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."
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.
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). □
Barnum, P. T.
Barnum, P. T.
Barnum and Bailey Circus
P. T. Barnum called himself the "Prince of Humbugs," in reference to the many outrageous stunts and exhibits that were part of his exploits as a showman. His tours, museums, lectures, and biography made him famous and wealthy long before he entered the circus business. He eventually formed the innovative Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1880s.
P. T. Barnum was born on July 5, 1810, to parents Philo F. Barnum, a farmer and storekeeper, and Irena (Taylor) Barnum. When Philo died, his son was just 15 years old and was forced to find the means to support his mother and five brothers and sisters. At 19, Barnum married Charity Hallett, with whom he would father four daughters. Following Charity's death when Barnum was 64, he married 24 year-old Nancy Fish.
After trying his hand at various jobs, including store clerk, lottery agent, and grocer, Barnum bought the newspaper in his home town of Bethel, Connecticut, a weekly 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 to become a shopkeeper, a job he held for about a year.
Barnum was transformed from shopkeeper to showman when he discovered an elderly black woman, Joice Heth, who claimed to be George Washington's nurse. A promoter in Philadelphia had not had much financial success when he tried to present Heth as the president's 161-year old nurse. On August 6, 1835, Barnum paid $1,000 for the rights to exhibit Heth for 10 months. Under Barnum's management, Heth was promoted by sensational advertisements and toured the country telling her supposed memories of the president's childhood.
When ticket sales to the exhibit finally started to fade, Barnum sparked new interest in a manner he often employed; he sent anonymous letters to the newspapers declaring the show was a hoax. One story he circulated claimed that Heth was not even a human, but an automaton, constructed of whalebone, India rubber, and numberless springs. Her so-called memories, the letter declared, were imaginary conversations actually told by the exhibitor who was a ventriloquist. People returned to see if they could figure out the truth of the matter. Upon Heth's death, an autopsy showed that she was actually around 80 years old. Barnum claimed that he was the victim of a hoax.
Having witnessed the public's taste for the outrageous and improbable, Barnum sought an opportunity to satisfy such interests on much larger scale. In 1841, he scraped together the means to buy John Scudder's American Museum, which housed conventional exhibits of stuffed animals and wax figures. Barnum transformed the place, turning it into a place of entertainment. The museum was a source of tremendous financial success for Barnum. Some of his most popular attractions were human 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 "General Tom Thumb."
Equally important to the success of the museum were the stunts and advertising that Barnum created to publicize his exhibits. For example, General Tom Thumb was actually five-year-old Charles Stratton from Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1842, Barnum contracted with the boy's parents to exhibit him. Despite the fact that Barnum had discovered a truly extraordinary child, he still decided for publicity purposes to embellish the story and generated hype that the boy was "General Tom Thumb," an 11 year-old who had just arrived from England. The publicity played well and Barnum, Stratton, and Stratton's parents traveled across the United States and toured in England for almost three years.
Despite the nature of his human exhibits Barnum was not simply entertaining the uneducated masses. With Tom Thumb as his calling card, he was received by heads of state including President Lincoln and England's Queen Victoria. Barnum's European tours were tremendously successful, as were his lectures such as "The Science of Money Making, and the Philosophy of Humbug." In his most "legitimate" endeavor, bringing Swedish soprano Jenny Lind to tour the United States, Barnum made a fortune for himself and for the singer. He acted as her manager from 1850-1852.
Although Barnum is famous for developing the Barnum and Bailey Circus, this business was something of a postscript to his career. He formed his first circus in 1871, at the age of 61, promoting it as "the greatest show on earth." He transformed the typically small, wagonbased show into a railroad-travelling, three-ring, electrically lit extravaganza. In 1881, he merged with his main competitor, James A. Bailey, to form Barnum and Bailey's Circus, which became the most popular circus in the country.
Social and Economic Impact
Barnum understood that people enjoy being fooled if they are knowing participants in the ruse. As he once said, "My dear sir, the bigger the humbug, the better the people will like it." For Barnum not only wanted to make money with his shows, he also appears to have enjoyed the excitement of making each "discovery" more outrageous than the previous one. To this end, Barnum's advertising claims were far more incredible than the actual events he promoted. For example, a Grand Buffalo Hunt proved to be a racetrack filled with listless animals that he imported from Boston. The American Museum display called the "Feejee Mermaid", purported to have been caught off the Feejee (Fiji) Islands, was actually a fish body topped with a fake human head.
Barnum also made his own life the subject of public scrutiny, albeit in the form of an autobiography designed to entertain as much as inform. Published in 1855, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself, was repeatedly revised by the showman. He claimed sales of a million copies for the work, and, presumably with the hope of even greater exposure, he later placed the book in the public domain. The showman's obsession with publicity was so strong that, when he became seriously ill at the age of 81, 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.
Barnum's exaggerated claims constantly ran the risk of public exposure as fraud, but the showman was not daunted by negative press. As he told the New York Tribune in 1877, "I don't care much what the papers say about me, provided they will say something." Barnum also used two seemingly disastrous events, both fires at the museum that practically gutted it, to generate more publicity for his business.
The financial success of Barnum's many endeavors made him one of the country's earliest millionaires. He was forced into bankruptcy in 1856, however, a number of his performers came to his aid.
Chronology: P.T. Barnum
1834: Moved to New York City.
1835: Began traveling with a woman who claimed to be 161 years old.
1841: Started operation of the New York City museum.
1844: First international tour with "General Tom Thumb."
1855: The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself is published.
1871: Formed his first circus.
1881: Formed Barnum and Bailey Circus.
P. T. Barnum still fascinates the American public with his contradictory ways. While his display of human freaks is judged as demeaning according to current values, he was most often a friend to his cast of "curiosities," many of who became rich in his employ. Barnum continues to be the focus of numerous exhibits and biographies, which celebrate the contributions he made to American culture and examine the fascinatingly complex character of P. T. Barnum.
Sources of Information
Berendt, John. "Notes on Hype." Esquire, November 1993.
Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.
Dictionary of the Arts. New York: Facts on File, 1994.
Farnham, Alan. "America's Original Huckster." Fortune, 5 February 1996.
Hart, James D. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr., and Philip B. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt. "For an America That Loved Freaks." New York Times Magazine, 20 August 1995.
McCain, Diana Ross. "P.T. Barnum's Early Years." Early American Life, February 1996.
"P. T. Barnum, Master Showman of the 1800's, Is the Star of an Exhibition." New York Times, 9 March 1996.
Publisher's Weekly, 14 August 1995.
Raffel, Burton. Politicians, Poets, & Con Men: Emotional History in Late Victorian America. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1986.
Tresniowski, Alex. "P.T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman." People Weekly, 2 October 1995.
The World Almanac Biographical Dictionary. New York: World Almanac, 1990.
Barnum, Phineas Taylor
BARNUM, PHINEAS TAYLOR
P. T. Barnum (1810–1891) 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 (1789–1797) 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 five–story museum, which he operated for more than twenty–five 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 (1809–65) and England's Queen Victoria (1819–1901). 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 (1847–1906), 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
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.
Barnum, Phineas Taylor (1810-1891)
Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891)
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 father’s 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 “There’s 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), Barnum’s 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 children’s books, sound recordings, and a Broadway musical, Barnum.
Alice M. Fleming, P. T Barnum: The World’s Greatest Showman (New York: Walker, 1993).
Barnum, Phineas Taylor
Barnum, Phineas Taylor
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.