The Curious Contradictions of PT Barnum, Showman and Philanthropist

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PT Barnum's birthplace

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was a shrewd businessman, a famous 'showman' (meaning tour manager and impresario), and a beloved figure. No matter what his detractors might have said, he was popular with the acts he managed, the people he did business with, his employees, and pretty much the entire state of Connecticut. He made Charles Sherwood Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, a wealthy man – and introduced Charles to his wife.

PT Barnum could truly have been called a 'household name'. By his own estimation, by the 1880s he had sold at least 90.5 million tickets to his New York museums and road shows in the US and Europe. The population of the US at that time was 50 million. Exaggerated stories were told about him, and cynical quotes attributed to him, such as, 'There's a sucker born every minute,' something he didn't say. He also didn't put up a sign that said 'This Way to the Egress' in order to trick people into prematurely exiting his museum and having to buy another ticket. He put up a sign saying 'This Way to the Egress' in order to trick people into leaving after they'd seen the exhibits, rather than camping in the museum all day with their kids and picnic lunches and creating a fire hazard. He needed to: that museum burned down twice.

Barnum's career was rich and varied. The glimpse into his motivations is provided by his 1882 autobiography Struggles and Triumphs, or, The Recollections of P.T. Barnum. Barnum was honest, energetic, and hard-working. He also did things that cause us to ask, 'What in the world was he thinking?' To understand that part, we should know a little bit about Connecticut in the early republic.

Bethel, New York City, and Points South and West

Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut. That made him a Connecticut Yankee. Connecticut Yankees were known for their cleverness, which also made other Americans suspicious. Many of them were peddlers, shopkeepers, or small-time manufacturers and traders. They had the reputation for shrewd dealing. They earned that reputation. The ability to strike a good bargain was a prized trait in Bethel. So was a sense of humour: the main pastime appears to have been playing practical jokes on each other.

Barnum tells with evident enjoyment of the jokes his grandfather Phineas played. The first joke was on his namesake and grandson, whom he gifted with a piece of property called 'Ivy Island'. The little boy was warned not to get a swelled head at being a landowner. He caught on when he visited his property: a small, barren clump of land in the middle of a creek. He was menaced by one of his 'tenants', a large blacksnake.

Young Phineas' father died when the boy was 15, so he went to work in a store a mile from Bethel. He was a successful entrepreneur, and helped the store prosper. He also played practical jokes on the neighbours. Once, he and some friends inveigled two Revolutionary War veterans into fighting a duel. Barnum loaded the guns – with blanks. One of the duellists, who was in on the joke, pretended to be wounded. The other went into hiding until informed his opponent had recovered. The shooter said complacently that this would teach the other man to tangle with such a dead shot as he was. As this was the 1820s, nobody even considered filing a lawsuit: life was different then.

Barnum married at 19, to Charity Hallett. They stayed married until her death 44 years later. Though often on the road, Barnum was a faithful husband. For a while they ran a boarding house and grocery in New York City. When that became too tame, Barnum started a national newspaper with headquarters in Danbury. The Herald of Freedom, founded in 1831, was a big hit. It also landed Barnum in hot water. This time, there were lawsuits. The editor ended up in Danbury jail for libel. He served his 60-day sentence in style: they carpeted his cell and papered the walls. He edited the paper from there. When he was released, the locals staged a triumphal carriage procession from Danbury to Bethel1.

The enterprising Yankee also became a teetotaller and Temperance speaker. He was an abolitionist, like many in New England. Unlike most abolitionists, Barnum had once actually owned a slave. This is another strange tale.

Barnum the Showman

Barnum first became a showman by purchasing a slave. The elderly woman's name was Joice Heth. There isn't a lot of reliable information on Joice Heth. Barnum says she had limited mobility due to her age, but was wide awake and willing to talk about her memories of tending to George Washington as a baby. The man who had been exhibiting her had a 'bill of sale' belonging to Washington's slaveholder father, using it to claim that this lady was 161 years old. Barnum seems not to have believed it, but bought the contract and made savvy use of his publicity skills to earn a great deal of money showing 'George Washington's nurse' around. The exhibitee helped out by telling elaborate stories to her listeners.

When Joice Heth died a year later, there was even a public autopsy. The surgeons, who were perfectly willing to do this in front of a paying public and the New York Sun, a newspaper that loved to trade in fake news, balked at certifying an age of 161 and claimed Joice Heth was probably only about 80. The public appeared to be more concerned with the lack of authenticity in the 'humbug2' than the fact that a young man of dubious judgement had been exhibiting an elderly woman in public – or engaging in human trafficking. Sometimes the Past is nearly incomprehensible. At any rate, Barnum seems to have had the grace to be embarrassed by this initial foray into show business. After that, he was much more circumspect – and he always treated the people he 'exhibited' with courtesy. But he wasn't finished with 'humbug'.

Another infamous example of Barnum's trading in the fake news line was his purchase of the 'Fiji Mermaid'. The Mermaid wasn't alive, which is not surprising, since it was basically a fine example of Asian trick taxidermy3. Exhibiting such an outrageous specimen of foolishness helped cement Barnum's early reputation as a bit of a charlatan. He may simply have thought of it as a good joke.

