PT Barnum

"Step Right Up" Jeffrey Smart
"Step Right Up" Jeffrey Smart

PT Barnum

Every crowd has a silver lining~PT Barnum

The man whose life was an exclamation mark, the genius behind Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Phineas Taylor Barnum was one of the most influential showman of all time. Whether or not Barnum actually did coin the phrase "never give a sucker an even break", he certainly lived by that philosophy....he was a shameless sham artist, energetic entrepenuer, master showman and indefatiguable promoter. Doubtless he wasn't called the 'Prince of Humbug' for nothing.

Born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, he demonstrated some early entrepeneurship at age 12 by selling lottery tickets and in his early twenties had founded a weekly newspaper and was already a busness owner. A move to New York City in 1934 saw him launch into show business and he formed a variety troupe called Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater.


An Eye for the Fascinating

At 25 he paid $1000 for the services of Joyce Heath, a woman who had ludicrously claimed to be 161 years old. However, Barnum exhibited her in New York and New England, managing to accrue $1,500 per week in the process...not a bad return on his investment.

At 31 he formed a partnership with the owner of Scudders American Museum on Broadway, New York and with much fanfare, exhibited 500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe! It was a combination freak show, zoo, theatre, wax museum and lecture hall and included dioramas, panoramas and cosmoramas.

The Circus

In 1870, when Barnum was 60 years old , he lent his name and financial backing to an already established Wisconsin circus, owned by Dan Costello and William Cameron Coup and it thus became P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome...later to be grandly promoted as The Greatest Show on Earth. And big it was...in fact it covered five acres and accommodated 10,000 seated patrons at a time. Barnum grossed $400,000 in it's first year -a huge sum for the day.

A rival circus, and chief competitor, had been the Cooper and Bailey Circus, owned by James Bailey and James E Cooper. In 1881 the shows were combined to become the famous Barnum and Bailey Circus.

When Barnum died in 1891 Bailey bought the circus from his widow, kept it going for over 20 years and when he died in 1906 it was bought out by Ringling Brothers and eventually became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and still The Greatest Show on Earth.

The late 1800's to the turn of the century was the heyday for the American circus as there was little competition for large-scale entertainment. The arrival of the shows in various towns around the country were anticipated for weeks in advance and there was much fanfare when the circus finally arrived...with its large caravans, strange animals, music, fascinating individuals and an aura of exotic glamour.

In her article The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Bigtop, Janet M Davis notes there were around 100 circuses touring the US in 1900 and they were at that time, a "cherished American institution". Big circuses llike Barnum and Bailey travelled by rail and drew large crowds wherever they went.


There's no Business Like Show Business

Without promotion, something terrible happens...nothing!~ PT Barnum

This is from the man whom Life magazine once dubbed 'the patron saint of promoters'. Promotion was as basic as breathing air to Barnum...he instinctively knew that if you 'build it they will come'....but only if you tell people it's there in the loudest voice possible.

For the American Museum for example, Barnum turned the five-story exterior into one big, garish advertisement; he painted exotic animals, illuminated panels, banners and flags on the outside of the bulding and lit it all up with limelight, which had only just been invented. It must have looked fantastic. He was also daring enough to employ the worst musicians he could find to play on a balcony above the entrance, assuming that their horrible cacophany would drive the customers inside.


Tom Thumb with PT Barnum. (He really was tiny.)
Tom Thumb with PT Barnum. (He really was tiny.)
The 'Swedish Nightingale', Jenny Lind..reputedly one of the most highly regarded opera singers of the 19th century.
The 'Swedish Nightingale', Jenny Lind..reputedly one of the most highly regarded opera singers of the 19th century.
Chang and Eng Bunker. The twins were married and had 21 children between them. They were joined by only a small piece of cartilage, but an operation to seperate them was beyond 19th century medicine.
Chang and Eng Bunker. The twins were married and had 21 children between them. They were joined by only a small piece of cartilage, but an operation to separate them was beyond 19th century medicine.
Promotional ad for the 'mermaid'.
Promotional ad for the 'mermaid'.
Newspaper artist's rendition of what the public actually saw.Reminds me of the disappointment I felt when I sent away for my sea monkeys.
Newspaper artist's rendition of what the public actually saw.Reminds me of the disappointment I felt when I sent away for my sea monkeys.

Famous Barnum Acts

Alongside his promotional genius, Barnum had an astute eye for what would capture public imagination and utilising these two skills, he became one of the richest men in America.

