P.T. Barnum, the "Greatest Showman on Earth"

Photograph of Phineas T. Barnum
Phineas T. Barnum. Getty Images

P.T. Barnum, often called "The Greatest Showman on Earth," built a collection of curiosities into one of the world's most successful traveling shows. However, his exhibits were often exploitative, and had a darker side.

P.T. Barnum Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Phineas Taylor Barnum
  • Born: July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut
  • Died: April 7, 1891 in Bridgeport, Connecticut
  • Parents: Philo Barnum and Irene Taylor
  • Spouses: Charity Hallett (m. 1829-1873) and Nancy Fish (m. 1874-1891)
  • Children: Frances Irena, Caroline Cornelia, Helen Maria, and Pauline Taylor.
  • Known For: Created the modern concept of the traveling circus as grand spectacle, promoted a number of hoaxes to entertain the public, and is credited with saying "There's a sucker born every minute."

Early Years

Born in Bethel, Connecticut, to Philo Barnum, an innkeeper, farmer, and shop owner, and his wife Irene Taylor, young Phineas Taylor Barnum was raised in a household that embraced the rigid conservative values of the Congregational church. The sixth of ten children, Barnum greatly admired his maternal grandfather, who was not only his namesake, but also a bit of a practical joker in a community that had only a few socially permissible forms of entertainment.

Academically, Barnum excelled in school subjects like math, but hated the physical labor that was demanded of him on his father's farm. He helped Philo out by working in the shop, but when his father died in 1825, teenage Barnum liquidated the family business, and went to work for a general store in a neighboring town. A few years later, at 19, Barnum married Charity Hallett, with whom he would eventually have four children.

Around the same time, he began dabbling in investments in unusual speculation schemes, and was particularly interested promoting entertainment for the masses. Barnum believed that if he could only find one truly amazing thing to exhibit, he could be a success—as long as the crowd believed they'd gotten their money's worth.

Somewhere around 1835, a man walked into Barnum's general store, knowing of Barnum's interest in the odd and fantastic, and offered to sell him a "curiosity." According to Gregg Mangan of Connecticut History,

Joice Heth, an African American woman alleged to be 161 years old and former nurse to founding father George Washington, drew crowds of curious onlookers willing to pay for the chance to hear her speak and even sing. Barnum jumped at the opportunity to market her performances.

P.T. Barnum got his start as a showman by purchasing a blind, nearly paralyzed, elderly African American woman for $1,000 and then working her for ten hours a day. He marketed her as the oldest woman alive, and she died less than a year later. Barnum charged spectators to view her autopsy, at which it was announced that she was no more than 80 years old.

The Greatest Showman on Earth

After exploiting Heth and marketing her as a curiosity, Barnum learned in 1841 that Scudder’s American Museum was for sale. Scudder's, located on Broadway in New York City, housed a collection of some $50,000 worth of "relics and rare curiosities," so Barnum pounced on the opportunity. He rebranded Scudder's as Barnum's American Museum, filled it with the oddest things he could find, and blasted the American public with his extravagant showmanship. Although he is credited with saying "There's a sucker born every minute," there's no evidence that these words came from Barnum; what he did say was "the American people liked to be humbugged.”

Barnum's particular brand of "humbuggery" included marketing exotic, imported animals displayed alongside fakes. There was the so-called Feejee Mermaid, which was a monkey's head sewn onto the body of a large fish, and a giant, working replica of Niagara Falls. In addition, he created his traveling "freak show," using real people as exhibits, and often creating elaborate, false backstories to make them seem more exciting to the crowds. In 1842, he met Charles Stratton, a four-year-old boy from Bridgeport, who was unusually small at just 25" tall. Barnum marketed the child to audiences as General Tom Thumb, an eleven-year-old entertainer from England.

Barnum's traveling spectacle gained momentum with the addition of Stratton, who was drinking wine and smoking cigars by the age of five, as well as Native American dancers, Salvadoran children who were marketed as "Aztecs," and a number of people of African descent whose exhibits were rooted in racial prejudices of the time. Barnum took his show to Europe, where they played to Queen Victoria and other members of royalty.

