If you want to understand the origins of American showmanship, look no further than P.T. Barnum. He was the single most influential public figure in American entertainment during the latter half of the 19th century. His legacy still resonates today, from his wildly successful promotion tactics to the introduction of the first three-ring circus. His exhibitions and tours of the "Feejee Mermaid," Tom Thumb and singer Jenny Lind caused a sensation among the American public.
Barnum's life story is as astounding as one of his shows and sometimes as hard to believe as his ridiculous exhibitions. His was a true story of rags to riches — and then to rags and riches again. He yearned for stability but never stopped taking risks. He yearned for respectability but never hesitated to manipulate his audiences or to appeal to a base human interest in the grotesque.
He legitimized his profession, saying, "The noblest art is that of making people happy." But he also had a mercenary spirit, having been quoted as saying, "every crowd has a silver lining" [source: Ringling]. He preached that people should live within their means, but he sank into debt on multiple occasions.
Barnum became a champion of the temperance movement — after drinking heavily during a romp in Europe. He was an abolitionist and an ardent Unionist during the Civil War — after owning a slave and using her as an exhibition. He preached that we shouldn't care what our neighbors think of us, yet he was so concerned about how he would be remembered that he requested (and was granted) the publication of his obituary before his death.
Was Barnum a hypocrite? Did he have a good heart under his shrewd business tactics? Let's examine his life, and you can decide for yourself how genuine Barnum was. Step right in and take a gander at the greatest showman the world has ever seen!
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, from firm American roots. His great, great, great grandfather, Thomas Barnum, came to America from England as an indentured servant in the 17th century and eventually became a landowner. However, P.T.'s father, Philo Barnum, was largely unsuccessful. Like his ancestor Thomas, P.T would have to become a self-made man.
P.T.'s maternal grandfather and namesake, Phineas Taylor, was a sharp-witted prankster, what P.T. called a "wag." At P.T.'s baptism, Phineas handed over land to the child. This inheritance, called "Ivy Island," made P.T. the richest kid in town — or so he was always told. But, at the age of 10, P.T.'s illusions of importance shattered when he visited his property. What he found was an "almost inaccessible, worthless bit of barren land" [source: Barnum]. The joke was on him.
P.T.'s father was a farmer, and P.T. grew up doing farm work. He admitted in his autobiography that he hated manual labor, although he would work tirelessly to make money in other endeavors. Eager to leave the farm, he found a more suitable job for himself as a clerk in the local country store. Here, he learned how to barter with customers and discovered that people would often try to cheat him. In his autobiography, he wrote, "There is a great deal to be learned in a country store, and principally this — that sharp trades, tricks, dishonesty and deception are by no means confined to the city" [source: Barnum].
P.T.'s father died when P.T. was just 15 years old, leaving behind debt and four younger siblings to take care of. His mother was forced to get a job, and P.T. moved to the nearby town of Grassy Plain to get another job as a store clerk.
Lottery Mogul and Local Crusader
In Grassy Plain, while the owners were gone from the store, P.T. traded some unsellable goods for a collection of glass bottles. Using these bottles and other unsellable tinware from the store as prizes, he organized a lottery, turning old, unsellable inventory into cash. He quickly sold 1,000 tickets, promising half would be winners. Major prizes were cash, but minor prizes were bottles and tinware. It was around this time that he was introduced to Charity Hallett, "a fair, rosy-cheeked, buxom girl, with beautiful white teeth" [source: Barnum].
Before he could think about marriage, however, he needed to make something of himself — so he left for the big city. When he was only 16, P.T. moved to Brooklyn to clerk in a grocery store for a salary, but he quickly learned he'd rather have a job with a commission that would let him use his energy to increase his profits. The next year, hit a hurdle: He came down with smallpox and had to return home.
Undaunted by his health problems, in 1828, Barnum opened his own fruit and confectionery shop with help from his grandfather but soon turned his attention back to lotteries. He studied other lotteries and, instead of managing his own, opted to buy tickets from other managers and sell them at 30 percent profit, eventually with agents of his own selling them all over the state.
It wasn't all business, though. The same year he opened the shop, P.T. became reacquainted with Charity. They married and would go on to have four daughters together.
Before the daughters, though, came the newspaper. In 1831, as a young man "in a period of strong political excitement," Barnum frequently wrote letters to the local paper and grew frustrated when they were rejected. He decided to start his own weekly newspaper called "Herald of Freedom" [source: Barnum]. He quickly made enemies with his printed accusations, and a judge finally slapped him with a jail sentence after Barnum lost a libel suit. After his 60-day stint in jail, however, the paper's subscriptions had increased, and Barnum was celebrated as a local hero for his crusade to expose corruption and wrongdoing.
