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Happy Birthday, P.T. Barnum!

Today marks the 207th birthday of Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum. The legendary showman is best remembered for his elaborate hoaxes and founding the circus he called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He entertained the public by promoting human curiosities, animal attractions, and music concerts.

P.T. Barnum Research Topic Screencap via ProQuest eLibrary

P.T. Barnum Research Topic Screencap via ProQuest eLibrary

Early Life

P.T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810. He started his journey as an entrepreneur at a young age. At 12-years-old, he was selling cherry-rum to soldiers. His various jobs included working as a store-keeper, running a lottery business, and editing his own newspaper called the “Herald of Freedom.”

The “Great American Showman”

Barnum moved to New York City in 1834. A year later, he launched his entertainment career when he purchased and exhibited Joice Heth, a blind African-American slave. Heth was touted as being George Washington’s 161-year-old former nurse. After Heth’s death in February of 1836, Barnum staged a public autopsy that revealed Heth was probably not older than 80.

In December of 1841, Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum and relaunched it as Barnum’s American Museum on January 1, 1842. The museum’s collections included historic exhibitions, taxidermied animals, live animals, wax figures, and oddities–such as the “Feejee Mermaid.”

In 1842, Barnum met a 4-year-old dwarf named Charles Sherwood Stratton in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Stratton weighed 15 pounds and was 25 inches tall. Barnum hired Stratton for $3.00 a week and introduced him to audiences as “General Tom Thumb.” Barnum told the public that Stratton was 11-years-old to avoid accusations that he was exhibiting a child somewhat smaller than average. The exhibit’s massive popularity led to a tour of Europe, which included a performance for Queen Victoria.

One of Barnum’s most successful ventures was his promotion of Swedish opera performer Jenny Lind. Barnum brought the “Swedish Nightingale” from Europe to the United States in 1850 for a triumphant tour that set astounding box-office records. Barnum reportedly earned over $500,000 for the tour.

Bridgeport, Connecticut

In addition to being a promoter, Barnum was interested in transforming Bridgeport, Connecticut into a booming metropolis. He suffered bankruptcy after trying to lure the ill-fated Jerome Clock Company to his adopted hometown. Barnum restored his monetary standing by touring with General Tom Thumb and through a lecture tour. He was Bridgeport’s mayor for one term and served two terms in the Connecticut legislature.

Circus Pioneer

On July 13, 1865, Barnum’s American Museum was destroyed by a fire. He opened a second museum that also burned down in 1868. In 1870, Barnum agreed to collaborate with circus managers W.C. Coup and Dan Castello on a gigantic circus venture. P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus opened in Brooklyn on April 10, 1871. Many of Barnum’s old performers were recruited for what he referred to as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In 1874, Barnum’s spectacular show found a permanent home at the New York Hippodrome, now known as Madison Square Garden.

In 1881, Barnum combined forces with his chief rival James Bailey to form the Barnum & London Circus. Barnum and Bailey experienced great success the following season with the purchase of Jumbo. The legendary elephant weighed 6 ½ tons and stood over 11 ½ feet tall. Jumbo delighted audiences until his accidental death in 1885.

In 1887, Barnum agreed to relinquish control of the circus, which became the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.

Legacy

Barnum died on April 7, 1891. After Barnum’s death, Bailey managed the show for many years. In 1907, Bailey’s competitors, the Ringling brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey show. The two shows were combined in 1919, becoming known as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, The Greatest Show on Earth. As someone who grew up with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and loved the extravaganza, it is with a heavy heart that I write that “The Greatest Show on Earth” no longer exists. The iconic circus gave its final performance on May 21, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.

Resources

P.T. Barnum is remembered as a brilliant promoter who transformed entertainment. Educators, have your students learn more about his life and career through these websites available in SIRS Issues Researcher and these ProQuest Research Topics available in eLibrary:

The Barnum Museum

Circus Research Topic

Circuses and Sideshows

The Lost Museum

P.T. Barnum and the Management of Spectacle

P.T. Barnum Research Topic

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“The Greatest Show on Earth” Is Closing After 146 Years

“It is the only spectacle I know, that, while you watch it, gives the quality of a truly happy dream.”—Ernest Hemingway

Elephants Performing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Elephants Performing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
By Amy n Rob (originally posted to Flickr as Circus 1 (183)) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In a couple of weeks, “The Greatest Show on Earth” will cease to exist. After 146 years, the iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will deliver its final performance on May 21 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. The circus, with its acrobats, clowns, and animal acts, has been a staple of American entertainment for over a century. Once lauded as wholesome family fun, the show has become increasingly controversial in recent years. The circus has been targeted for decades by animal rights activists, who say that forcing animals to perform for human entertainment is cruel and inhumane.

In January, Kenneth Feld, chairman, and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., told The Associated Press that high operating costs combined with declining attendance, changing tastes, and lengthy battles with animal rights organizations, all contributed to the American spectacle’s demise. Feld Entertainment spent years fighting allegations of elephant mistreatment. Despite never losing in court, and winning $25 million in settlements from animal rights groups, the company lost in the court of public opinion. Pressure from animal rights groups and shifting public attitudes toward the use of captive wild animals for entertainment purposes forced Ringling Bros. to end its practice of using performing elephants in May of 2016. The retired circus elephants were sent to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation in central Florida. Ticket sales plummeted following the removal of the elephants from the show.

The company’s decision to close the circus has been hailed as a major victory by animal rights groups. “After 36 years of PETA protests, which have awoken the world to the plight of animals in captivity, PETA heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times,” Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime critic of the circus, wrote in a statement.

But not everyone is happy to see the circus come to an end. About 400 circus employees will soon be out of a job. “It’s traumatic!” said ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, expressing his sadness. “For artists and crew alike, it’s bearing witness to the death of the penultimate icon of our industry. This decision has international ramifications. Artists, the world over, work their entire lives to get to the Greatest Show On Earth.”

What do your students think about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shutting down? Do they support or oppose the use of animals for entertainment? Do they think using animals for entertainment constitutes cruelty? They can learn more about both sides of the debate in our Animal Cruelty Leading Issue.

SIRS Leading Issue: Animal Welfare

SIRS Leading Issue: Animal Welfare by ProQuest LLC via ProQuest SIRS Issue Researcher

Let us know your thoughts about the closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Comment below or tweet us using #ProQuest.

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