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

By Grace Taylor

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).

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.

Tom Thumb and Wife. The wedding couple as they appeared on the February 21, 1863 cover of Harper's Weekly magazine. (Matthew Brady/Wikimedia Commons)

Around this time, Barnum became deeply interested in politics. Despite his own admitted racism and slave ownership in years past, his time spent with African-American entertainers reshaped his world view, and he became an abolitionist during the era of the Civil War. He got himself elected as a Republican to the Connecticut Legislature in 1865, where he advocated for the passage of the 13th Amendment, and spent a lot of time lobbying to open hospitals. He also spent his own money on public education in natural history.

Barnum's American Museum proved a steady success, but he wanted to grow his entertainment empire by branching further into music and began managing a popular singer by the name of Jenny Lind, also known as the "Swedish Nightingale." Her performances constantly sold out, and in only two years, Barnum and Lind made more money than they had in their entire lives put together. However, his good luck hit a bump in the road when both his home and the American Museum burned down in unrelated fires. He tried to rebuild the Museum, but unbelievably, it burned down again, and the business mogul was forced to give up the museum life for good.

Poster of Jumbo the Elephant. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Most men in Barnum's position would have looked forward to a leisurely retirement, but that was out of character for the Greatest Showman. At the age of 60 and only a couple of years after the fires, he was up and running with his new venture, P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth and the Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie, and the Grand International Allied Shows United" (say that three times fast). Much like his museum, it was filled with animal acts, music, and human curiosities, but this time, it went on the road (and didn't burn down). His greatest attraction was undoubtedly Jumbo the Elephant, who brought in millions for the circus but only lived a short three years under Barnum's control before he was hit and killed by Barnum's own train in 1895. R.I.P. Jumbo.

Of course, Barnum's real legacy lies in his partnership with James L. Hutchinson and James Bailey, with whom he created the Barnum & Bailey's Circus, purported to be "the Greatest Show on Earth." It was the birth of the three-ring circus, in which at least three lives shows are performed simultaneously. They toured, focusing more on animals and aerobatics (although Tom Thumb did occasionally make appearances as well), and Barnum enjoyed several decades of circus success before dying of a stroke at the age of 81 on April 7, 1891. Ever the businessman, he worked until the very afternoon of his death. In 1919, the circus expanded into the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus, but despite nearly a century of massive popularity, the Greatest Show on Earth finally closed down in 2017 after a long and sordid history of animal care controversies.

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Grace Taylor