Phineas Taylor Barnum reinvented the circus. His knowledge of what people want and how to make people think they want what he had was amazing. He constantly fooled people and had a way of making the customers come back. Barnum was ultimate salesman. He single handedly turned the circus into the “Greatest Show On Earth” it is today.
P. T. Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5th 1810. He later called himself a “Yankee doodle dandy, plus one.” He was the oldest of five, all raised in a typical Connecticut saltbox house, which is an average, large house, is that still stands today. His father, Philo Barnum, dabbled in several trades. His father owned his own dry goods store. Barnum’s mom, Irena Taylor, was a housewife. The family was moderately well off.
Barnum, as a child was influenced by a strict Protestant work ethic. He fallowed a type of Christianity called Congregationalism. Congregationalism was strict about working, learning and keeping yourself busy. Fun was a scarce commodity. About the only fun the church ever had were lotteries, but even those were rare. Also the town liked one-upping each other with outrageous pranks.
Phineas Taylor, who was Barnum’s grandfather, was one of the most notorious jokers in Bethel and also one of the richest men. His longest running joke would be on Barnum. At the boys cresting, he deeded Barnum a piece of land called Ivy Island. For years Barnum herd stories about what a lucky young man he was to be given Ivy Island At the age of ten he set out to see the island himself. Barnum soon found out Ivy Island was named for poisoned ivy. It was an Island in the middle of swamp just east of Bethel. Barnum then learned that he was the unknowing butt of jokes for ten years. Barnum learned from this, although a bit angry, that people loved being humbugged.
He would attend school just long enough to maser basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. At the age of eight Barnum became an apprentice for his father’s dried good store. Although, sadly, in 1826 Barnum’s father died. The fifteen year old was the family’s only means of support. His father’s store changed hands and he went to work for the new owner. Around this time Barnum met Charity Hollet.
Charity and Barnum soon got married in 1829 when Barnum was 19. Charity was a devout Congregationalist. With his new bride beside him Barnum set out to make a name for him in business. Like his father he juggled several jobs. He bought his own store in Bethel, he started a newspaper, and he ran a lottery. Much to Charity’s dismay Barnum adopted a new religion, Universalism, which offered what he called a more “cheerful” Christianity.
Barnum was strongly opposed to the involvement of the Congregationalist church in local politics. In 1831 he used his newspaper to attack a minister in nearby Danbury Connecticut. The response was nor very cheerful nor very Christian. Barnum ended up with 60 days in the Danbury jail. He published his paper through the jail and portrayed himself as a little guy persecuted by a corrupt religious elite. Public support got him out of jail and made him a political force to be reckoned with. It taught him “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”3
Charity grew more conservative as Barnum grew more audacious. She wanted to settle down and have children. For the next few years the couple settled down. In 1833 the first of four daughters were born. But P. T. Barnum’s life took another sudden turn. The next year Connecticut outlawed lotteries. A few weeks later his store went bust. Then the final blow came, the newspaper could not repeat with the well-established Danbury Recorder and folded. Within a few short months he was wiped out. In 1834, with nothing left to lose Barnum moved his family to New York City. Without knowing it he started down the road to the “Greatest Show On Earth.”4
In 1835, against Charity’s wishes, Barnum used every penny they had to buy the contract of an elderly slave named Joice Heth. She was being exhibited as the 161-year-old former nurse to George Washington. As crazy as the fib was the public loved it. Heth earned him a sizeable profit before her death, the next year. Barnum had an autopsy done and found out Heth was only 80 years old and claimed he to had been fooled by her. Next Barnum signed a juggler named Vivala and toured him up and down the east coast. During his travels he met another juggler named Roberts and claimed he could out juggle Vuvala. Naturaly Barnum turned this competition to his advantage. He managed Roberts and Vuvala at the same time and scheduled what seemed like spontaneous challenge matches. The audience would lay bets. Barnum would get some gate fee percentage, a fee to bet, and a fee to the jugglers for performing. It was ingenious. Techniques like that are often used today.
In 1841 Barnum took his biggest gamble yet. He wanted to buy the nearly bankrupt American Museum in Manhattan. When the bank demanded more collateral than he had, he tried a ploy. He put up his Ivy Island deed. They signed sight unseen. At the age of 31 Barnum now owned a museum. The American Museum was turned into Barnum’s Museum Menagerie. “I knew the only way to make millions from my patrons, was to give them an abundant and wholesome attractions for a small sum of money.” Barnum charged a $.25 admissions fee. The attractions were abundant but not very wholesome. It was more like a circus sideshow.
