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Barnum, P. T. - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: P.T. Barnum

circus museum claimed york

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.

Personal Life

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.

Career Details

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

1810: Born.

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.

1891: Died.

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.

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almost 6 years ago

Heyy school is so lame ready to egt out