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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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