PT Barnum and C. Stratton
Barnum with Charles Stratton, who used the stage name Tom Thumb. Bettmann  / Getty Images

In 1850, Barnum managed to convince Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale" to come perform in New York. Lind, who was devout and a philanthropist, demanded her $150,000 fee in advance so she could use it to fund education programs in Sweden. Barnum went heavily into debt to pay Lind's fees, but made the money back fairly early into her successful tour. Barnum's promotion and marketing was so overwhelming that Lind eventually opted out of her contract, the two parted ways amicably, and both made a lot of money.

The Darker Side of the Show

Although Barnum is often portrayed as a delightful showman, much of his success was rooted in the exploitation of others. In addition to Stratton and Heth, Barnum profited from exhibiting a number of other individuals as "human curiosities."

William Henry Johnson was introduced to Barnum's audiences as the "man-monkey, found in the wilds of Africa." Johnson, an African American who suffered from microcephaly, was born to poor parents who were former slaves, and who allowed a local circus to display Johnson and his unusually small cranium for money. When his agent got him a role with Barnum, his fame skyrocketed. Barnum dressed him in furs and renamed him Zip the Pinhead, and billed him as the "What is It?" Barnum claimed Johnson as a missing link between "civilized people" and a "naked race of men, traveling about by climbing on tree branches."

Barnum Exhibit
A woman holds conjoined twins who were part of Barnum's exhibit. Hulton Collection / Deutsch / Getty Images

Annie Jones, the Bearded Lady, was another of Barnum's most popular sideshows. Barnell had facial hair from the time she was an infant, and as a toddler, her parents sold her to Barnum as the "Infant Esau," a reference to the Biblical figure known for an impressive beard. Jones ended up staying with Barnum for most of her life, and became one of the most successful bearded lady performers of all time.

Isaac Sprague, the "human skeleton," had an unusual condition in which his muscles atrophied, worked for Barnum several times through his adult life. Chang and Eng Bunker, well-known today as conjoined twins, had been circus performers earlier in their lives, and came out of retirement in North Carolina to join Barnum as a special exhibit. Prince Randian, the "living torso," was brought to the U.S. by Barnum at age 18, and demonstrated amazing feats for audiences who wanted to see a man with no limbs do things like roll a cigarette or shave his own face.

In addition to these types of acts, Barnum hired giants, dwarves, conjoined infants, people with extra and missing limbs, and several physically and mentally disabled individuals as exhibits for his audiences. He also regularly produced and promoted blackface minstrel shows.

Legacy

Statue of PT Barnum
P.T. Barnum Monument, Bridgeport, Connecticut, circa 1962. Archive Photos / Getty Images

Although Barnum built his success on promoting the "freak show," which was rooted in the fears and prejudices of nineteenth century audiences, it appears that later in life he had a slight change of perspective. In the years prior to the Civil War, Barnum campaigned for public office and ran on an anti-slavery platform. He admitted to having engaged in the purchase and sale of slaves, and to having physically abused his slaves, and expressed regret for his actions. Later, he became a philanthropist, and donated a large sum of money to Tufts University for the establishment of a biology and natural history museum.

Barnum died in 1891. The show he'd founded had merged with James Bailey's traveling circus ten years prior, forming Barnum & Bailey's Circus, and was eventually sold to Ringling Brothers, nearly two decades after his death. The city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, honored Barnum with a statue in his memory, and held a six-week Barnum Festival every year. Today, the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport houses over 1,200 of the curiosities that traveled around the country with Barnum's show.

Sources

  • “About P.T. Barnum.” The Barnum Museum, barnum-museum.org/about/about-p-t-barnum/.
  • Barnum, P. T./ Mihm, Stephen (EDT). The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself: With Related Documents. Macmillan Higher Education, 2017.
  • Cunningham, Sean, and Sean Cunningham. “P.T. Barnum's Most Famous 'Freaks'.” InsideHook, 21 Dec. 2017, www.insidehook.com/article/history/p-t-barnums-famous-freaks.
  • Flatley, Helen. “The Darker Side of How P.T. Barnum Became ‘The Greatest Showman.’” The Vintage News, 6 Jan. 2019, www.thevintagenews.com/2019/01/06/greatest-showman/.
  • Mansky, Jackie. “P.T. Barnum Isn't the Hero the ‘Greatest Showman’ Wants You to Think.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 22 Dec. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-pt-barnum-greatest-humbug-them-all-180967634/.