Phineas Taylor Barnum. A 19th Century American entrepreneur, and perhaps the patron saint of modern capitalism. His circus - now known as Barnum & Bailey's - was the apotheosis/blueprint of the tasteful, compelling freak show that puts asses in the seats. Plus they had animal acts. It really was "The Greatest Show on Earth". He never said "There's a sucker born every minute", but he did say "Every crowd has a silver lining". Ka-ching! Tom Parker was listening.

By this time it was clear to my mind that my proper position in this busy world was not yet reached. The business for which I was destined and, I believe, made had not yet come to me. I had not found that I was to cater for that insatiate want of human nature—the love of amusement; that I was to make a sensation in two continents, and that fame and fortune awaited me so soon as I should appear in the character of a showman.

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame Princes well might envy. Men, women, and children who cannot live on gravity alone need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is, in my opinion, in a business established by the Creator of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.

As for myself, I can say that the least deserving of all my efforts in the show line was the one which introduced me to the business, a scheme in no sense of my own devising, one which had been for some time before the public, and which had so many vouchers for its genuineness that at the time of taking possession of it I honestly believed it to be genuine.

—P.T. Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum, arguably the greatest showman who ever lived, was writing from guilt and at the end of a long and eventful life. The "scheme" to which he alludes was, indeed, his first claim to fame:

Her name was Joice Heth. She was—Barnum had it on good authority—161 years old, a "negress," and George Washington's nurse. P.T. Barnum bought "the wonderful negress" in 1835 for the sum of $1000 from the Bowling family in Paris, Kentucky, and embarked upon a career which has seen no equal since. He was twenty-five years old.

He was born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of Ephraim Barnum, an enterprising man who had been a captain in the Revolutionary War, and his second wife, Irena Taylor. Young Phineas was brought up with an uncompromising work ethic, driving cows from the age of six, plowing the fields, attending school on the occasion when chores did not interfere. He bought his own clothes with money he earned himself, and he was a devout Christian.

His father died when young Barnum was fifteen, and the boy in rapid succession found work as a peddler, a clerk in Brooklyn and New York, a tavern-keeper, a store-owner, and the editor of a country newspaper, at which point he was accused of libel and spent some time in prison.

It was during a fateful trip to Philadelphia that he met his first wife, Charity Hallet, a seamstress, and read about George Washington's ancient nurse in the Pennsylvania Inquirer. He had found his ticket to the good life, and it, indeed, had everything to do with the insatiable curiosity of the human spirit.

By 1841 he had a controlling interest in the American Museum, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in Manhattan, and it was here that his fortunes multiplied. He exhibited " the Feejee Mermaid," "the original bearded woman," "the woolly horse," "Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins," "giants and dwarfs almost without end," and, to use his own expression, "innumerable attractions of a minor though nevertheless a most interesting, instructive, and moral character."

Concurrently, he produced plays such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Moses in Egypt, The Drunkard, and Joseph and His Brethren.

Barnum's fortune, however, was truly built upon the person of Charles S. Stratton, the fifteen pound, twenty-five inch tall dwarf Barnum christened Tom Thumb. Together they traveled the world, entertaining kings, queens, and commoners alike.

In 1850, Barnum paid the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind the unheard-of fee of $176,675.09 for a series of 95 concerts. Tickets to these shows went for as much as $650 dollars at auction, such was Jenny Lind's drawing power. Barnum was the first master of modern advertising, and his appreciation of the value of printer's ink coupled with his idiosyncratic tastes made him a juggernaut in the freshly-conceived world-wide Business of Show.

After a fallow period, during which Barnum spread himself too thin, branching out into areas that he did not understand (such as clock manufacturing) and consequently losing a fortune, Barnum took the greatest chance of his life by contracting to buy, for two thousand pounds, Jumbo, the prized elephant attraction at the London Zoo. The public outcry that ensued could only have been engineered by a master. British dowagers and children became hysterical over the loss of their icon to the brash American, and Jumbo stories, poetry, prizes, books, collars, neckties, cigars, fans, polkas, hats, and toys all served to line well the pockets of Phineas Taylor Barnum.

It was an advertising and marketing bonanza such as had never been seen before. When the animal died suddenly, his bones went to the Smithsonian Institution and his stuffed hide to the Barnum Museum of Natural History at Tufts College, to which the showman also gifted the building in which his "museum" was contained.

