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Phineas Taylor Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), America's greatest showman of the 19th century, instructed and amused a nation with his museum and later his circus.

Speaking of his youth, P. T. Barnum said, "I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for moneymaking, but hard work was decidedly not in my line." Indeed, he succeeded in making a great deal of money by working hard at having fun. His love of a joke came to him naturally. When he was born in Bethel, Conn., in 1810, his grandfather deeded him a parcel of land known as lvy Island. The growing boy was constantly reminded of his property. When he was 10 years old, he went to visit his estate and discovered it to be "a worthless piece of barren land."

Early Occupations and Joice Heth

When Phineas was 15, his father died, leaving his widow and five children penniless. Phineas immediately became clerk in a country store, where he learned the fine art of Yankee trading. During the next 10 years he was a shop owner, director of lotteries, and newspaper publisher. When he was 19 he eloped with a local seamstress, Charity Hallett (who would remain his wife for 44 years and give him four daughters). At 22, as publisher of the Herald of Freedom, he was jailed for libelously accusing a deacon of usury; upon his release 60 days later, Barnum was met by a band and "a coach drawn by six horses" for a parade back to town.

The embryo showman was developing, but it was not until 1835, when he encountered Joice Heth, that the Prince of Humbugs was born. Joice Heth was a disabled African American woman who, her sponsors claimed, was 160 years old and had been the infant George Washington's nurse. Seeing her possibilities as a human curiosity, Barnum purchased the right to exhibit her, along with the documents validating her age, and set her upon her couch in Niblo's Garden in New York City. She was extremely popular, but when interest began to flag, a newspaper item appeared suggesting that Joice was not human at all but an "automaton" made of whalebone, indian rubber, and springs. The exhibition hall was full once more, for Barnum always knew how to use the news as well as the advertising sections of newspapers. Finally, upon her death in 1836, when an autopsy proved that Joice had been no more than 80 years old, Barnum was as surprised and indignant as anyone else. He had learned, however, that "the public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived."

American Museum

For the next four years Barnum was an itinerant showman in the West and South. By 1840 he was back in New York, poor, weary of travel, and without prospects. When he heard that the struggling Scudder's American Museum (with its collection of curiosities) was for sale, Barnum determined to buy it. "With what?" asked a friend. "Brass, " Barnum replied, "for silver and gold I have none." He mortgaged himself to the building's owner, proposing for collateral good references, a determination to succeed, and a "valuable and sentimental" piece of property known as Ivy Island. By the end of 1842 the museum was his, and a year later he was out of debt.

Barnum's American Museum was to become the most famous showplace of the century. Here, in constantly changing and elaborately advertised parade, the public could see educated dogs and fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists, living statuary, albinos, obese men, bearded women, a great variety of singing and dancing acts, models of Paris and Jerusalem, dioramas of the Creation and the Deluge, glassblowing, knitting machines, African Americans performing a war dance, conjoined twins, flower and bird shows, whales, mermaids, virtuous melodramas such as The Drunkard, a menagerie of rare animals, and an aquarium—"all for twenty-five cents, children half price."

His showman's delight in seeking out the splendid and the curious knew no bounds. "The one end aimed at, " he said, "was to make people think, and talk, and wonder, and … go to the Museum." His Great Model of Niagara Falls with Real Water was actually 18 inches high; the Feejee Mermaid was really a monkey's head and torso fused to a fish's tail; the Woolly Horse of the Frozen Rockies had in truth been foaled in Indiana. Only half in jest did Barnum seek to buy Shakespeare's birthplace, hire the Zulu leader who had recently ambushed a British force, and tow an iceberg into New York harbor. Altogether, the museum showed over 600, 000 exhibits during its existence.

Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind

General Tom Thumb was Barnum's greatest attraction. Charles S. Stratton, a native of Bridgeport, Conn., was 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds when he entered Barnum's employ in 1842. When he died in 1883, at the age of 45, he had made millions of dollars and delighted international audiences. In the first of Barnum's many European junkets the General entertained Queen Victoria, King Louis Philippe, and other royalty with his songs, dances, and impersonations in miniature. Of the 82 million tickets Barnum sold during his lifetime for various attractions, Tom Thumb sold over 20 million.