In 1833, around the time the first of Barnum's daughters was born, Connecticut banned lotteries, cutting off a major source of income for him and his family. By 1834, after Barnum left his paper and sold his interest in his store, Bethel had no more hold on him. And so he moved his family to New York City to seek his fortune.
Joice Heth and Beginning Life as a Showman
In New York, Barnum started a boarding house and bought interest in a grocery store, but the restless entrepreneur sought something more personally rewarding.
The opportunity came in 1835 when he heard of Joice Heth, a slave woman who not only claimed to be 161 years old but also the nurse to young George Washington. Her owner even claimed to have the bill of sale from Augustine Washington, father of George. Upon hearing that her owner was looking to sell, Barnum travelled to Philadelphia to see her. Heth was blind, toothless and partially paralyzed, but she sang hymns and was a lively talker. Amazed, Barnum negotiated her price down to $1,000 and became a showman.
Barnum only toured with Heth until her death in February 1836, but he managed to make a good deal of money from her. He quickly learned simple ways to drum up interest with advertisements and newspaper copy to get people to "think, and talk, and become curious and excited" [source: Barnum].
But when enthusiasm started to wane, the crafty Barnum got a letter published in the paper that accused Heth of being an automaton — a robot constructed of whalebone, rubber and springs [source: Harris]. Thanks to popular fascination with automatons at the time, the device worked, and attendance increased again. Barnum learned that a showman need not make any promises to get interest. Indeed, inviting doubt can make an exhibitor seem genuine.
When Heth passed away, Barnum made good on a promise to have her body examined by doctors. Looking at the state of her bones, they didn't marvel at her old age, but were instead shocked that this woman was so young, probably no older than 81 [source: Harris]. Nevertheless, Barnum always claimed that he did not fabricate the bill of sale or coach her himself, saying she was on exhibition when he discovered her.
Barnum had caught the entertainment bug. While still on tour with Heth in Albany, Barnum encountered Signor Antonio, a talented balancer, plate-spinner, stilt-walker and juggler. He took on Antonio as a client and convinced him to change his stage name to the supposedly more exotic Signor Vivalla.
Barnum published a notice of Vivalla's talents in the Albany papers and sent copies to theater owners, but with little response; the act wasn't unique, so Barnum had trouble selling it. He was so confident in Vivalla's superior talent, however, that he offered a free performance to a theater and assisted Vivalla onstage himself. The plan worked, and the theater hired him to perform for the rest of the week. Although new to the business, clearly, Barnum had a natural gift for identifying talent.
The pair travelled down to Boston, Washington and Philadelphia, encountering mixed success. The people who came were thrilled with the act, but overall attendance was low. Barnum had to entice interest again. He found his next idea in an unexpected situation.
During one performance, a rival balancer and juggler named Roberts sat in the audience and started hissing and heckling Vivalla. When Roberts claimed he could do better, Barnum was inspired. Barnum offered $1,000 to anyone who could perform Vivalla's act in public, and Roberts accepted. After arranging with a theater to share profits, Barnum approached Roberts and offered to employ him. So while Barnum advertised a live competition between rivals, behind the scenes, Barnum, Vivalla and Roberts collaborated to stage the performance. The show was a hit, and performances went on for a month.
On the Road with a Travelling Circus
In the spring of 1836, Barnum decided to join a traveling circus as a ticket seller. He shared a portion of the profits, and Vivalla joined as a salaried performer.
The circus encountered trouble along the way, including butting heads with local clergy who objected to their show. But the worst was when a mob nearly lynched Barnum in Annapolis, Maryland.
The circus proprietor, Aaron Turner, was a practical joker who enticed a mob against Barnum. Turner told the crowd that Barnum was in fact Rev. Ephraim Avery, a notorious man recently acquitted of murder (but who was nonetheless convicted in the eyes of public opinion). Barnum claims in his autobiography that he just barely got away with his life before Turner took back his story and the mob let Barnum go.
When he asked Turner why he did it, Turner claimed it was good for business, saying, "All we need to insure success is notoriety" [source: Barnum]. Indeed, he was right, and audiences flocked to the show to see the circus managers who played such jokes on each other. (Barnum did eventually get revenge on Turner with a less dangerous practical joke.)