Some of the more notable acts in his stable of stars were Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind (probably his most successful financial venture), General Tom Thumb (Charles S. Stratton), the 'smallest man in the world', conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker and Jumbo the elephant, which he bought from a London zoo for $10,000.


The Feejee Mermaid Hoax

In July,1842 a strange creature was brought to New York by one Dr. J. Griffin, a member of the British Lyceum of Natural History. The creature was apparently, a 'real' mermaid captured somewhere off the Islands of 'Feejee'.

The press were abuzz, having been informed some time earlier of the mermaid's imminent arrival and when Griffin arrived at this hotel they were already waiting for him. When Griffith presented the creature, the press were, amazingly, convinced she was the genuine article.. perhaps because of the scientific aura surrounding Dr. Griffin.

Enter PT Barnum...who went to the papers lamenting that he had begged Griffin to let him display the mermaid at his museum but had been refused. Apparently downhearted, he offered each newspaper an 'exclusive' woodcut of the mermaid he had prepared and now would not be using. Lo and behold, every paper in town printed the woodcut picture of the Feejeean creature. The result...? The populous now felt compelled to see the mermaid, in order to judge whether or not she was real with their own eyes.

Obligingly, because of the fuss, Dr. Griffin agreed to display the mermaid for one week at Concert Hall on Broadway. The crowds were huge...people tripped over themselves to get a view of the mermaid and when the week was up Griffin suddenly agreed to move the exhibition to Barnum's museum for another month where ticket receipts tripled as a consequence.

Such deceitful shenanigans were typical of PT Barnum, who of course was the mastermind behind the hoax. It was Barnum who had sent letters to the papers informing them of the mermaids impending arrival. There was no such place as the the British Lyceum of Natural History -Dr Griffin was a fiction, a Barnum accomplice...the mermaid was...duh..a fake bought off a merchant seaman..and not only a fake but a great deal less attractive than the Barnum pamphlets had suggested.

Small wonder Barnum became associated with the 'never give a sucker an even break' quotation. Barnum firmly believed there could be no such thing as bad publicity.



The tragic death of Jumbo on a railway line. According to a newspaper report at the time, he died trying to save a baby elephant from an approaching locomotive, but the story is dubious.Barnum spin probably.
The tragic death of Jumbo on a railway line. According to a newspaper report at the time, he died trying to save a baby elephant from an approaching locomotive, but the story is dubious.Barnum spin probably.

Politics, Universalism and Philanthropy

Barnum had originally been a Democrat , but when the war broke out was "one of the most outspoken defenders of the Union" and switched sides to become an enthusiastic Republican. According to his obituary in the New York Times: He was four times elected to the General Assembly of Connecticut, and made his mark by advocating the rights of individuals as against railway monopolies. He also served with credit as Mayor of Bridgeport, a city in the improvement and beautifying of which he spent much time and money. Such improvements included the Bridgeport Hospital, which Barnum played a signifant role in establishing.

He spoke before the legislature against slavery: A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot - it is still an immortal spirit!

The philanthropic capitalist also built houses and sold them to working people on long payments at low rates of interest, enabling working class people to own houses hitherto denied them. Barnum was a supporter of what he termed 'profitable philanthropy' and no doubt he made a profit from the houses but he believed if there is an adequate incentive, the motivation to do good will be twofold.

In his will he left a codicil stipulating that every year a percentage of the profits from the show go to The Children's Aid society. At the time of his death his share in the circus was estimated at $3,500,000. Among other sidelines, he was a member of the stock exchange, owned extensive real estate and had livestock holdings with the Vanderbilts and Eastmans.

A high-profile Universalist, Barnum financially supported the Universalist Society -he counted many Unitarian ministers and laypersons among his friends and once joked that his only rival as a showman was well-known itinerant missionary, Quillen Hamilton Shinn. He was married twice...the second time to an Englishwoman.


PT Barnum. Image from Wikipedia.
PT Barnum. Image from Wikipedia.

Last Words

Reputedly, Barnum's last words before dying were about the show, which was appearing in New York's Madison Square Garden..."Ask Bailey what the box office was at the Garden last night..."

From the Ringling Bros. Website


What could be more fitting for a man who had lived for showbusiness profits...? In his obituary in the New York Times on April 8, 1891, which he requested to see before his death, the following was noted:

His (PT Barnum's) father, Philo Barnum, the son of Ephraim Barnum, who served as a Captain in the Revolutionary war, was a tailor, a farmer, at times a tavern keeper, and ever on the lookout to turn a quick penny by any honorable means. Born of such ancestors and with such surroundings, it is hardly necessary to say that the boy was early taught that if he would succeed in the world he must work hard.