In 1850 Barnum turned impresario, introducing the most renowned singer of her time, Jenny Lind, to the American public. The immensely profitable tour of this gracious "Swedish Nightingale" was prepared with ingenious public relations but conducted with dignity and generosity by Barnum. Its success initiated the vogue of European concert artists visiting the United States.

Fires and Bankruptcy

Barnum's irrepressibility helped him overcome numerous professional misfortunes. Five times he was almost ruined by fire, but each time he recouped. In 1857 his famous house, Iranistan, fashioned after George IV's Pavilion at Brighton, burned to the ground. The original museum burned in 1865, and new museums burned in 1868 and again in 1872. Finally, in 1887, the great circus in its winter quarters, with most of its menagerie, was lost. But the showman's greatest financial catastrophe had nothing to do with show business. For years he had cherished the dream of building a city out of the farmland of East Bridgeport—a benevolent endeavor, he thought. In order to attract business, he signed some notes guaranteeing the debts of the Jerome Clock Company. As a result, he lost all he owned. Thus, in 1855, at the age of 46, the great Barnum was bankrupt. But he worked his way back, in part from successful lectures on "The Art of Money Getting, " and by 1860 he was free of debt once more.

Throughout his life Barnum was a political liberal, serving in the Connecticut Legislature in the late 1860s, where he diligently fought the railroad interests, and as mayor of Bridgeport in 1875-1876. A year after the death of his first wife, Charity, in 1873, Barnum married Nancy Fish, an English woman 40 years his junior.

"The Greatest Show on Earth"

In April 1874 Barnum opened his Roman Hippodrome in New York; this was to grow into the great circus. He did not invent the circus, an ancient form of entertainment, but along with his enterprising young partner, James A. Bailey, whose circus merged with Barnum's in 1881, he made it a three-ring extravaganza the likes of which had never been seen before. Barnum's last great coup was his 1881 purchase from the London Zoo of the largest elephant in captivity, Jumbo. Violent objections by the English only made Jumbo and the circus that much more appealing. The variety and splendor of the show delighted the American audiences that Barnum had trained, over the years, to be delighted. In 1882 the circus opened its season in Madison Square Garden, where it was to become an American institution; and everywhere the "big top" traveled, a "Barnum Day" was declared. Circling the arena in an open carriage as leader of the parade always brought roars of approval (and great satisfaction) to the aging genius.

By 1891 Barnum's body began to fail, though not his spirit. His child's delight in the joke, the curious, and the splendid had set an entire nation to wondering and laughing and buying. A few weeks before his death, Barnum gave permission to the Evening Sun to print his obituary, so that he might have a chance to read it. On April 7 he asked about the box office receipts for the day; a few hours later, he was dead.

Further Reading

Barnum's autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs of P.T. Barnum (1871; rev. ed. 1967), was frequently revised by Barnum until 1888. It is detailed, though somewhat self-righteous and therefore less appealing than Waldo Brown, ed., Barnum's Own Story: The Autobiography of P. T. Barnum … (1927; rev. ed. 1961). This work combines Barnum's first autobiographical venture of 1855, which offended some readers for its frank confession of humbugs, and the more staid book of 1871. Irving Wallace, The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P. T. Barnum (1959), is one of the most interesting treatments, providing not only a history of Barnum's career but sketches of his most famous associates and an analysis of Barnum's happy effect upon American society of the 19th century. For a history of the circus see Earl C. May, The Circus from Rome to Ringling (1932), and Fred Bradna, Big Top: My Forty Years with the Greatest Show on Earth (1952). □

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Barnum, Phineas Taylor

BARNUM, PHINEAS TAYLOR


P. T. Barnum (18101891) portrayed himself as the "Prince of Humbugs" to characterize many outrageous stunts and exhibits that were part of his exploits as a showman. His tours, lectures, museum, and autobiography made him famous and a millionaire long before he entered the circus business and formed the innovative Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1880s. Although he probably never said, "There's a sucker born every minute," as is widely believed, he did act as if his audiences hoped to be fooled or, as he said, "humbugged."