After six months with the circus, Barnum decided to go off on his own with Vivalla and a blackface singer and dancer named James Sandford. When Sandford left the show suddenly, Barnum replaced him, putting on blackface and singing himself. Later, with the makeup still on, he tried to break up a fight and (according to his autobiography) was nearly shot, until he revealed himself to be white.
Barnum soon acquired horses and wagons and hired a clown and an African-American singer to join his troupe, dubbing it, "Barnum's Grand Scientific & Musical Theater." They traveled the American South until the next spring and then disbanded. After a few months at home, Barnum hit the road again in the summer of 1837. He bought a steamboat and hired a crew, giving performances along the Mississippi River over the winter. The next summer, he sold the boat and returned home, having learned much from his adventures but longing for a more "permanent, respectable" business [source: Barnum].
Back home in New York, Barnum longed for stability. He took out an ad seeking a partner with whom to invest his money. He finally settled on a man named Proler who manufactured paste, cologne and grease. It seemed to do well at first, but after funds ran out and it was clear the company was failing, Proler abandoned him. Meanwhile, Barnum had continued to look for talent.
Seeking a Respectable Business
Barnum came across an African-American dancer named John Diamond, leased a theater and put a show together before trying his luck on the road again. Just as he had done with Vivalla, Barnum staged fake competitions between Diamond and other dancers, which again proved profitable — until Diamond abandoned him too. Fed up after becoming entangled in rivalries with other showmen, Barnum returned home in 1841.
But he still felt the call of the entertainment business. After selling illustrated Bibles proved to be a bust, he leased another theater for performances but still didn't earn much success. With a family to take care of and little money to go around, he was desperate. When he heard Scudder's Museum was up for sale, Barnum knew it was the perfect opportunity. At last, he envisioned a way to employ his showmanship skills while enjoying stability.
The problem was how to come up with the funds to purchase a museum. The owners of the collection wanted to get rid of it and priced it at $15,000. Although it was a steal, Barnum didn't have the cash. This didn't stop his resolve. When a friend asked him how he could possibly buy it, Barnum replied, "Brass, for silver and gold have I none" [source: Barnum].
Barnum approached Francis W. Olmsted, the owner of the building, and asked if he could purchase the collection in his own name and secure it to Barnum on credit. Olmsted investigated Barnum's references and agreed. Barnum then met with the administrator of the collection, John Heath, who agreed to sell the collection for $12,000 to be paid in installments. Barnum had succeeded — or so he thought.
Having no signed agreement with Barnum, Heath later accepted a better offer with investors calling themselves the New York Museum Company. Barnum claims in his autobiography that they were speculators who planned to sell stock and pocket most of the money. Like he had done so many times before, Barnum turned to the newspapers. He published hit pieces exposing the speculators and warning the public not to buy the stock. Meanwhile, he secretly arranged with Heath to buy back the property as soon as the investors' first installment payment was past due. To buy Barnum's silence, the New York Museum Company offered him a job, and Barnum took delight in verbally accepting the offer (to make them believe they were safe). A few weeks later, when they failed to pay their first installment to Heath, Barnum bought it back with Olmsted.
Now that he had his museum, Barnum finally had his chance to shine. The first order of business was to climb out of debt, which he did by living frugally for a year. Barnum credited his wife, Charity, for her support during this time, and he himself ate cold dinners, except on Sundays, until he was debt-free.
Barnum's American Museum
Barnum gradually enlarged his permanent collection of "curiosities," but the performances were what really attracted the crowds. Barnum drew from every sort of popular entertainment of the time, including musicians and dancers, jugglers and ventriloquists, giants and little people, trained dogs, automatons, puppet theaters and even American Indians performing ceremonies. Eventually, he featured animals, including grizzly bears, giraffes, orangutans and a rhinoceros. And one of Barnum's most popular exhibits during his early years included a model of Niagara Falls with running water.
Why was his museum so successful while his theater shows had fizzled? Part of the answer has to do with preconceived cultural associations. The theater had a bad reputation, whereas museums were still a place of edification. The respectable people who wouldn't dare be seen entering a theater would fill the American Museum's Lecture Room to see the same entertainment.
Barnum advertised with posters and newspapers (as always), but he also employed creative, unconventional methods to draw crowds in — even by intentionally confusing people. He wrote that he once hired a beggar to walk around the town putting down and picking up bricks with a sober expression on his face. Barnum instructed him to refuse to talk to anyone and then to return to the museum. This behavior puzzled spectators so much that they followed the beggar back to the museum and bought tickets to get in.
