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Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, on July 5, 1810, the son of an inn- and store-keeper. He started his working career as a store-keeper, but the business failed. In 1829 he founded a weekly paper, The Herald of Freedom, in Danbury, Connecticut. After several libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in imprisonment, he moved to New York City in 1834.
In 1835, Barnum began exhibiting an old, blind, and paralyzed former slave woman named Joice Heth, whom he claimed was over 160 years old and had been George Washington's nurse. With Heth and a few other "exhibits" Barnum made well-advertised and successful tours in America until 1839, even though Heth died in 1836 and it was subsequently proven that she was no more than 80 years old.
In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder's American Museum, at Broadway and Ann Street, in New York City. Renamed Barnum's American Museum, and with a considerable addition of unusual exhibits, it became one of the most popular destinations in the United States. The museum's "collection" included: Charles Stratton, also known as "General Tom Thumb;" the Fiji Mermaid; and Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins.
advertisement for Barnum's American
One of Barnum's most lucrative enterprises was the engagement of Jenny Lind to sing in America at $1,000 a night for 150 nights, with all expenses paid by Barnum. The tour began in 1850, and was a great success for both Lind and Barnum.
Barnum retired from show business in 1855, but problems with creditors forced him to resume his career in 1857. On July 13, 1865, Barnum's American Museum burned to the ground. Barnum quickly reestablished the Museum at another location in New York City, but this one was destroyed by fire in March 1868.
In 1871, with William Cameron Coup, Barnum established P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, a traveling amalgamation of circus, menagerie and museum of "freaks," which by 1872 was billing itself as "The Greatest Show on Earth." It subsequently went through a number of names until 1888, when Barnum teamed up with James Bailey to established the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth," which later became "Barnum & Bailey Circus." For many years the circus's primary attraction was Jumbo, a huge African elephant, which Barnum purchased from the London Zoo in 1882. Barnum's circus was for quite some time the largest traveling circus in the world; it was also the first to use the railroads as its primary mode of transportation.
poster for The Barnum and Bailey
Greatest Show on Earth
Barnum was the author of several books, including The Life of P.T. Barnum: Written by Himself (1855), The Humbugs of the World (1865), Struggles and Triumphs (1869), and The Art of Money-Getting (1880).
Mass publication of The Life of P.T. Barnum was one of Barnum's more successful methods of self-promotion. The book was so popular that some collectors made a point of acquiring every edition printed. Barnum eventually gave up his claim of copyright to allow other printers to publish and sell inexpensive editions.
Barnum obviously saw nothing wrong with using hype to promote entertainment, but was contemptuous of those who made money through outright deception. He was especially contemptuous of the spiritualist mediums that were popular in his day, and took pride in publicly exposing the "tricks of the trade" used by mediums to deceive and cheat grieving survivors. In The Humbugs of the World, he offered a $500 reward to any medium who could prove their claimed power to communicate with the dead without trickery. No one ever collected the reward.
Although he claimed to dislike politics, Barnum was elected to the Connecticut State Legislature in 1865 as the Republican representative for Fairfield, and went on to serve two terms. Perhaps his most important contribution during this period was a speech he gave in favor of ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (prohibiting slavery). He ran for the U.S. Congress in 1867, but lost. In 1875, he was elected Mayor of Bridgeport for a one-year term, during which time he worked to improve the city water supply, bring gas lighting to the streets, and strictly enforce liquor and prostitution laws.
Barnum was instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and served as its first president.
P.T. Barnum died on April 7, 1891, and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut. A statue in his honor was erected in 1893 at Seaside Park, in Bridgeport. His estate sold his share of the circus to Ringling Brothers on July 8, 1907, for the sum of $400,000.
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This page was last updated on 09/23/2017.