Phineas T. Barnum

From New World Encyclopedia
Revision as of 04:19, 24 November 2022 by Rosie Tanabe (talk | contribs) (→‎External links)
(diff) ← Older revision | Latest revision (diff) | Newer revision → (diff)

Phineas Taylor Barnum, photograph by Mathew Brady, c.1860

Phineas Taylor Barnum (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891) was an entrepreneur in popular entertainment, who developed the modern American circus. In addition, he was mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a state legislator, urban developer, philanthropist, abolitionist, and author. He made an indelible mark on American culture not only through his innovative entertainment but also in his wealth of written work.

P.T. Barnum's "American Museum," and later his circus, dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth," were popular entertainment designed to give ordinary working-class people some joy and gaiety amid the drabness and labor of their lives. He also pioneered the pedagogical use of entertainment to explore social issues, particularly to challenge attitudes on race and slavery. The exploration of ethical issues and moral dilemmas in popular entertainment, such as soap operas, is Barnum's legacy. He hated all tyranny.

Barnum was devoted to intellectual and cultural development in American society. His efforts integrally forged great advancements in entertainment and industry, not only in the United States, but globally as well. Intensely committed to exposing charlatans because they made his job harder, P.T. Barnum's life's work reaches far into the American heritage. The story of his vast contributions is preserved and celebrated in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Early Life

Ad for "The Greatest Show on Earth," 1878.

Barnum was born on July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, the oldest of five children of inn-keeper and store-keeper Philo Barnum and third great grandson of Thomas Barnum, the immigrant ancestor of the Barnum family in North America. 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.


1856 newspaper advertisement for Barnum's American Museum located on Ann Street in Manhattan.

In 1835 began his career as a showman with his $1,000 purchase of a blind and almost completely paralyzed African-American slave woman, Joice Heth. She claimed by Barnum to have been the nurse of George Washington, and to be over 160 years old. Barnum exhibited her in New York and New England, profiting about $1,500 per week.

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 eighty. After a period of failure he purchased Scudder's American Museum, at Broadway and Ann Street, New York City, in 1841. He renamed it "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 dwarf "General Tom Thumb," as well as the Feejee 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 1844-1845 Barnum toured with Charles Stratton in Europe and met with Queen Victoria. A remarkable instance of his enterprise was the engagement of the talented Swedish singer Jenny Lind to sing in America at $1,000 a night for 150 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. In 1862 he discovered the giantess Anna Swan but 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 traveling 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 Travelling 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.

A Moral Purpose

Did you know?
P.T. Barnum used entertainment not only as a money-making venture but also to explore social issues, challenging racism and prejudice

On the one hand, Barnum's entertainment was a money-making venture. On the other, he saw his shows as a ministry, declaring:

This is a trading world and men, women and children, who cannot live on gravity alone, need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is in a business established by the Author of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain." [1]

This sits comfortably with his use of entertainment to challenge prejudice, and his commitment to cultural development. Barnum attended Unitarian-Universalist Churches in New York and in Connecticut, and has been described as an "ardent Universalist" abandoning the Calvinism of his upbringing, which he thought limited God's love, in favor of God's infinite love, saying:

When I first heard of the doctrine of the Universalists I felt so utterly astonished that I thought I'd drop dead." After serious consideration of religion, he accepted the Universalist belief in a God whose "mercy endureth forever. [2]

While he was serving on the Trustees of the Universalist Church at Bridgeport the first woman minister, Olympia Brown, was called to serve the Church.

His newspaper, the Herald of Freedom, opposed those who wanted to establish a state Church, and all forms of tyranny. It cited Thomas Jefferson's famous pledge: "For I have sworn upon the Altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man" in every issue.

Author and debunker

Parody of Jenny Lind's first American tour for P.T. Barnum, New York City, October 1850

In 1854, Barnum wrote and published his autobiography: The Life Of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. 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 nineteenth 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.

