PT Barnum

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Phineas Taylor Barnum, photograph by the Mathew Brady studio

Phineas Taylor Barnum (born July 5, 1810 in Bethel , Connecticut , † April 7, 1891 in Bridgeport , Connecticut) was an American circus pioneer and politician .


Barnum, son of an innkeeper and shopkeeper, began his apprenticeship in small retail stores in the state of Connecticut . As a young man he ran a small shop in his hometown, sold lottery tickets in several outlets and founded a newspaper . In 1834 he moved to New York with his wife Charity and their little daughter Caroline to make his fortune there. After Barnum initially could not find a permanent job, in 1835 he "acquired" the allegedly 161 year old wet nurse from George Washington , which he exhibited in New York. The blind and frail old African American named Joyce Heth entertained the paying audience with anecdotes from Washington's life and gospel, and was Barnum's entry point into the showman business . It was only after her death the following year that an autopsy , from which the enterprising Barnum is said to have earned well, revealed that she could have been no more than 80 years old. In the following years he played with various traveling circuses across the east and south of the USA .

PT Barnum died at the age of 80. He was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

PT Barnum's mermaid
The wedding of Charles Sherwood Stratton , stage name General Tom Thumb (2nd from left), to Lavinia Warren in 1863 was the cover story of American newspapers. Mathew Brady Studio

Career as a showman

Barnum took over the American Museum in New York in 1841 and expanded it into one of the greatest entertainment spectacles of the 19th century. In addition to the exhibitions, which represented a large collection of everything that could be interesting in any way, his talent for staging and aggressive public relations helped him. Every new item on the program was advertised intensively with posters and in newspapers as a "sensation". Barnum wrote articles and letters to the editor for various newspapers in order to make his exhibition a topic of conversation again and again. He also did not shy away from bluffs, staged competitions and scams. One of his employees pretended to be a doctor from London to promote a “Fiji mermaid”. This consisted of the upper body of a monkey was sent attached to a fish body, and was in 1842 to the sensation in New York.

The cabinet of curiosities

The American Museum, which was merged with two other collections in the following years, became a magnet for visitors, primarily through such clever PR campaigns. In the 23 years under Barnum's leadership, 38 million visitors are said to have admired it.

The collection was a mixture of a cabinet of curiosities and an ethnographic exhibition; however, it did not even begin to attempt a scientific classification. The main admission criteria were the rarity of an exhibit and its dramaturgical value. In the early days this included stuffed birds, exotic musical instruments, a collection of armor , the plaster bust of a “ cannibal chief ”, a model of the city of Paris , a model of Niagara Falls , various automatons, mechanical figures, mummies , skeletons, a dog, one Knitting machine operated, a python , an orangutan , a ventriloquist , a flea circus and a gypsy who read from the hand .

Human and animal shows

In addition to artists and performers, the circus was also famous for its performers, who were particularly characterized by physical characteristics. Fat women, “living skeletons”, albinos , Siamese twins , dwarfs, giants, “the link between humans and monkeys”, men and women with no head, arms or abdomen, the real Kaspar Hauser and other strange things. The procurement of the actors was even more adventurous than their stories suggest. Two “rediscovered Aztec children ” actually came from a home for the mentally handicapped and were then deported there again. The "link between man and ape" was a mentally handicapped black man who was contractually forbidden to reveal his true identity.

The "Giant of Cardiff"

In 1869 Barnum was one of the first visitors to the site of the alleged Cardiff giant in Cardiff (New York) , whose bones later turned out to be fakes . From then on he led the arriving tourists astray with a replica . After the original hoax became known, his exhibition became a real hit.

Contemporary caricature on Barnum's tour with Jenny Lind
Barnum & Bailey stock
PT Barnum with Ernestine de Faiber, singer and dancer. Mathew Brady Studio

Traveling circus

Barnum tried to increase his reputation by organizing a tour of the Swedish singer Jenny Lind through the USA in 1851 with high financial risk in the form of a traveling menagerie . Lind, previously largely unknown in the United States, became a national event within weeks. The shops were filled with Jenny Lind hoods, scarves, gloves, dolls, combs, cakes, confectionery and similar souvenirs . Barnum's skillful advertising work was also largely responsible for this. The tour was a great success and lasted until 1852. Barnum was a made man after that.

The American Museum went bankrupt for the first time in 1856: Barnum had speculated on real estate deals. After the building burned down twice in 1865 and 1868, he changed the business concept and again founded a mobile circus in 1871; Even in the previous decades, Barnum had repeatedly organized traveling circuses and earned a lot of money in the process. Jumbo , the king of the elephants, acquired by Barnum in 1882 for $ 10,000 from the London Zoo, brought him one and a half million dollars in a tour in the form of a traveling menagerie through the USA and Canada from 1882 to 1885 .

In 1885 Barnum merged with showman James A. Bailey to form Barnum and Bailey: The Greatest Show on Earth . The circus treated the exhibited animals like other exhibits; in the 1880s Barnum got into a protracted legal battle with the American animal welfare association ASPCA .

In 1907 the company was taken over by the serious circus of the successful family clan Ringling Brothers and then traded as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus .

Public engagement

Barnum was a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives from 1865 to 1866 and from 1877 to 1879 ; he was also Mayor of Bridgeport from 1875 to 1876 . He tried in 1867 for the Republicans to enter Congress . But he failed because of his cousin William Henry Barnum , who was running for the Democrats , which could also have been due to his reputation as a windy trader. It was not for nothing that he was called "King Humbug", although Barnum himself had once given himself this nickname. Barnum also donated a lot of money to various research institutions and was involved in the fight against slavery and alcoholism. He donated the Barnum Museum of Natural History to Tufts College in Medford , Massachusetts , which housed the stuffed jumbo , Barnum's famous touring elephant, and which was an attraction until a fire in 1975.


In the notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Barnum served as a symbol for everything that was wrong with the USA. The Barnum effect in psychology is named after him. Victor Klemperer (1881–1960) described the propaganda of the Third Reich as "Barnumiade" in his treatise LTI - Notebook of a Philologist (published 1947).

Cy Coleman in 1980 processed Barnum life in a Broadway - musical , Barnum . In 2017, a film adaptation was released with the title Greatest Showman (Originally: The Greatest Showman ), in which Barnum is played by the Australian Hugh Jackman .

Burt Lancaster played PT Barnum in the 1986 American television film Barnum by Lee Philips , with Hanna Schygulla as Jenny Lind .



Web links

Commons : PT Barnum  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Tomb of PT Barnum.
  2. ^ Don Bates: Public Relations from the Dawn of Civilization. (PDF) 2002; Retrieved July 6, 2016 (“The master of all nineteenth-century press agents was Phineas T. Barnum.”)
  3. Barnum (TV Movie 1986) on IMDb (English; accessed on August 20, 2020)