P.T. Barnum: The Greatest Showman on Earth

A man whose life has become part myth, part legend, and full of hoaxes and humbug, P.T. Barnum’s legacy fascinates to this day.

Aug 25, 2023By Marianne Plasse, BA in History, Undergraduate Certificate in Art History

pt barnum man behind greatest show


The 2017 film The Greatest Showman featuring the life of PT Barnum was a feast for the eyes and the ears, a musical that captured audiences and left critics cold to the touch. Its original songs, written by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, delighted movie-goers, and its soundtrack, too, remained at the top of the music charts for a few dozen consecutive weeks. But like every musical loosely based on history, The Greatest Showman glossed over many aspects of the life of its titular character, Phineas Taylor Barnum. The man was a master of entertainment, a true businessman, and an extremely controversial figure from his time until today. 


P.T. Barnum: The Birth of a Showman & His Personal Life

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P. T. and Charity Hallett Barnum, circa 1860, via Wikimedia Commons


The first Barnum to arrive in North America was a man named Thomas Barnum, and his three times great-grandson was a boy with a million dreams. Born on July 5th, 1810 in Bethel, a small town in Connecticut, Phineas Taylor Barnum started his business endeavors at a very young age. The eldest in a family of five children, he started school at age six but dropped out when he was twelve to work in his father Philo Barnum’s store. Phineas Barnum also sold cherry rum to soldiers and showed hints of the future businessman he would become.  


When Barnum was fifteen, his father died, and his family was poor thereafter. At nineteen, with nothing else to lose, he ran away with his childhood best friend, Charity Hallett, who was a seamstress. They married in 1829 when he was twenty-one and she was nineteen. The couple had four daughters together: Caroline, born in 1833; Helen, born in 1840; Frances, born in 1842; and Pauline, born in 1846. Sadly, the Barnums’ third daughter, Frances, would die just before her second birthday. The Barnums’ marriage lasted forty years until Charity Barnum died in 1872. A year later, P.T. Barnum married a British woman named Nancy Fish.


Barnum’s First Exhibition: Humans on Display

The Greatest Natural Curiosity Joice Heth advertisement poster New York Heritage
The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World Joice Heth, circa 1835, via New York Heritage Digital Collections


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P.T. Barnum was ambitious from the start and had a flair for business. After his family moved to New York, Barnum owned a lottery. He wore many hats during this time and, in turn, he was “a clerk, a merchant, a lottery agent, and a journalist.”    


In 1835, P.T. Barnum manufactured his first experience in the world of performance. This was the exhibition of an enslaved and disabled African American woman named Joice Heth, whom Barnum presented as the one-hundred-and-sixty-year-old nurse of George Washington. P.T. Barnum bought this woman for a thousand dollars and toured with her both in New York City and throughout New England. This exhibition earned him more than a thousand dollars a week.  


After Joice Heth died in 1836, the proof came out that Barnum’s exhibit was a hoax, as her autopsy revealed the woman was only eighty years old. Barnum turned her autopsy into a spectacle. The physicians and journalists of New York were allowed into the room to watch, and Barnum “charged fifty cents for admission” (See Further Reading, Thomas Streissguth, 2009, p.29). Though this moment revealed Barnum’s exhibit was fake, it also launched his career in show business. 


Barnum’s American Museum: A Dream Set in Motion

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Barnum’s American Museum, New York, 1853, via New York Public Library Digital Collections


Barnum’s history of extravagant exhibitions led to the founding of his institution to exhibit human beings in the pursuit of awing his audiences. In 1841, Barnum bought Scubber’s American Museum and renamed it in his name. Barnum’s American Museum was given a fresh coat of paint along with brand-new exhibits.  


Indeed, Barnum’s American Museum would soon be populated by people like Charles Stratton, a performer with dwarfism known as “General Tom Thumb,” who was four years old when he met Barnum. Conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, born in Siam, now Thailand, and from whom came the term “Siamese twins,” were also part of the crew. Another member of the Barnum troupe was the Feejee mermaid, the fake corpse of a sea creature made of paper-mâché and wood, fish bones, a fish’s tail, and mammal claws.   


The American Museum made Barnum’s fortune and became the prototype of the modern traveling circus.


