P.T. Barnum: Circus Magnate And Entertainer Extraordinaire, Truth & Myths

By | April 3, 2021

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Phineas Taylor "P. T." Barnum (July 5, 1810–April 7, 1891). (Harvard Library/Wikimedia Commons)

Called "The Greatest Showman on Earth," P.T. Barnum is known for his meteoric rise in the entertainment industry as well as his complicated legacy as co-founder of the iconic Barnum and Bailey three-ring circus. Born as Phineas Taylor Barnum in Bethen, Connecticut in 1810 to farmers Philo and Irene Barnum, he discovered at an early age that hard manual labor was not the life for him. He found a less demanding job as a grocery clerk at age 15, and it was during this time that young Barnum figured out how to pull off small-scale lottery schemes, a talent he likely picked up from his grandfather, eventually making enough money to open his own fruit and candy store before the age of 20.

However, he knew the real opportunities were to be found in the Big Apple, so he moved to New York City with an eye on the entertainment industry. Human curiosities, also known by the less kindly term "freak shows," were a huge draw in this era, and Barnum thought he'd met just the person to display. Joice Heth was an enslaved woman owned by sideshow promoter R.W. Lindsay, who tried to convince Barnum she was 161 years old and the nursing maid to none other than President George Washington. Obviously, Barnum didn't believe that, but he thought the spectacle of her extremely aged appearance could be valuable nonetheless, so he rented her for his display in 1835. Unfortunately, the exhibition took its toll on her health, and she died within the year. Not finished profiting from the poor woman, Barnum actually charged the public 50 cents a piece to watch the surgeon perform her autopsy (which proved that she actually was only about 80 years old).

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Poster advertising Joice Heth. (Somers Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons)

After Heth's death, Barnum embarked upon his first major venture with Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater, later renamed Barnum's American Museum. It featured human curiosities alongside more traditional musical acts and an animal menagerie, although some of his so-called "exotic animals" were nothing more than an assortment of skeletons and corpses sewn together.

The major attraction of the American Museum, however, was a young dwarf named Charles Stratton, who Barnum adopted after his father died. From the age of only five, Barnum taught the boy to sing and perform, often dressing him up as Napoleon and instructing him to drink wine to amuse the crowd. Despite this unhealthy lifestyle, Stratton went on to become a world famous actor, known by the public as Tom Thumb, and performed for everyone from Queen of England to the Tsar of Russia. President Abraham Lincoln even threw Stratton and his wife a reception at the White House to celebrate their wedding.

Critics of P.T. Barnum often point out the inherit exploitation of these so-called human curiosities, while other historians note that many of the people employed by Barnum wouldn't have been able to find work outside of these types of attractions. Some were so well paid that they were able to retire after only a few years of exhibitions.