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P. T. Barnum

Born: July 5, 1810
Place: Bethel, Connecticut
Died: April 7, 1891
Place: Bridgeport, Connecticut

P. T. Barnum Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810. His father was an inn-keeper, and young Barnum displayed an unusual ease with the customers, and a flair for entertaining and promoting. By the time he was 12 years old he had opened a small store. He was observant, he talked to people, and listened. He heard about tickets and lotteries and he saw that people were ready to pay for a ticket, even if they did not really expect anything other than a slim chance to win, or excitement, or just entertainment. He wanted to see how a real lottery was managed, so he went to New York to figure it out. He did. He returned to his store and started promoting lottery tickets, and realized a profit. He became confident that he could promote and sell, but he also saw that he was limited by size of the small towns that he could service.

Barnum moved around for a while and tried his hand at a few other ventures, then became editor of the Danbury, Connecticut Herald of Freedom. He did well at the newspaper, but his bold style soon got him into more trouble than he needed. He soon had some vocal enemies, and he began to draw criticism and threats. He was even sued for libel and jailed for 60 days. His idea of free speech was not always in keeping with those of the readership and local politicians, and he decided newspapers might not be his real calling.

In 1834 Barnum moved with his family to New York. He loved the bustle and opportunites the city presented. Opportunity was just what he needed. Barnum heard of a woman who claimed to have been George Washington's nurse, and who also claimed to be well over a hundred years old. He investigated, and found that Joice Heth might just be a ticket to success. Promoting her as the oldest woman on earth, at 161 years old, he began traveling the country with a small group, and selling huge numbers of tickets for glimpses of his promotions. P.T. Barnum the showman was on a roll.

In 1841 he purchased Scudder's American Museum in New York City, changed the name to Barnum's American Museum, and used his showmanship to exhibit curiosities from around the world. In 1842 he hired Charles Stratton, who Barnum promoted to world-wide fame as the diminutive General Tom Thumb. Barnum and Stratton became good friends, and toured the world, even exhibiting before the royal families of England, Belgium, and France. When he returned from Europe, he found that this country was still wildly willing to pay to see Tom Thumb. He obliged, of course, and continued to reap great sums of money for his presentations.

Although P.T. Barnum is usually remembered for his circus and curiosity shows, he also hit it big when, in 1850 he presented the opera singer Jenny Lind to capacity crowds and rave reviews. Lind came to be known as "The Swedish Nightingale, and Barnum led her to nearly 100 performances.

Barnum accumulated a good deal of wealth over his years, and he built himself a beautiful estate at Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he settled after his Jenny Lind years. He wrote an autobiography, published in 1854 as The Life of P.T. Barnum, and now available through our association with as Barnum's Own Story: The Autobiography of P.T. Barnum, combined & Condensed from the Various Editions Published During His Lifetime by Phineas Taylor Barnum, Waldo R. Browne (editor). Sometimes publishing an autobiography signifies an end to a person's active business pursuits. But this was not P.T. Barnum's style. In 1871, when he was 60, Barnum presented the greatest circus extravaganza in American history to a very receptive public. First billed as "P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus", it soon began to use "The Greatest Show On Earth" in its name. The circus was huge, and it really was the greatest show on earth. In 1881, Barnum teamed up with James A. Bailey, and "Barnum & Bailey" became a household name for exciting circus entertainment. P.T. Barnum had a number of high points during his life of showmanship, but the one that perhaps brought him the most personal satisfaction was when he introduced Jumbo to America. The huge elephant was an immediate sensation when it arrived in New York in 1882. The Brooklyn Bridge, an incredible engineering achievement for the time, was completed in 1883, and Barnum, in his true showman style, took the opportunity to demonstrate its strength by parading Jumbo across the bridge, to the delight of spectators and the media. It was a perfect promotion, and typical of the genius of the man. P.T. Barnum, perhaps the greatest showman on Earth, died in 1891.

Here's an interesting book if you're interested in P.T. Barnum's contribution to American culture: E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture by Bluford Adams. This book examines the influence Barnum had on American popular culture of the nineteenth century, and how he continues to influence our world today.


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