'Ever on the lookout to turn a quick penny'...It was in the blood it seems.


Image by Thomas Totz. Flickr
Image by Thomas Totz. Flickr

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Comments 22 comments

Alternative Prime profile image

Alternative Prime 6 years ago from > California

Hi Jane,

I thoroughly enjoyed this magnificent Hub. P.T. Barnum quite the character and showman. The pictures were a great accent to the presentation of his life story...Superb job and thanks again.

Alternative Prime


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Thanks very much Alternative Prime...he sure was a real character and I'm really glad you enjoyed the hub.


jacobkuttyta profile image

jacobkuttyta 6 years ago from Delhi, India

Very interesting hub.

Hard work is the secret of success. Thanks for the life story of Barnum. Learned a lot from his life.


carolina muscle profile image

carolina muscle 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

This was a very interesting and informative hub.. you obviously did a lot of work on it, and it shows!!!! :-)


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hi jacob...I learnt a few things too. Barnum was such a dynamo.Thanks very much for reading


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

carolina...thanks for dropping by and leaving that nice comment, which I really appreciate.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

What a great look into the life and work of Barnum. This hub is wonderful with all of the imagery as well as information. Thanks for including the link to the Ringling Bros. Art Museum and Circus Memorabilia in Sarasota. Nice to know some of the history that pre-dated the Ringling Brothers. Rating this useful and up!


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 6 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I really enjoyed this hub about P.T. Barnum, Jane Bovary. I've always been fascinating by him and his shenanigans, but I've learned a lot more about him here. I only lived a few miles from Bridgeport but never got to see his museum there (although I did go there once but too late to get in.) Here's the link to that museum: http://www.barnum-museum.org/

Thanks,and thumbs up!


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Salutations and commendations, Jane. You have produced a beautifully written and detailed account of a very fascinating personality.

Thank you for sharing this interesting knowledge with us. P.T. himself would appreciate this well-researched dissertation.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Peggy, thanks for coming over and dropping off that thoughtful comment. I can't help admiring Barnum, for all his spin and bluster...he was just so darn colourful.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

William, as always, it's lovely to see you and Bing make an appearance. Thanks for the link..if I ever get out that way I'd definitely be making a visit to the museum. Great old building...and a shame about the tornado damage. I hope they can fix it.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Always great to see you too drbj...I've come to look forward to your comments in my hubs...they're always terrific. Thanks.


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Why didn't he become president? Great hub. I had known most and forgotten most. Thank you for this great refresher!


susannah42 profile image

susannah42 6 years ago from Florida

I grew up in Bridgeport. Ct., the home of PT Barnum. He was enthralling. There was a Broadway show about him, it was the best.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

President Barnum..it does have a ring to it. Thanks for reading Micky.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

I'll bet it was susannah and thankyou for the comment.


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 6 years ago from SE MA

Tom Thumb is a distant cousin to me.. I only learned that recently. As it happens, he and his wife lived here in the town we moved to 5 years ago.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

That's an interesting connection to have Pc..from all accounts he was a very successful man.

Hey you might also be distantly related to PT Barnum....according to Wikipedia, Barnum was also a cousin of Tom Thumb.

Thanks for popping by


Pcunix profile image

Pcunix 6 years ago from SE MA

Yes, I forgot about that. But an awful lot of us early New England settlers are related - if your family came here in the 1600!s, it's hard not to be related to someone whose family also arrived here then. A women two houses away is a 14th cousin by way of William Brewster.. but neither of us knew that until it came up accidentally.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Hahaha...that could get disconcerting!


Rod Marsden profile image

Rod Marsden 6 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

The age of the circus really was a different age. I remember as a kid being bored by circus acts on television because they were usually badly filmed and thus made boring. Even so I have been fascinated by the high wire act and would like to see that live. I am not sure if animals such as elephants should be part of the circus. Some years ago an elephant from a USA circus went mad, probably from being confined so much between performances, and had to be put down. Human performers who want to be there however are a different story.


Jane Bovary profile image

Jane Bovary 6 years ago from The Fatal Shore Author

Yes, I imagine it's hard on the animals. I went to a circus locally a few years back..I think it was Silvers and I have to admit I got quite a childish thrill from the smell of the greasepaint and the general ambiance of the bigtop. There was a giant *wheel of death* or some such thing which was pretty impressive. Watching it on TV is definitely not the same though.

Thanks for visiting

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