Today is the 209th birthday of the man who created The Greatest Show on Earth: P.T. Barnum. The man had hustle. He has this phrase he would use to describe his pranks and hoaxes, he would call them humbugs. Meaning, people like to be frightened if they know deep down they are not in danger. The world is a better place because he was in it and still feels the loss that he has left.
NAME: P.T. Barnum
BIRTH DATE: July 5, 1810
DEATH DATE: April 7, 1891
PLACE OF BIRTH: Bethel, Connecticut
PLACE OF DEATH: Bridgeport, Connecticut
FULL NAME: Phineas Taylor Barnum
BEST KNOWN FOR: American P.T. Barnum was an immensely successful promoter who founded the circus he coined “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1871.
P.T. Barnum was born Phineas Taylor Barnum on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut. A natural salesman, he was peddling lottery tickets and cherry-rum to soldiers by age 12. Barnum moved to New York City as a young man and tried his hand at a variety of businesses, including newspaper publishing and running a boarding house.
In 1835, P.T. Barnum’s knack for promotion surfaced when he paid $1,000 for an elderly slave named Joice Heth, who claimed to be 161 years old and a former nurse for George Washington. Barnum exhibited her throughout the northeast region, raking in upwards of $1,000 per week.
Barnum bought Scudder’s American Museum in lower Manhattan in December 1841 and reopened it as Barnum’s American Museum, where he displayed the “Feejee Mermaid” and other oddities of dubious authenticity among its 500,000-plus exhibits.
In 1842, Barnum met 4-year-old Charles Sherwood Stratton, who stood 25 inches high and weighed 15 pounds. Sensing another potential windfall, Barnum trained the boy to sing and dance and revealed him to the public as “General Tom Thumb.” The massive popularity of the exhibit led to a traveling tour of Europe, which included an audience with England’s Queen Victoria.
Barnum became famous for championing the weird and wacky, but one of his most successful ventures came with the promotion of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. After hearing about her sold-out concerts in Europe, Barnum made “the Swedish Nightingale” an offer of $1,000 per performance for 150 shows in the United States and Canada, a tour which earned him a profit of more than $500,000.
In addition to his show-business career, Barnum sought to transform his adopted hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, into a thriving metropolis. He went bankrupt after attempting to lure the doomed Jerome Clock Company to Bridgeport, but repaired his financial standing through public-speaking engagements and additional touring with General Tom Thumb, and went on to serve two terms in the Connecticut Legislature and one term as mayor of Bridgeport.
Barnum closed his American Museum for good after it burned down from a fire in 1868, but he recruited many of his old performers and opened P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus in Brooklyn on April 10, 1871. Referring to it as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Barnum found a permanent home for his extravaganza in 1874 at the New York Hippodrome, later known as Madison Square Garden.
Barnum joined forces with fellow circus managers James Bailey and James Hutchinson in 1881. The following year they introduced “Jumbo,” an enormous 11 1/2-foot, 6-1/2 ton elephant from the Royal Zoological Society in London. As with many of Barnum’s previous exhibits, Jumbo was a hit with audiences until his death in 1885.
In 1887, an aging Barnum agreed to cede everyday control of the circus, which was rebranded Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.
Confined to his Bridgeport home after suffering a stroke in 1890, Barnum died on April 7, 1891. A businessman to the end, he allegedly asked about the previous night’s gate receipts with his final words.
The Barnum & Bailey show was bought by the rival Ringling brothers in 1907, and in 1919 the two were incorporated into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, The Greatest Show on Earth.
Thanks in part to the continued success of the circus, Barnum is celebrated as a brilliant promoter and a man who transformed the nature of commercial entertainment in the 19th century. He is also remembered for his philanthropic contributions and investments in the city of Bridgeport, where exhibits of his life and the curiosities he brought to the public are featured at the Barnum Museum.