There were exotic and deformed animals, plus giants, dwarfs, sword swallowers, bearded ladies, contortionist, and human oddities. Some classic exhibits were humbugs. His 6-foot MANEATING chicken was a 6-foot man, eating chicken. But his most popular oddity was the Fee Gee Mermaid. He combined the top half with a monkey’s skeleton with the bottom half of a fish. People were having a great time and Barnum was doing well for himself. “A surest way of deriving the greatest profit in the long run, is to give people as much as possible for their money.”5 Although he was also disliked by some people because of his trickery. He often got a bad wrap about being a big bombastic liar, but that wasn’t true. He was giving people what they wanted. Barnum soon met a midget who would soon become famous the world over as Tom Thumb.
In November 1842 Barnum discovered Charles Stratton. A five-year-old midget who became the biggest little legend in America. Extremely articulate for his age, Stratton gave the appearance of being much older. Barnum christened him General Tom Thumb. He was immediately exhibited at the museum and then on the road. Thought the 1840’s the duo toured America while their reputation kept growing even though he didn’t. Tom even met President James Polk. Barnum was way ahead of his time when it came to promoting and managing things. The team also toured Europe and Queen Victoria gave Tom Thumb a kiss on the cheek after he got on a latter. He was a huge moneymaker. They returned in 1848.
Barnum celebrated his success by building a 3 story home on a 17 acre property he called Iranistan. It was lavish and expensive America had never seen a more expensive house. Unfortunately four years later Iranistan burned down. Except for a few photos and a recreation f the library in the Barnum Museum, it was lost.
Tom Thumb toured on his own and Barnum looked for new talent. Jenny Lynd was an opera star he brought to America and toured. He offered her $200,000 plus a percentage of the box office for 50 shows, it was so much money she couldn’t refuse. Some say Barnum was tired of being associated with the freakishness of his stars and was yearning for respectability. Barnum spent another small fortune advertising her. By the time she arrived 30,000 people were on the dock screaming her name. “There’s a sucker born every minute,”6 is often attributed to him, even though he denies saying it. She arrived a pre-sung superstar. He also thought of merchandising. She sold out every where and gave him the respectability he wanted. He then returned to Bridgeport and began to get involved with politics.
In 1851 he became president of a local bank. In 1853 he helped organize the crystal palace in preparation of the World’s Fair. Even personal problems barley slowed him down. Charity fell ill eventually becoming an inviolate. In 1851 he bought 50 acres east of Bridgeport to develop the city of the future. His partner, Chansy Jerome, skipped out and left Barnum 500,000 in debt. All the wealth power and prestige was wiped out over night. He had to sell the Barnum’s Museum and worked for the new owners. His old friend, Tom Thumb, offered to let Barnum take him on tour even though he hardly needed a manager. Barnum gratefully accepted. It took him ten years to recuperate from the hard blow.
Barnum made money, lost money, and then made it again. He lost his respectability for the time. With 1859, with the help of Tom Thumb, Barnum bought the museum back and made it better. He also bought a more lavish house in Bridgeport, which he named Lyndincraught. Today Lyndincraught is a public park with a statue of P. T. Barnum. In 1861 Tom Thumb went back to touring on his own. He found a replacement named General Commodore George Washington Morrison Nut. He was exhibited at the museum. Nut and Thumb fought over a new person, Lavinia Warren, who was another midget. Thumb won her and they were married December 10th 1863 with a private lavish wedding paid by Barnum. In 1865 Barnum was elected to the Connecticut legislator and wanted to abolish slavery. It was a high point in his political career. Two years later he started the Barnum Museum circus and Menagerie, which was his first traveling circus. The circus had finally come to town.
In 1867 he started bringing exotic animals in the spring. He had clowns and acrobats, elephants, and Arial stunts but the circus was brought back to the city to spend the winter in the heated museum. March 2nd 1868 the museum burned down to ruble. The flames engulfed the wood museum in minutes. The water on the pumps froze on the ruble leaving eerie remains. All the animals died. He went into retirement and wrote an autobiography. The public ate it up. He also struck up a friendship with Nancy Fish, who was 40 years younger then him, when he was still living with his wife. In 1871 he ended his retirement.
He got back into the circus business with vengeance. He spent all his time promoting his circus. He wrote children books and sold them. Barnum ordered tents with three rings instead of the traditional one ring circus. He could fit thousands of people. He made it bigger and better. In 1872 he decided to call his show the “Greatest Show On Earth.” In 1873 Charity died. A year later he married Nancy Fish who was 24 years old. In 1875 he became mayor of Bridgeport. He even considered running for president. James Baily owned the largest competing circus. He teamed up with Baily in 1880. The Barnum and Baily circus was created.
In 1890 in the fall he suffered a stroke wich confined him to bed. Sadly in 1891 April 7th Barnum died in his sleep at his 17 acre estate. He was a genius in business and promotion. He will always be immortal and he will be known for creating the “Greatest Show On Earth.”