P.T. Barnum: Jenny Lind’s Impresario

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Jenny Lind replica by Eduard Magnus, circa 1861, via Wikimedia Commons


Following a tour of Europe with Charles Stratton, during which he met Queen Victoria herself, P.T. Barnum began touring America with Jenny Lind, born Johanna Maria Lind on October 6th, 1820, in a poor area in Stockholm. She was known as the “Swedish Nightingale” for her voice. “She could sing high and low notes, and hold a note for as long as a minute.” (See Further Reading, Thomas Streissguth, 2009, p.65). Although he had never heard her sing before she came to America, Barnum gave his all into a publicity campaign that made Jenny Lind a household name on that side of the Atlantic.  


On Sunday, September 1st, 1850, Jenny Lind’s ship, the S.S. Atlantic, docked in New York harbor. As this was a day off for most New Yorkers, the anticipation manufactured by Barnum’s publicity campaign grew exponentially, and tens of thousands of people lined up the Canal Street pier to get a glimpse of the newly-arriving singer. In the excitement, some were thrown into the harbor, and others were injured when a gate gave way.


Jenny Lind’s tour around America lasted 21 months, and all expenses were paid by P.T. Barnum himself, at a thousand dollars every night for 150 nights. This was “a larger sum than he had ever invested before in a single act.” (See Further Reading, Thomas Streissguth, 2009, p.66). Thankfully for Barnum, the bet paid off. The tour was a great success for both Barnum and Lind.


The Birth of the Greatest Show on Earth

pt barnum the greatest show on earth poster
P.T. Barnum & Co.’s greatest show on earth & the great London circus combined with Sanger’s Royal British menagerie & grand international shows, 188, via Wikimedia Commons


In 1857, P.T. Barnum officially retired from show business and returned to his first enterprise, the American Museum. This time around, though, running this institution wouldn’t be easy. Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground twice: in 1865 and 1868, respectively. Following these incidents, P.T. Barnum abandoned the concept of the American Museum, which needed a sedentary, indoor venue.


In 1871, at 61 years old, Barnum returned to the entertainment world when he partnered with William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello, entrepreneurs who had already founded a circus together in Delavan, Wisconsin. They renamed their circus P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie, and Circus. Coup was the one who came up with the idea of the circus train, which carried his and Barnum’s exhibits across the country. 


The traveling circus combined different acts, from horse shows to acrobats to sideshows, brought over from Barnum’s old museum and was incredibly successful. Though it went through a series of different names, by 1872, they eventually dubbed it the one we know today: the Greatest Show on Earth.


James A. Bailey and The Barnum & Bailey Circus

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The Barnum and Bailey greatest show on earth… P.T. Barnum… Barum and J.A. Bailey, 1899, via The Library of Congress; with P.T. Barnum, 1864, via Library of Congress


A few years later, P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth became “the largest show touring the United States” and earned its reputation as the most famous circus. Competition soon followed, though, as the Great London, Cooper and Bailey’s Allied show, led by James Anthony Bailey, was hot on Barnum’s trail. Bailey’s circus became well known at the time for its elephants and its use of electricity. Meanwhile, Barnum’s circus still used gas to light up the rings under the Big Tent. 


P.T. Barnum was undeterred by this competition. He offered James A. Bailey the opportunity to merge their circuses together. A man of his time, Bailey knew the industry very well; he’d grown up in the circus world as a boy and had climbed the rungs of circus society to become a manager. Bailey accepted Barnum’s offer in 1881.  


Their combined circuses soon became 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, a tongue twister of a name that was soon shortened to the Barnum and London Circus for a time. Under Barnum’s management, its final name was the Barnum and Bailey Circus.


P.T. Barnum: The Last Years of a Showman

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Jumbo, 1985, via Toronto Public Library Digital Archives


P.T. Barnum’s ventures into the circus world didn’t stop him from wearing many hats as he had done all his life. Indeed, in 1875, he was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut for a year. He enforced prohibition and prostitution laws. Barnum enriched the landscape of Bridgeport, as he funded the construction of Bridgeport Hospital, which opened its doors in 1878. Barnum himself was its very first president. Throughout his life, he also built four mansions in the town: “Iranistan, Lindencroft, Waldemere, and Marina.” The University of Bridgeport stands today on his former estate.


By the end of the nineteenth century, the Barnum and Bailey Circus was beloved throughout the country. Its chief attraction was an African elephant named Jumbo. After being bought from the hunters who had killed his mother, Jumbo toured Europe in a menagerie until the Jardin des Plantes in Paris acquired him. He remained in Paris for a few years until the London Zoological Gardens bought him. Although Jumbo was a favorite of the visitors, which included Queen Victoria and possibly a young Winston Churchill, P.T. Barnum bought him in 1882 and touted him as the biggest elephant in the world. Jumbo toured America with Barnum’s circus until 1885 when he was killed in a freight train accident.