Politician and reformer

Phineas Taylor Barnum in his later years. Yale University archive)

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." [3]

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. [4]

Later Life and Legacy

Barnum built four mansions in Bridgeport, Connecticut during his life: Iranistan, Lindencroft, Waldemere, and Marina. Iranistan was the most notable: a fanciful and opulent Moorish Revival splendor designed by Leopold Eidlitz with domes, spires and lacy fretwork, inspired by the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England. This mansion was built 1848 but burned down in 1857.[5] The University of Bridgeport later moved to his Bridgeport estate. Waldemere remains on the campus.

Several weeks before he died in his sleep, on April 7, 1891, Barnum read his own obituary: The New York Sun newspaper, responding to Barnum's comment that the press says nice things about people after they die, ran his obituary on the front page with the headline, "Great And Only Barnum—He Wanted To Read His Obituary—Here It Is."?[6] Barnum was laid to rest at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut after a pre-arrangement funeral by Barnum himself. 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 $400,000 USD.[7]

Barnum was a very generous man. He left Bridgeport Universalist Society a legacy of $15,000. He bequeathed Tufts College $50,000 to establish a Museum of Natural History; and later he gave Tufts another $100,000 to build two wings to the museum. Barnum further aided the museum with exhibits of mounted skins, skeletons, and other animal remains, and the great elephant Jumbo's hide.

Preaching at his funeral, Unitarian minister Robert Collyer, "bent and gray, with tears rolling down his face, spoke the eulogy over Barnum's body," saying:

P.T. Barnum was a born fighter for the weak against the strong, for the oppressed against the oppressor. The good heart, tender as it was brave, would always spring up at the cry for help and rush on with the sword of assistance. This was not all that made him loved, for the good cheer of his nature was like a halo about him. He had always time to right a wrong and always time to be a good citizen and patriot of the town, State or Republic in which he lived. [8]


  • Art of Getting Money, or, Golden Rules for Making Money
  • Struggles and Triumphs, or Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum
  • The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader: Nothing Else Like It in the Universe
  • The Life of P.T. Barnum: Written By Himself
  • The Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles of the World: The Story of their Capture
  • The Humbugs of the World


  1. P.T. Barnum, "Quotes" at Odd Info Quotes. Retrieved October 17, 2007
  2. "Phineas Taylor Barnum (18l0-1891)," Quincy Unitarian-Universalist Church Phineas Taylor Barnum (18l0-1891) Retrieved October 17, 2007
  3. Eric Lott. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0195078322).
  4. Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt, III and Peter W. Kunhardt. P.T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman. (New York: Knopf, 1995)
  5. Barnum Museum Core Exhibits. Retrieved October 16, 2007.
  6. Infoplease.What is so unusual about P.T. Barnum's obituary?. Retrieved October 17, 2007.
  7. Kunhardt et al. (1995)
  8. "Phineas Taylor Barnum (18l0-1891)," Quincy Unitarian-Universalist Church Phineas Taylor Barnum (18l0-1891). Retrieved October 17, 2007

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adams, Bluford. E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture. Minneapolis. MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1997. ISBN 9780816626311
  • Barnum, Patrick Warren. Barnum genealogy 650 years of family history. Laredo, TX: Ediciones InterGrafica 2005. ISBN 9780976872702
  • Benton, Joel. The life of Phineas T. Barnum. [Ottawa]: eBooksLib 2004. ISBN 9781554493289
  • Cook, James W. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. ISBN 9780674005914
  • Harding, Les. Elephant Story: Jumbo and P. T. Barnum Under the Big Top. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2000. ISBN 0786406321
  • Harris, Neil. Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1973. ISBN 0226317528
  • Kunhardt, Philip B., Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt, III, and Peter W. Kunhardt. P.T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman. New York, NY: Knopf, 1995. ISBN 0679435743
  • Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0195078322
  • Reiss, Benjamin. The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001. ISBN 0674006364
  • Saxon, Arthur H. P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995. ISBN 0231056877

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.