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American P.T. Barnum was an immensely successful promoter who founded the circus he coined "The Greatest Show on Earth" in 1871.
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Born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut, P.T. Barnum became a successful promoter after moving to New York City. He displayed the "Feejee Mermaid" and other oddities at the Barnum American Museum, and introduced audiences to "General Tom Thumb" and opera singer Jenny Lind. Barnum formed the circus that would come to be known as "The Greatest Show on Earth" in 1871, and died in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on April 7, 1891.
"Every crowd has a silver lining."
P.T. Barnum was born Phineas Taylor Barnum on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut. A natural salesman, he was peddling lottery tickets and cherry-rum to soldiers by age 12. Barnum moved to New York City as a young man and tried his hand at a variety of businesses, including newspaper publishing and running a boarding house.
In 1835, P.T. Barnum's knack for promotion surfaced when he paid $1,000 for an elderly slave named Joice Heth, who claimed to be 161 years old and a former nurse for George Washington. Barnum exhibited her throughout the northeast region, raking in upwards of $1,000 per week.
Barnum bought Scudder's American Museum in lower Manhattan in December 1841 and reopened it as Barnum's American Museum, where he displayed the "Feejee Mermaid" and other oddities of dubious authenticity among its 500,000-plus exhibits.
In 1842, Barnum met 4-year-old Charles Sherwood Stratton, who stood 25 inches high and weighed 15 pounds. Sensing another potential windfall, Barnum trained the boy to sing and dance and revealed him to the public as "General Tom Thumb." The massive popularity of the exhibit led to a traveling tour of Europe, which included an audience with England's Queen Victoria.
Barnum became famous for championing the weird and wacky, but one of his most successful ventures came with the promotion of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. After hearing about her sold-out concerts in Europe, Barnum made "the Swedish Nightingale" an offer of $1,000 per performance for 150 shows in the United States and Canada, a tour which earned him a profit of more than $500,000.
In addition to his show-business career, Barnum sought to transform his adopted hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, into a thriving metropolis. He went bankrupt after attempting to lure the doomed Jerome Clock Company to Bridgeport, but repaired his financial standing through public-speaking engagements and additional touring with General Tom Thumb, and went on to serve two terms in the Connecticut Legislature and one term as mayor of Bridgeport.
Barnum closed his American Museum for good after it burned down from a fire in 1868, but he recruited many of his old performers and opened P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus in Brooklyn on April 10, 1871. Referring to it as "The Greatest Show on Earth," Barnum found a permanent home for his extravaganza in 1874 at the New York Hippodrome, later known as Madison Square Garden.
Barnum joined forces with fellow circus managers James Bailey and James Hutchinson in 1881. The following year they introduced "Jumbo," an enormous 11 1/2-foot, 6-1/2 ton elephant from the Royal Zoological Society in London.
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