The legend of P.T. Barnum

New biography shows a different side of the circus icon

Created date

July 26th, 2019
A circus poster from 1897 (P.T. Barnum died in 1890).

A circus poster from 1897 (P.T. Barnum died in 1890).

After years of declining ticket sales, increasing operating costs, and ongoing legal battles with animal rights groups, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its last performance in 2017. 

Though he is most closely associated with the long-running circus that bore his name, P.T. Barnum did not go into the circus business until he was 60 years old—long after he became known as “the world’s greatest showman.”

He built his reputation with one-of-a-kind talents like General Tom Thumb and singer Jenny Lind, promoting those acts in such a way that audiences clamored to see them. 

His ability to capture the public’s attention made him the richest man in America, and even when he failed (as happened numerous times over the course of his career), his brilliant command of the art of publicity allowed him to rise time after time. 

Popular culture has solidly established the legend of P.T. Barnum with films like The Greatest Showman and musicals like Barnum. What has largely been left out of Barnum’s story comes to light in a new biography Barnum: An American Life by Robert Wilson (Simon & Schuster, 2019). 

Barnum was not simply a consummate showman but a true man of his time—one who was called upon to make moral decisions about slavery and the treatment of African-Americans, truly the most contentious and divisive issue of his time. As Wilson’s book illustrates, Barnum found himself on both sides of the issue. 

George Washington’s nursemaid

In 1835, Barnum was just starting out as a showman in his hometown of Bridgeport, Conn., when he came upon Joice Heth, a blind, toothless African woman. She had been touring in a sideshow and promoted as George Washington’s nursemaid. 

No matter that such a claim would have made Heth over 161 years old, Barnum was certain that with the right promotion, audiences would clamor to see her. Barnum bought Heth (who was born into slavery) from the showman she had been working for and set up a venue to present his find to audiences.

By all accounts, Barnum, an avowed abolitionist, treated Heth with dignity and respect and even hired a nurse to care for her. Regardless, it does not diminish the fact that he was a slave owner. 

As Barnum predicted, Heth was a tremendous draw. The public happily paid $.50 to see Heth, whose show consisted of her sitting in a rocker trading wisecracks with the spectators. She earned Barnum as much as $1,500 a week. It’s unclear how much he paid Heth.

In later years, Barnum expressed regret about exhibiting Joice Heth, but it was not the only time in Barnum’s career that he successfully capitalized on the abhorrent racial attitudes so prevalent in his time. 

Barnum’s American Museum

Barnum used his profits from Heth’s act to purchase a building in lower Manhattan, which he called Barnum’s American Museum. There, he exhibited all kinds of wonders, including the “Feejee mermaid,” a mummified body that was crudely constructed by sewing a dead monkey’s torso to the bottom of a dead fish.

It too was a tremendous hit with the ticket-buying public, due in large part to Barnum’s brilliant promotion. Even though most ticket buyers surely knew the mermaid was pure fabrication, they didn’t care. They happily put their money down to see what all the fuss was about—testament to Barnum’s extraordinary ability to promote anything. 

General Tom Thumb

In 1843, Barnum discovered four-year-old Charlie Stratton, a dwarf who was only 25 inches tall. Barnum taught Stratton to perform, and when the boy was five years old, he hit the stage as General Tom Thumb. A natural dynamo, Stratton captivated audiences by singing, dancing, and doing impressions—his Napoleon was especially popular. 

For Barnum and young Stratton, it was just the beginning. 

They embarked on a European tour performing for the likes of Queen Victoria in England and King Louis Philippe in France. 

Millions of Europeans flocked to see General Tom Thumb, and the tour made both Stratton and Barnum very wealthy men.

Beyond showbiz

Barnum experienced success in other areas as well. He was a best-selling author, a newspaper publisher, and a real estate developer. 

And not surprisingly, Barnum was a natural politician. He was the mayor of his hometown, Bridgeport, Conn., and in 1865, he served as a representative to the Connecticut legislature. 

“I did this,” he wrote in his autobiography, “because I felt that it would be an honor to be permitted to vote for the then proposed amendment to the Constitution of the United States to abolish slavery forever from the land.” 

In 1867, he ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress. In one campaign speech, Barnum said that not only had he been a slave owner at one time, he had also whipped his slaves. “I ought to have been whipped a thousand times for this myself,” he said.

He lost the race. 

As Wilson points out early in the book, it is unfair to judge historical figures by today’s standards. For years, pop culture has perpetuated Barnum as the visionary impresario with a heart portrayed by the likes of Wallace Berry in the 1934 film, The Mighty Barnum. Wilson’s portrait of Barnum—warts and all, will finally give readers the opportunity to see the real P.T. Barnum.