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  Name:  Phineas Taylor Barnum
  Born:  July 5, 1810
  Died:  April 7, 1891

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

Barnum, Phineas Taylor “P. T.” (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891)

P. T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, on July 5, 1810 to Irena Taylor Barnum and Philo F. Barnum, a storekeeper and farmer.  His interest in money–making manifested early in life when he sold gingerbread and candy to fellow public–school students in Bethel.  In 1825 his father died bankrupt, so young Barnum started clerking in a nearby general store.  Less than three years later he had saved enough to open his own store in Bethel, selling fruit and confections.  In 1829 he married Charity Hallet; they had four children.  In 1873 his wife died, and he married Nancy Fish.

In 1831 Barnum began publishing an abolitionist and “non–denominational” Christian newspaper, the Herald of Freedom, in Danbury, Connecticut.  At one point he was jailed for libeling an alleged usurer.  Upon his release, Barnum—already a showman—rode through town in an open coach drawn by six horses, accompanied by cannon blasts and a chorus singing “Yankee Doodle.”  In 1834 the journal went under, so he moved to New York City to manage a grocery store and boardinghouse.  While there, he learned of a slave called Joice Heth who claimed to be the 161–year–old nurse of George Washington.  Barnum spent $1000, half of it borrowed, to purchase her.  He freed Heth and paid her to tell her stories about the Father of the Nation at Niblo’s Garden, a popular entertainment venue in the city.  His first venture into the entertainment business brought in $750 weekly.

Over the next several years, Barnum moved in and out of the entertainment business.  He partnered with Aaron Turner to purchase a small circus with which they toured the South in 1836.  A one point he lost everything when a partnership in bear grease, shoe blacking, and toilet water failed.  In 1841 the unprofitable Scudder’s New York Museum was up for sale, and Barnum realized the opportunity it offered.  As he later explained, “Lacking gold, I intended to buy it with brass.”  He audaciously convinced the owner to purchase it for him.  When another museum (Peale’s) used funds from bankers to outbid them, Barnum publicly ridiculed the idea of bankers running an exhibit of curiosities.  Shrinking from the negative publicity, the bankers withdrew their financial support.  By the end of the year he was able to take possession of Scudder’s and a few years later bought Peale’s collections.  Barnum’s American Museum is considered to be the country’s first public museum of real importance.

Barnum used various methods of creative advertising, such as hiring a man to lay a path of stray bricks for inquisitive folks to follow to the American Museum.  He was the first to use floodlights in New York City.  His formula for financial success was to spend great sums of money to acquire an ever–changing display of strange exhibits for which the public would eagerly pay a small amount to see again and again.  To the brilliant array of the weird and wonderful, Barnum added a theater for the performance of “moral plays.”  Some of his better known humbugs included the Feejee Mermaid (1842)—bits of dried skin, hair, and scales passed off as a preserved sea nymph—and the Woolly Horse—a real horse with curly hair but not, as billed, from explorer John C. Frémont’s trek through the Rocky Mountains.  Publicized as a horse “with his head where his tail should be,” the animal was merely reversed in his stall.

In 1842, Barnum met Charles Stratton, a ten–year–old boy who was only two–feet in height.  Barnum re–christened him “General Tom Thumb” and paid him three dollars a week to entertain the public by singing, dancing, and chatting.  Quickly becoming popular in America, Barnum and General Thumb toured England, where the dwarf enchanted Queen Victoria and the Baroness Rothschild.  After a triumphal run at London’s Egyptian Hall, raking in $500 nightly, the two Americans proceeded to take Paris by storm.  They returned home in 1847, and the next year Barnum built a mansion, “Iranistan,” in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

In 1850, Barnum mortgaged everything he owned to bring soprano Jenny Lind to America.  His ingenious advance work generated so much anticipation for the Swedish Nightingale that 20,000 people greeted her arrival in New York.  Jenny Lind memorabilia proliferated, from gloves and bonnets to furniture and pianos.  The sensational 93–concert tour is credited with making it acceptable for principle European musicians to perform in the United States.  During the 1850s Barnum, Tom Thumb, and an assortment of wild animals traveled across the country, as far as California, as part of his “Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum and Menagerie.”  In 1854, Barnum began lecturing on “The Philosophy of Humbug” and published the first version of his Autobiography

Barnum suffered a series of setbacks in the 1850s, too.  He lost his fortune (again) with the failure of a clock company he had underwritten, and had to sell the American Museum.  In 1857 fire destroyed his Connecticut home.  He recouped his losses through tours with Tom Thumb (1857–1858), rising real estate prices on his property investments in East Bridgeport, Connecticut, and money from his wife.  Suitably, in 1859 he began lecturing on “The Art of Money Getting.”  The next year, he was able to buy back the American Museum, this time featuring Grizzly Adams and his bear, along with the usual assortment of wild creatures and oddities.  Adams soon died, so Barnum moved on to Indian chiefs and the first hippopotamus in America.  In 1863, Tom Thumb wed Lavinia Warren, also a dwarf, in a ceremony attended by thousands and featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly.  Two years later the American Museum burned down, but Barnum rebuilt it nearby. 

Barnum had been a Jacksonian Democrat since his youth, yet became a Republican at the onset of the Civil War.  In 1865 he won a seat in the Connecticut legislature as a Republican, but lost a Congressional election two years later.  In 1865 he published Humbugs of the World, which recognized in humbuggery “an astonishingly widespread phenomenon, whether secular, moral or religious” and defending harmless humbugs that give pleasure.  In 1866 he lectured on “Success in Life,” and the following year the second American Museum burned down. His 1869 autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs, sold 100,000 copies a year and was not copyrighted so that his story would spread even more widely.  He established a traveling circus—the “Great Travelling World’s Fair”—which premiered in Brooklyn in April 1871 before a throng of 10,000.  It soon became the first two–ring, then three–ring, circus, transported by up to seventy railroad freight cars, and was renamed “P. T. Barnum’s New and Greatest Show on Earth.” 

Having reverted to the Democratic Party, Barnum supported Horace Greeley for president in 1872.  Three years later he was himself elected mayor of Bridgeport as a Democrat.  In 1879 he persuaded the Connecticut legislature to make the use of contraceptives illegal, which he assumed would be enforced by local vigilante committees.  In 1880 “The Greatest Show on Earth” faced serious competition from the Great London Circus, managed by James Bailey and James Hutchinson.  The next year the two enterprises combined to form the “Barnum and London Circus” (later, “Barnum and Bailey Circus”).  Barnum’s role was greatly diminished, contributing little more than his name, but in 1882 he did acquire a gigantic elephant named Jumbo from London’s Regent’s Park Zoo.  Jumbo proved to be the circus’s main draw until he was killed in 1885 while saving a baby elephant from the path of a train.  In 1887 the Bridgeport headquarters of the Greatest Show burned.  In November 1889 Barnum and the circus traveled to London where both were roaring successes.  In 1891, realizing he was near death, Barnum had his own obituary written and printed in the newspaper so that he could read it.  He died in Bridgeport on April 7, 1891.

Source consulted:  James Ross Moore, “Barnum, P. T.” American National Biography (online).


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