Another tactic was to offer free outdoor music. But, of course, there was a catch: Barnum hired the worst musicians he could, which drove people into the museum to escape the music. He wrote, "When people expect to get 'something for nothing' they are sure to be cheated" [source: Barnum].
The museum was soon so successful that crowds would come in droves. This created another problem: People wouldn't leave, but rather packed their own food and planned to stay all day. Barnum didn't have room to bring in more paying customers, so he put in a rear exit and hung a sign that said "This Way to Egress." Many uneducated patrons didn't understand "egress" was a fancy word for "exit." They followed the sign out the door and were told they needed to buy another ticket to get back in.
Feejee Mermaid, Tom Thumb and the Art of Humbug
In his autobiography, Barnum takes pride in his success but writes with slight embarrassment about his shameless, deceitful promotion tactics — his so-called "humbug." He writes it off as "the world's way" however, and defends himself by saying that if his advertising was "more audacious" than his competitors', "it was not because I had less scruple than they, but more energy, far more ingenuity, and a better foundation for such promises" [source: Barnum].
The "Feejee Mermaid," appearing in 1842, was arguably Barnum's biggest humbug. For this, Barnum sought out the help of Levi Lyman, an old colleague who worked with him while promoting Joice Heth. Lyman posed as Dr. J. Griffin, a naturalist who worked for the British Lyceum of Natural History (which didn't exist). Then, Barnum wrote letters under assumed names touting Dr. Griffin and his amazing "Feejee Mermaid." He sent the letters to friends in Alabama, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., asking them to mail the letters to New York newspapers [source: Daly]. Crowds flocked to Barnum's museum to see the spectacle — which was really just the head of a baboon attached to the torso of an orangutan, all of which was stuck to the tail of a large fish.
That same year, Barnum met 4-year-old Charles S. Stratton. The little person, who stopped growing at 24 inches, would become Barnum's biggest attraction. Barnum paid Stratton's gullible parents a modest sum for a one-year contract [source: Harris]. He rebranded Stratton with a name borrowed from British folklore, "General Tom Thumb," and advertised him as an 11-year-old from England. Stratton was so small and charming, and Barnum was so adept at promoting him, that Tom Thumb became a sensation. The next year, he secured another contract for a higher salary and brought Stratton to Europe.
European Tour and Jenny Lind
While in England in 1844, Barnum and Stratton were invited to Buckingham Palace, where Stratton charmed Queen Victoria and Prince Albert so well that they were invited back twice. Barnum described meeting most of the nobility staying in London at that time, including the future King Edward VII, Queen Dowager Adelaide, King Leopold of Belgium, the king of Saxony and Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt. They then traveled to France and met King Louis Philippe.
While Barnum was in Europe, he heard of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. Although he never had the opportunity to hear her in person, Barnum was convinced he could profit off of her if he could convince her to come to America. Not only would she draw in crowds, but she would help legitimize him in the eyes of the public as something more than provider of cheap humbug.
To entice her, Barnum offered Lind the astronomical sum of $1,000 per performance. This was a major risk even for Barnum, but it paid off in a profit of more than half a million dollars [source: Biography]. The "Swedish Nightingale" arrived in America in 1850 and, thanks to Barnum's promotion, was an instant celebrity: Crowds thronged to her in the streets, and ladies imitated her fashions. Once, she allegedly dropped her shawl amid a frenzied crowd that quickly tore it apart [source: Saxon].
Barnum crafted Lind's reputation as a sweet, unpretentious and innocent angel, when, in reality, she looked down on the uncultured American masses who came to hear her sing, she had strong opinions about certain ethnicities and she could be a difficult person to work with. Barnum knew how to spin the media, however, and gave them what they wanted wherever they happened to be — even squashing rumors in the South that she was an abolitionist [source: Saxon].
After her contract was up in 1851, Barnum and Lind parted ways.
A Reversal of Fortunes and War
The 1850s were not as kind to Barnum as the preceding decade. During this time, Barnum bought up land next to Bridgeport, Connecticut, planning to build up the new city of East Bridgeport. In 1855, he invested in the Jerome Clock Company and sought to relocate it to East Bridgeport, but it turned out to be a disastrous financial move. The company went bankrupt, and Barnum found himself on the hook for much more than he intended to invest. Suddenly, he was broke. He was forced out of his mansion in Bridgeport, and to make matters worse, the unoccupied mansion burned down after workmen caused a fire in 1857.
Ironically, or perhaps fittingly, he was able to pull himself out of debt by going on tour giving lectures on "The Art of Money Getting." He sold his museum collection, but he transferred the lease to his wife's name, so they received some income from subleasing. On one occasion, he purchased a freshly dead whale and brought it to the museum in exchange for a cut of the profit. In 1857, he even returned to Europe to tour again with Charles Stratton.