The Barnum and Bailey Circus toured America for decades before the showman’s death. Phineas Taylor Barnum died in his sleep on April 7th, 1891. He arranged his own funeral before his death and was buried at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, where a statue in his honor still stands today. Even after his death, Barnum was still helping in the development of Bridgeport when he donated part of his fortune to construct a Natural History Museum, where Jumbo’s hide was displayed.


The Exploitative Legacy of P.T. Barnum

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A Freak Show in Rutland, Vermont, 1941, via Wikimedia Commons


Phineas Taylor Barnum’s life was as complex as the circus acts he crafted. He was a man full of contradictions. In his autobiography, he proclaimed himself as an abolitionist staunchly against the trade of enslaved people. He argued that his shows, which included blackface, parodied those who used pseudo-science to prop up their racist views. Yet, Barnum briefly owned an enslaved woman when he bought Joice Heth in 1835, and he “describe[d] Africans as underdeveloped, requiring the context of the civilized west to flourish.”  


The concept of the freak shows themselves, which started Barnum’s foray into showbusiness when he bought his Museum in 1841, also contradicted his claims of inclusive entertainment. He paraded people with disabilities and physical differences for profit. Native Americans, African Americans, disabled people, and plus-size people, among others, populated his museum and shows in sensationalized displays. Thus, P.T. Barnum was an entrepreneur and a creative mind who built his legacy and fortune on the backs of those he exploited.


The End of the Greatest Show on Earth – & Its Revival


Big cat trainer Alexander Lacey photography Washington Post
Big cat trainer Alexander Lacey performs with tigers at one of the final Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shows in May 2017, via Washington Post


The Greatest Show on Earth toured America for many years following Barnum’s death and under different management. Even if the showman himself had taken his last bow, this didn’t mean that the show couldn’t go on. At first, it was owned by James A. Bailey, Barnum’s business partner, until the Ringling Brothers bought it in 1907.


In 2017, the same year of the release of the movie The Greatest Showman, the curtains closed on P.T. Barnum’s grandest enterprise, the Greatest Show on Earth. For a little while, and after 150 years in operation, many thought that was that. The lights were shut off, the performers moved on, and the Greatest Show on Earth shut its doors. But it seems that Barnum’s old show might just have one last trick up its sleeve. It is said to have come back from the dead in 2023, without the controversial circus animals and with a modern narrative twist.


P.T. Barnum: The Man, the Myth, the Legend

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P.T. Barnum’s gravestone in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, CT, 2006, via Wikimedia Commons


From a poor young man in Connecticut to the greatest showman in the American circus industry, P.T. Barnum’s life was full of twists and turns. While he did not invent the modern circus – that honor goes to Philip Astley, owner of the Philip Astley Riding School, and to Charles Dibdin, who coined the term circus – Phineas Taylor Barnum was the man who developed the craft. He was the one who made it into the entertainment powerhouse the modern circus was in the 19th and 20th centuries.  


It is only ironic that P.T. Barnum’s life was rediscovered in the 2017 film The Greatest Showman. In the film and in theaters, Barnum’s highly romanticized life was a marvel for the crowds. The master of the humbug himself would have probably approved. Indeed, Barnum had a taste for the sensational, and he wanted his circus to awe, inspire, and entertain. 


In Phineas Taylor Barnum’s own words, written in black and white on the screen at the end of the film, we can read: 


“The noblest art is that of making others happy.”


Further Reading:


Streissguth, Thomas. P.T. Barnum: “every crowd has a silver lining,” Berkeley Heights: Enslow Publishers, 2009. Accessible online: https://archive.org/embed/ptbarnumeverycro0000stre

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By Marianne PlasseBA in History, Undergraduate Certificate in Art HistoryMarianne completed her bachelor's degree in History as well as an undergraduate certificate in Art History at the University of Montreal along with an undergraduate certificate in Proofreading at Laval University. Her areas of interest are the Mediterranean world during ancient times, European History from the fifteenth through to the twentieth centuries, and North American History from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. I have a soft spot for Greek mythology, Impressionist painting, Charlie Chaplin comedies, and comic book movies.