Barnum came to the concept we understand as "circus" somewhat late in life. In 1870, in its first year of operation, P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus grossed $400,000. In 1887 he and James Bailey became equal partners in "the Greatest Show on Earth"—the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Barnum lived with his second wife, an English woman named Nancy Fish, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he became mayor in 1875 and engaged in much local enterprise and patronage. He was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1877 and 1879, losing a third term in 1880.

P.T. Barnum died in his sleep on April 7, 1891.

The statement "There's a sucker born every minute" was not made by the showman but is attributed, rather, to his competitor, a banker named David Hannum.

Barnum wanted to buy "The Cardiff Giant," a supposedly fossilized human that belonged to a syndicate headed by Hannum which was, in 1870, the most talked-about exhibit in America. When Hannum and company refused Barnum's offer of $50,000, Barnum—being Barnum—carved his OWN giant and advertised high and low that Hannum's attraction was a fake.

Hannum sued, and when the case came to trial, George Hull of Binghamton, New York testified that HE had in fact built the alleged fossilized giant and buried it on a farm near Cardiff, New York. The whole thing had been a hoax from the get-go. The judge ruled in Barnum's favor, since there's no law against calling a fake a fake.

Barnum, of course, made a fortune off every turn of events, and it was regarding the thousands of "fools" who paid money to see Barnum's fake giant and not his own that Hannum declared "There's a sucker born every minute."

Barnum, whatever else he may have been, and in spite of George Washington's 161-year-old nurse, wanted to be remembered thus:

To me there is no picture so beautiful as smiling, bright-eyed, happy children; no music so sweet as their clear and ringing laughter. That I have had power to provide innocent amusement for the little ones, to create such pictures, to evoke such music, is my proudest reflection. I have catered to four generations of children. I want children to remember me.

No doubt there IS a sucker born every minute, but there's only ever been one P.T. Barnum.


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I almost bought P. T. Barnum's house.

Seriously — when my family moved to Connecticut in 1994, we did a lot of house hunting in Bethel and nearby Newtown and Danbury. One of the houses on the market was a piss-yellow house at 55 Greenwood Avenue, which is the house Barnum was born in. Today it's a long and skinny; it used to have a large front portion, but it was destroyed in a fire in the 1840s. Barnum's mother lived there until her death in 1868. Today, the house only looks its age when you step inside — the ceilings are low, the stairs creak a lot, and the rooms are pretty tiny. We probably would have purchased the house if it hadn't been for the sorry state the house was in, and the fact that my growing sister and I would probably need a lot more space to run around in.

P. T. Barnum lived in Bethel for 24 years. During that time, he ran a country store, started a lottery, published the town's first newspaper, and spent two months in the Danbury jail on a libel conviction because of it. Even after he moved away in 1835, he visited Bethel often to see family and friends. In August of 1881, he presented the Town of Bethel with a large bronze fountain that he bought in Germany, which stood in the center of town for 42 years. The fountain depicts an 18-foot-tall triton blowing a conch shell, atop a large flower-like structure supported by several dolphins, and is quite ugly. Bethelites seemed to like the look of the fountain when it froze over, so it was allowed to do so every winter, which steadily led to its destruction. It fell into disrepair in the late 1910s, and was torn down on October 17, 1923. Interestingly enough, the pieces were sold to a junkyard in Danbury, located on Barnum Court.

Barnum's house is just a stone's throw from the center of Bethel, which now has a small patch of grass called P. T. Barnum Square. This strange triangle of green (called "the Green") had been a popular place for the less desirable demographic of teenagers to hang out, until it was named a state park and soliciting became illegal. It has a statue of a WWI soldier on a pedestal (commonly called "the Doughboy"), said to have inspired eightly lookalikes across the country, and a common target for vandalism. "P. T. Barnum Square" is also the name of the small collection of shops across the street from the Green, which includes Scoops (the best milkshakes in the tri-state area) and one of the three barbershops in town.

Barnum has said that, of all the many places he had traveled to, he "invariably cherished with the most affectionate remembrance the place of my birth."

Patrick Tierney Wild's Images of America: Bethel (Arcadia Publishing: 1996).

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