Phineas Taylor Barnum (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891), American showman who is best remembered for his entertaining hoaxes and for founding the circus that eventually became Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
He was born in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of an inn- and store-keeper. Barnum first started as a store-keeper, and was also involved with the lottery mania then prevailing in the United States. After failing in business, he started a weekly paper in 1829, The Herald of Freedom, in Danbury, Connecticut. After several libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in imprisonment, he moved to New York City in 1834. In 1835 began his career as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed African-American slave woman, Joice Heth, claimed by Barnum to have been the nurse of George Washington, and to be over a hundred and sixty years old.
With this woman and a small company he made well-advertised and successful tours in America until 1839, though Joice Heth died in 1836, when her age was proved to be not more than seventy. After a period of failure he purchased Scudder's American Museum, at Broadway and Ann Street, New York City, in 1841. Renamed "Barnum's American Museum" with a considerable addition of exhibits, it became one of the most popular showplaces in the United States. He made a special hit in 1842 with the exhibition of Charles Stratton, the celebrated midget "General Tom Thumb", as well as the Fiji Mermaid which he exhibited in collaboration with his Boston counterpart Moses Kimball. His collection also included the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. In 1843 Barnum hired the traditional Native American dancer Do-Hum-Me. During 1844-45 Barnum toured with Charles Stratton in Europe and met with Queen Victoria. A remarkable instance of his enterprise was the engagement of Jenny Lind to sing in America at $1,000 a night for one hundred and fifty nights, all expenses being paid by the entrepreneur. The tour began in 1850, and was a great success for both Lind and Barnum.
Barnum retired from the show business in 1855, but had to settle with his creditors in 1857, and began his old career again as showman and museum proprietor. On July 13, 1865, Barnum's American Museum burned to the ground. Barnum quickly reestablished the Museum at another location in New York City, but this too was destroyed by fire in March, 1868. In Brooklyn, New York in 1871 with William Cameron Coup, he established P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome, a travelling amalgamation of circus, menagerie and museum of "freaks", which by 1872 was billing itself as "The Greatest Show on Earth". It went through a number of variants on these names: "P.T. Barnum's Traveling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth", and after an 1881 merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United", soon shortened to "Barnum & London Circus". He and Bailey split up again in 1885, but came back together in 1888 with the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth", later "Barnum & Bailey Circus", which toured around the world. The show's primary attraction was Jumbo, an African elephant he purchased in 1882 from the London Zoo.
Barnum died on April 7, 1891 and is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut. A statue in his honor was erected in 1893 at Seaside Park, by the water in Bridgeport. Barnum had donated the land for this park in 1865. His circus was eventually sold to Ringling Brothers on July 8, 1907 for a price of US$400,000.
Barnum wrote several books, including The Humbugs of the World (1865), Struggles and Triumphs (1869), and The Art of Money-Getting (1880).
Barnum self-published many different editions of his autobiography (first in 1854, and later editions including 1869). Some were limited publications of elaborate manufacture. Besides trying to sell these for a profit, he gave personally inscribed copies to friends and dignitaries. These limited editions are now valued by book collectors. Others were mass produced in large volume so they could be used as a promotional enticement to potential purchasers of tickets for circus performances. With each new edition, Barnum added new chapters covering the time since the previous edition. He also would revise the previous chapters. His autobiography was unusually frank for its time and thus considered scandalous by some. Historians have found few factual errors, though they do criticize his intentional omission of events, lack of sufficient details regarding some events, proselytizing and editorializing.
Mass publication of his autobiography was one of Barnum's more successful methods of self-promotion. The autobiography was so popular that some people made a point of acquiring and reading each edition. Some collectors were known to boast they had a copy of every edition in their library. Barnum eventually gave up his claim of copyright to allow other printers to publish and sell inexpensive editions. At the end of the 19th century the number of copies printed of the autobiography was second only to the number of copies of the New Testament printed in North America.
Often referred to as the "Prince of Humbugs", Barnum saw nothing wrong in entertainers or vendors using hype (or "humbug", as he termed it) in their promotional material, just as long as the public was getting good value for its money. However, he was contemptuous of those who made money through fraudulent deceptions, especially the spiritualist mediums popular in his day. Prefiguring illusionists Harry Houdini and James Randi, Barnum publicly exposed "the tricks of the trade" used by mediums to deceive and cheat grieving survivors. In The Humbugs of the World, he offered a $500 reward to any medium who could prove their claimed power to communicate with the dead without trickery.
Barnum was significantly involved in the politics surrounding race, slavery, and sectionalism in the period leading up the American Civil War. As mentioned above, he had some of his first success as an impresario through his slave Joice Heth. Around 1850, he was involved in a hoax about a weed that would turn black people white.
Barnum was involved (both as performer and promoter) in blackface minstrelsy. According to Eric Lott, Barnum's minstrel shows were often more double-edged in their humor than most at this period. While still replete with racist stereotypes, Barnum's shows also satirized white racial attitudes, as in a stump speech in which a black phrenologist (like all performers in the show, actually a white man in blackface) made a dialect speech paralleling and parodying lectures given at the time to "prove" the superiority of the white race: "You see den, dat clebber man and dam rascal means de same in Dutch, when dey boph white; but when one white and de udder's black, dat's a grey hoss ob anoder color." (Lott, 1993, 78)
Promotion of minstrel shows led indirectly to his sponsorship in 1853 of H.J. Conway's politically watered-down stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; the play, at Barnum's American Museum, gave the story a happy ending, with Tom and various other slaves freed. The success of this Uncle Tom led, in turn, to his promotion of a production of a play based on Stowe's Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. By 1860, Barnum had become a Republican.
While he claimed "politics were always distasteful to me," Barnum was elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as the Republican representative for Fairfield and served two terms. In the debate over slavery and African-American suffrage with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, Barnum spoke eloquently before the legislature and said, in part, "A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot - it is still an immortal spirit!" He ran for the United States Congress in 1867 and lost. In 1875, Barnum was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut for a one year term and worked vigorously to improve the city water supply, bring gaslighting to the streets, and strictly enforce liquor and prostitution laws. Barnum was instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and served as its first president.