P.T. Barnum Biography

(1810–1891)
P.T. Barnum was a successful American promoter who founded what became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1871.

Who Was P.T. Barnum?

Born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut, P.T. Barnum became a successful promoter after moving to New York City. From 1841 to 1868, he ran the Barnum American Museum, which featured the "Feejee Mermaid," "General Tom Thumb" and other oddities. In 1871, he launched the traveling spectacle that would eventually become the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After an illustrious career, Barnum died in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on April 7, 1891.

Budding Promoter

P.T. Barnum was born Phineas Taylor Barnum on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut. A natural salesman, he was peddling snacks 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, Barnum's knack for promotion surfaced when he paid $1,000 for an elderly slave named Joice Heth. Claiming she was 161 years old and a former nurse for George Washington, Barnum exhibited her throughout the northeast region, raking in an estimated $1,500 per week.  

Barnum's American Museum

P.T. Barnum bought Scudder's American Museum in lower Manhattan in 1841 and reopened it as Barnum's American Museum. There he displayed the "Feejee Mermaid" and other oddities of dubious authenticity among what eventually expanded to a collection of 850,000 exhibits.

In 1842, Barnum met 4-year-old Charles Sherwood Stratton, who stood 25 inches tall 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 British monarch Queen Victoria.

In July 1865, Barnum's American Museum burned to the ground in a massive fire. The promoter soon opened another museum at a nearby location, but this one also was demolished by a fire, in March 1868.

'The Greatest Show on Earth'

After retiring from the museum business, Barnum teamed with circus owners Dan Castello and William C. Coup to launch P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome in 1871. Referring to the traveling spectacle as "The Greatest Show on Earth," Barnum took full ownership of the successful venture by 1875.

In 1881, Barnum joined forces with fellow circus managers James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson. The following year they introduced "Jumbo," an enormous 11 1/2-foot, 6 1/2-ton elephant from the Royal Zoological Society in London. As with many of Barnum's previous exhibits, Jumbo was a hit with audiences, until his death in 1885.

In 1887, an aging Barnum agreed to cede everyday control of the circus, which was rebranded as the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth.

Jenny Lind Tour

Although he became famous for championing the weird and wacky, one of Barnum's most successful ventures came with the promotion of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind in the early 1850s. 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.

Bridgeport Booster

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 in the 1850s, but repaired his financial standing through public-speaking engagements and additional touring with General Tom Thumb. 

Barnum went on to serve multiple terms in the Connecticut Legislature and was elected mayor of Bridgeport in 1875. He helped found the Bridgeport Hospital soon afterward, and was named its first president.

Death and Legacy

Confined to his Bridgeport home after suffering a stroke in 1890, Barnum died on April 7, 1891. A businessman to the end, he allegedly asked about the previous night's gate receipts at the circus with his final words.

The Barnum & Bailey show was bought by the rival Ringling brothers in 1907, and in 1919 the two were incorporated into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.

Thanks in part to the enduring success of his circus, Barnum is celebrated as a brilliant promoter and a man who transformed the nature of commercial entertainment in the 19th century. He is also remembered for his philanthropic contributions and investments in the city of Bridgeport, where exhibits of his life and the curiosities he brought to the public are featured at the Barnum Museum.

In 2000, an online version of Barnum's bygone American Museum reopened, as the Lost Museum. In May 2017, the long-running extravaganza he founded, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, delivered its final performance. Later that year, Barnum's story made it to the big screen in The Greatest Showman, with Hugh Jackman in the starring role. 

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