued this was because he believed that even though some of his oddities were either exaggerated or not entirely true, the public were ultimately gaining an authentic experience, whereas with mediums and such, the public aren’t left with all that much. He went so far as to expose ‘the tricks of the trade’ used by mediums to cheat the bereaved by offering $500 to any medium who could prove their power to communicate with the dead.

Possibly Barnum’s most successful ‘oddity’ was General Tom Thumb. When he was recruited by Barnum he was in fact 4 years old but was stated to be 11. He was trained and eventually took on roles such as Hercules and Napoleon, much to the public’s delight. By the age of 5 he was drinking wine, and by the age of 7 he was smoking cigarettes for the public.

In 1865 Barnum’s American Museum caught fire and burned to the ground. Shortly after another museum opened but this was also demolished by a fire in 1868. As a result Barnum retired from the museum business and opened ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. Here, he teamed up with Dan Costello and William C. Coup to launch P.T. Barnum’s Grand Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome in 1871. After a successful run, Barnum joined forces with fellow circus managers James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson. A year after they introduced Jumbo the elephant who was 11 1/2 foot and weighed 6 1/2 tons from the Royal Zoological Society in London.

Barnum’s life came to an end in 1891 as a result of a stroke. Most critics had forgiven Barnum and was actually praised for good, demonstrating how much more valuable a person becomes once their gone. He was hailed as an icon of American spirit and ingenuity and was considered to be perhaps the most famous American in the world, certainly high praise for a man who was considered to be morally inept. In 1893 a statue was erected in his honour and was placed at seaside park in Bridgeport, as a way to celebrate how Barnum founded the Bridgeport Hospital after he was elected Mayor of Bridgeport in 1875. As well as this, the Tufts University biology building in named in honour of Barnum. Jumbo the elephant also became the mascot of Tufts University in honour of Barnum’s 1889 donation of the elephant’s stuffed hide.

His circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers in 1917. Initially, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circuses ran separately until they merged in 1919 which saw the birth of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus.

Like every major character in history, Barnum had his flaws, and there were many of them. But he inadvertently changed the way the world looked at things, he introduced a new inclusivity that America and the world had never seen before, making him, in my books anyway, one of the greatest showmen in history!