The True Story of the Greatest Showman, P.T. Barnum, in New York

Circus Tent
Circus Tent | © Nathan King/Flickr
The great showman, politician, and flim-flam man Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut in 1810 and began his career as a store-owner, lottery-runner, and the owner of a weekly paper, The Herald of Freedom, which he used to ridicule conservative politicians whose promulgation of “blue laws”, restricting gambling, threatened the young Barnum’s livelihood. But by 1835, Barnum had outgrown Connecticut—not to mention having been jailed for two months for libel—and came to New York where he would soon open Barnum’s American Museum, located across from St. Paul’s Church on Broadway and Ann Street. The five-story ‘museum’ incorporated a zoo, lecture hall, and wax museum. But most importantly, it housed Barnum’s ‘freak show’, exhibiting human oddities from around the globe.
Phineas Taylor "P. T." Barnum (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891) © WikiCommons/Public Domain

Barnum became well-known for hiring talents like the so-called ‘Siamese twins’, Chang and Eng Bunker, who would go on to become plantation owners and have a total of twenty-one children with two different women. Barnum also secured the services of the 25-inch General Tomb Thumb, the bearded woman Josephine Boisdechene, and William Henry Johnson, better known as Zip the Pinhead. These were celebrities of a kind, with Tom Thumb receiving congratulations on his wedding from Abraham Lincoln, and Barnum becoming infamous for his outrageous marketing and oddball acquisitions, which included the Feejee Mermaid (actually a mummified monkey joined to a fish’s tail), the trunk of a tree under which the disciple of Christ supposedly sat, and an aquarium—the first of its kind in the U.S.—with a live beluga whale.

Chang & Eng Bunker (1835 or 1836) © WikiCommons/Public Domain

The museum received upwards of 15,000 visitors a day, becoming a staple of New York, and eventually accumulating more total visitors in the 24 years it was open than the entire population of the United States. On July 13, 1864, the museum burned to the ground, with the escaped animals being shot by police officers. Still, Barnum was undeterred and went into the circus industry at the age of 60, with “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, & Hippodrome.” Traveling by train, P.T. Barnum’s circus became as big a sensation as his museum had been, with attractions like Jumbo the African elephant.

After a merger with the Bailey Circus, Barnum and Bailey’s became a universally-recognized brand that existed well into the 21st century. By this time, Barnum had become known as The Prince of Humbugs, reliant on hoaxes and false claims to lure tourists to his circus. And yet, Barnum despised fraudulent spiritual leaders and mediums and disproved of the shenanigans of professed psychics part of his show, even testifying against noted ‘ghost photographer’ William H. Mumler when he was tried for fraud.

"Hum-Bug": a cartoon by H. L. Stephens (1851) © WikiCommons/Public Domain

By the time of his death in 1891, Barnum was publically recognized for his philanthropy, good works, and liberal politics (he’d been such an opponent of slavery that Manhattan Confederates had attempted to burn down his museum in 1863). Married to Charity Hallet since 1829, Barnum had remarried to Nancy Fish following Hallet’s death in 1873. When Barnum himself died of a stroke, his body was interned in the Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a cemetery he had designed himself. By this time, Barnum had more-or-less invented modern show business and made a huge contribution to the American character, a real-life folk hero whose outsized legacy was beyond doubt and who remains one of the greatest (and most profitable) eccentrics in history.