In 1842, Barnum's brother introduced him to a neighbour in their adopted town of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Stratton family had an unusual son, Charles, who was remarkably small. Accounts of his height differ slightly, but his full adult height was not much more than three feet. Barnum took the little boy, then 5 years old, under his management. He taught him how to be a performer – speaking, singing, and dancing. He outfitted him with elaborate costumes and gave him the stage name of General Tom Thumb. The Strattons and Barnum toured the US and Europe more than once. They made a lot of money. Barnum and the General, as he called him, became lifelong friends. When Barnum later employed Lavinia Warren, also a person of small size, Charles Stratton fell in love with her. He proposed on a visit to Barnum's house in Bridgeport. The couple had a society wedding, and later toured together. Barnum took an avuncular pride in the romance.

And if the wooings of kings and queens must be told, why not the courtship and marriage of General and Mrs Tom Thumb?

Barnum promoted several other small performers, such as Commodore Nutt and Admiral Dot. In his memoirs, he seems pleased to have helped them to show business success. On a slightly less controversial note, he also helped the careers of dancers. Okay, some of the dancers wore blackface. But his friend Vivalli the juggler and tightrope walker was a pure artist. All of this was before the travelling circus that made him famous.

Bringing Culture to the Masses

PT Barnum's home, called Iranistan

Another thing that puzzles us about PT Barnum's promotional ventures is this curious mixture of highbrow and lowbrow (middlebrow hadn't been invented yet4). In the 1850s, Barnum engineered the triumphant US tour of Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale'. Ms Lind was an opera singer. Barnum earned $500,000 on her tour. He had people in raptures about the purity of her voice. But he first proposed the tour without ever having heard her sing. He'd heard she was 'the best', and that was good enough. (He might very well have been tone-deaf: there is almost no mention of music in his 400-page autobiography.)

Barnum and Jenny Lind remained good friends. A friendship that can survive a really long tour must have been strong – especially after Barnum played April Fool jokes on everyone in the touring company. Ms Lind gave most of her money to charity, while Barnum ploughed his profits into new ventures and improvements on his unbelievable home, 'Iranistan'. It was a remarkable building: it's a shame it burned down in 1857. (The Past appears to have been one long fire hazard.)

Grizzly Adams

In his American Museum in New York City, Barnum would display 'humbug' like the Fiji Mermaid alongside genuine exotic animals. He would go to great lengths to acquire animals for his menagerie, but he had no idea how to keep them. He had whales in tanks. (They boiled to death in the fire that consumed the museum in 1865.) His collection was weirdly eclectic in a way we would find confusing, and possibly dangerous to both animals and visitors.

In 1860, he hired Grizzly Adams to perform with his animals.

'He arrived in New York with with his famous collection of California animals, captured by himself, consisting of twenty or thirty immense grizzly bears, at the head of which stood 'Old Samson,' together with several wolves, half a dozen different species of California bears, California lions, tigers, buffalo, elk, and 'Old Neptune,' the great sea-lion from the Pacific.

Adams wasn't well: he had been 'training' his pet grizzly bears. Sometimes, they hit him. On the head. His skull was caved in and his brain partially exposed. In spite of Barnum's protests that he should see a doctor, Adams insisted he was fine. He died of his injuries after four months of touring. Barnum was sad, but hired someone else to do the Adams show, in costume.

Barnum exhibited fossils and military artefacts, such as John Brown's pike used at Harper's Ferry alongside a bogus dress allegedly worn by Jefferson Davis while fleeing from Federal Troops in 1865. The contradiction between well-meaning education of the public and downright fakes can make our heads swim.

Public-Spirited Barnum

Barnum was very civic-minded. He served as a state senator for four terms. He built his hometown of Bridgeport a park and donated an ornate fountain there. He served as chairman of several local civic organisations and was always available as a speaker on public occasions. He did his best to bring industry to the town. He served as mayor in 1875 and brought improvements such as gas lighting to streets. He opposed prostitution and liquor in Bridgeport. He was also president of the local hospital.

As a major contributor to the newly-founded Tufts University, Barnum endowed the hall for the Department of Natural History, as well as a natural history museum named after himself. We are allowed to find this funny, as well as the fact that Jumbo, the famous Barnum elephant, became the school's mascot. (Tufts students are still known as 'Jumbos'.)

For Further Information

American Museum
I think I can, without egotism, say that I have amused and instructed more persons than any other manager who ever lived.

Now PT Barnum can amuse even more people on the internet. In addition to reading his book online, you can pay a virtual visit to the American Museum, courtesy of the City University of New York.

1Danbury, Connecticut, still has a sense of humour. Television comedian John Oliver now has a sewage treatment plant named after him there.2'Humbug' is defined as a deception or trick.3In German-speaking countries, fanciful taxidermy creatures are called Wolpertinger. You can find some in the Munich hunting museum.4In the US, 'middlebrow' is a term used to refer to the offerings on National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System (TV), which adopt a faux-scholarly tone and deliver entertainment instead of knowledge.

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