By 1860, after five long years of clawing his way out of debt, he was able to buy back his museum collection. He was soon up to his old antics, acquiring the first hippopotamus displayed in the United States, then showing two live beluga whales in large tanks in the museum basement. Barnum found another little person, George "Commodore" Nutt, to take up where Tom Thumb left off, and President Lincoln invited the pair to visit him at the White House.
Barnum Gets Political
In 1861, the Civil War erupted in the United States. Barnum, who had previously been a Jacksonian Democrat, had owned a slave (Joice Heth) and up to this point had adhered to the common practice of banning African-Americans from his museum, now became an ardent Unionist. Accordingly, he used his museum as a political mouthpiece, featuring patriotic speeches and plays. Union war heroes and spies lectured about their experiences. Supporters of the South, called Copperheads, often protested the museum and threatened Barnum's life.
Considering Barnum's public appeal and talent for speeches, rhetoric and (some would say) manipulation, it seemed fitting that he enter politics. In April 1865, he won an election to the Connecticut General Assembly. During his tenure, he rallied for the ratification of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, and he supported the right of blacks to vote in Connecticut.
A few months after his election, Barnum's cherished museum burned down, along with most of his exhibits and animals. But neither a new career in politics nor a burned-down museum was enough to keep Barnum away from show business. He opened a new museum just two months after the fire. Unfortunately, three years later in 1868, this museum burned down, too, and Barnum opted not to rebuild. Although he didn't have a museum anymore, he was eager to get back into show business. The 1870s were to mark yet another phase in Barnum's life, a phase he is now perhaps best known for — the circus.
The Greatest Show on Earth
In 1870, Barnum accepted an offer from William Cameron Coup to start a traveling circus. The so-named "P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus" opened in Brooklyn in 1871 and went on to gross $400,000 in its first year [source: Barnum-Museum.org]. It was the first circus to travel by train and featured acrobats, clowns and various performances; large exotic animals such as giraffes and elephants in addition to trained horses and dogs; and "human curiosities," such as little people, albinos and giants. Barnum famously called it "The Greatest Show on Earth," and that probably wasn't an exaggeration.
During the winter, Barnum housed his circus and animals in the Hippotheatron, on the site of what would later be Madison Square Garden. In 1872, yet another disastrous fire wreaked havoc in Barnum's life, destroying the Hippotheatron and killing the circus animals. The partners successfully regrouped, determined to outdo the rival circuses despite the setback.
The next year, while Barnum was visiting his friend John Fish in England, Charity died of heart failure. Barnum was supposedly too grief-stricken to return for her funeral. But the grief must've subsided quickly; he secretly married Fish's daughter, 22-year-old Nancy Fish, less than 14 weeks later. (They held a public wedding in the United States nine months after that.)
In 1875, Barnum took a break from traveling with the circus to successfully run for mayor of Bridgeport. He had become a teetotaler (after drinking heavily during his tour in Europe), and so he campaigned against allowing saloons to be open Sundays. He also fought for gas-lit streets and threatened that the city would take over the water company unless it improved standards. After his term expired as mayor, Barnum served in the Connecticut General Assembly for two more terms [source: Sullivan].
Barnum parted with Coup in 1876 and combined forces with the "European Menagerie and Circus." It wasn't until 1880 that he finally partnered with James A. Bailey for "P.T. Barnum's Great London Combined." The next year, he attained Jumbo, an elephant 11 feet tall and 6 tons in weight — the circus's biggest attraction until Jumbo's death in 1885 when he was struck by a train. In true Barnum style, however, he continued to display Jumbo's preserved hide and skeleton. That same year, Barnum and Bailey went their separate ways, but they would join again to become equal partners in 1887 for the "Barnum and Bailey Circus."
By 1890, the elderly Barnum was still going strong until he suffered a stroke during a performance. While Barnum was confined at home and knew he was near death, the New York Sun granted his request to publish his obituary early. The great entertainer died the next year.
Author's Note: How P.T. Barnum Worked
Whether one believes that P.T. Barnum was a shameless promoter and hypocrite, we can at least sympathize with his human desire to be well liked. It is perhaps this desire that drove him to the entertainment business, where he could make people happy (even if by deceiving them). It was also this desire that probably drove him to become a statesman later in life, a role that allowed him to make a difference and improve people's lives — but also atone for his unscrupulous business practices.
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