Barnum was only 15 years old when his father died. He was forced to find the means to support his mother and five brothers and sisters. After trying his hand at various jobs he bought a weekly newspaper in his hometown of Bethel, Connecticut, called the Herald of Freedom. Over the course of several years he was arrested three times for libel and once spent 60 days in jail. In 1834 Barnum moved to New York City and became a shopkeeper.

Shortly afterward, Barnum was transformed from shopkeeper to showman when he discovered an elderly black woman, Joice Heth, who claimed to be George Washington's (17891797) nurse. A showman in Philadelphia had promoted Heth as the first president's 161-year-old nurse without much financial success. Under Barnum's management and sensational advertising, Heth toured the country telling her fabricated memories of the president's childhood. After her death, an autopsy showed her to be only 80 years old. A canny Barnum played to the public and claimed that he himself was also the victim of a hoax.

The Heth experience convinced Barnum that there was a market for satisfying the public's taste for the outrageous and improbable on a much larger scale. He bought John Scudder's American Museum in New York City which, at the time, housed conventional exhibits of stuffed animals and wax figures. Barnum transformed the museum into a place of lively entertainment and bizarre attractions, open to the public for 25 cents admission. The fivestory museum, which he operated for more than twentyfive years, housed some 50,000 curiosities including strange objects, unusual animals, and assorted people. Some of his most popular attractions were "freaks," such as the Siamese twins Chang and Eng; Anna Swan, the tallest girl in the world; Annie Jones, the bearded lady; and 26-inch-tall Charles S. Stratton, who became internationally famous as "General Tom Thumb." Equally important to the success of the museum were advertising and the imaginative stunts Barnum created to publicize his exhibits.

Although his policy of exhibiting humans as freaks may dismay current sensibilities, Barnum's exhibits were not intended solely for the masses. With Tom Thumb acting as his calling card, the showman was received by many heads of state, including President Abraham Lincoln (180965) and England's Queen Victoria (18191901). His European tours were tremendously successful, as were his lectures on such topics as "The Science of Money Making and the Philosophy of Humbug." In the 1850s he staked his entire fortune on his most legitimate endeavor: importing Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, "the Swedish Nightingale," for a tour of the United States. After a publicity campaign that topped all the great showman's previous efforts, he made immense profits for himself and the singer.

Barnum was well past 60 when he entered the circus business. With a partner, James A. Bailey (18471906), he transformed a small, poorly-run, often fraudulent, wagon-based circus show into a railroad-travelling, three-ring, electrically-lit giant extravaganza that was fun for the entire family. Typically, he made the show a success with his relentless promotion of the Barnum and Bailey Circus as "the greatest show on earth."

Barnum also publicized his own life and career in an autobiography. It was designed to entertain as much as inform. The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself was published in 1855 and was repeatedly revised and supplemented by the showman. Barnum claimed sales of a million copies for the work and, presumably with the hope of even greater exposure, he eventually placed the book in the public domain. Barnum's obsession with publicity was so strong that when he became seriously ill at the age of 80 he asked a New York newspaper to run his obituary in advance so that he could read it himself. Two weeks later he died at his home in Connecticut.

See also: Entertainment Industry


FURTHER READING

Farnham, Alan. "America's Original Huckster." Fortune, February 5, 1996.

Harris, Neil. Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Kunhardt Jr., Philip B., Philip B. Kunhardt 3rd, and Peter W. Kunhardt. "For an America that Loved Freaks." New York Times Magazine, August 20, 1995.

Saxon, Arthur. P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Wallace, Irving. The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P. T. Barnum. New York: Knopf, 1959.

barnum's obsession with publicity was so strong that when he became seriously ill at the age of 80, he asked a new york newspaper to run his obituary in advance so that he could read it himself.

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Barnum, Phineas Taylor (1810-1891)

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891)

Source

Circus promoter

Early Successes. The circus promoter Phineas T. Barnum considered himself the great American showman and had an uncanny knack for knowing what the public wanted and how to promote it. He was born in a modest Bethel, Connecticut, home where he supported his family after his fathers death. As a newspaper editor he was arrested for libel so he moved to New York City in 1834. He began his career as a showman by exhibiting a black woman, Joice Heth, claiming that she was the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington. In 1842 he opened the American Museum in New York, where for two decades visitors viewed curiosities, including the diminutive General Tom Thumb, whom Barnum took to meet Queen Victoria. In 1850 Barnum brought Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish singer, to America for a successful tour; five years later he published the first edition of his autobiography, The Life of P. T. Barnum, which he continued to revise and to republish.

Jumbo. Barnum, supposedly the originator of the phrase Theres a sucker born every minute, certainly lived by this rule when he began his three-ring circus that he transported by rail. Combining his resources with his keenest rival, James Anthony Bailey in 1881 (now the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus), Barnums circus featured exotic animals, including the only mastodon on earth, Jumbo the elephant, the pride of the Royal Zoological Society in London. The British press who protested this American vandalism. Barnum encouraged the protest for purposes of publicity and avoided custom duties on Jumbo by importing him for breeding purposes. The animal earned its keep within its first few weeks and could feed from third-story windows as it walked the circus parade. Unfortunately Jumbo was killed by a locomotive on 15 September 1885.

Legacy. Barnum served in the Connecticut legislature (1865-1869); was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut (1875-1876); and was a benefactor of Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. However, his lasting memory will be as a circus promoter who knew the value of advertising and the effect it had on American marketing. He brazenly declared that the American public was humbugged, or easily fooled (he called himself the Prince of Humbugs), and his hoaxes and other pranks were unlimited. For fifty years he gave the American public innocent diversion. Since his death in 1891, he has been the subject of childrens books, sound recordings, and a Broadway musical, Barnum.

Source

Alice M. Fleming, P. T Barnum: The Worlds Greatest Showman (New York: Walker, 1993).

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Barnum, P. T.

P. T. Barnum: (Phineas Taylor Barnum) (fĬn´ēəs, bär´nəm), 1810–91, American showman, b. Bethel, Conn. As a youth Barnum worked at diverse sales jobs and managed a boardinghouse. He made his first sensation in 1835 when he bought and exhibited Joice Heth, a slave who claimed she was 161 years old (she was about 80) and had been the nurse of George Washington. In 1842 he opened the American Museum in New York City and immediately became famous for his extravagant advertising and his exhibits of freaks. Among his great attractions were the Fiji Mermaid (formed by joining the upper half of a monkey to the stuffed lower half of a fish), "General Tom Thumb," who was viewed by over 20 million people, and the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng (see conjoined twins). In 1850, Barnum managed the American tour of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind and, with his talent for publicity, made it a huge financial success for her and for himself. In 1855 he retired from show business; he served as mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., and in the Connecticut legislature. Driven into bankruptcy by unwise business ventures, he reopened the American Museum and then organized his famous circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth," which opened in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1871. In 1881 he merged with his most successful competitor, James A. Bailey, and under the name Barnum and Bailey the circus continued for a generation after Barnum's death. The stellar attraction of the circus was Jumbo, the 61/2-ton African elephant that Barnum purchased from the London Zoo despite the furious protests of English elephant fanciers, including Queen Victoria. His autobiography was published in 1855 and went through many editions. He also wrote Humbugs of the World (1865), Struggles and Triumphs (1869), and Money Getting (1883).

See his autobiography, ed. by W. R. Browne (1927, repr. 1961); biography by C. Fleming (2009); N. Harris, Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum (1981); A. Tompert, The Greatest Show on Earth (1987).

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Barnum, Phineas Taylor

Barnum, Phineas Taylor (1810–91), American showman. He billed his circus, opened in 1871, as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’; ten years later he founded the Barnum and Bailey circus with his former rival Anthony Bailey (1847–1906).

Barnum was in use from the mid 19th century as a noun in the sense ‘nonsense, humbug’.


Barnum effect in psychology, the tendency to accept as true types of information such as character assessments or horoscopes, even when the information is so vague as to be worthless.

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Barnum, Phineas Taylor

Barnum, Phineas Taylor (1810–91) US showman. He established the American Museum in New York City (1842), where he presented the “dwarf” Tom Thumb, the Fijian mermaid and other “freaks”. In 1847 he introduced Swedish soprano Jenny Lind to US audiences. In 1871 he opened his circus, billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth”. In 1881 he merged with rival James Bailey to form Barnum and Bailey's Circus.

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