Phineas Taylor Barnum was born on July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut. Barnum spent his early years working on his father's farm. Due to the demands of the farm, he was unable to attend school regularly, finishing only six grades of schooling.
At the time of his father's death, Barnum was fifteen and as the oldest child, set out to help earn money for the family. He found work at a general store where his hard bargains and cunning business sense helped him and the business prosper. He even went so far as to set up a lottery, selling junk from the store as prizes until the state of Connecticut outlawed the practice in 1834.
In 1831 Barnum published "The Herald of Freedom", a local newspaper that opposed certain practices of the day including slavery. Three libel cases were brought against him and the judgment was not in his favor. He had to pay a one hundred dollar fine and serve a sixty day stint in jail.
At the age of twenty-four, P.T. Barnum moved with his wife, Charity Hallett, to New York City where he opened another store. The following year, he learned about a woman named Joice Heth who claimed to be the 161-year-old nursemaid to George Washington. He ended up selling his business and paying an additional five hundred dollars so that he could exhibit her. Joice Heth made her debut at Niblo's Garden in New York. She would sing hymns and tell stories about young George Washington. When she passed away, an autopsy was performed that showed she was not 161, but merely 80 years old.
P.T. Barnum, as a result of his experience with Joice Heth, wanted to continue working in show business, particularly in exhibiting and promoting curiosities. In 1841 he purchased the American Museum, which he turned into a mix of traditional museum exhibitions as well as curiosities reminiscent of Joice Heth.
His first major acquisition for the museum was the Fejee Mermaid, a monkey-fish hybrid that he advertised as a luxurious mermaid through engravings and descriptions in newspapers. His methods of promotion resulted in a great deal of public interest resulting in record attendance at the American Museum when the mermaid was finally revealed.
In 1842, Barnum met his next great curiosity, a midget named Charles Stratton. The boy became something of a protegee to Barnum who named him General Tom Thumb. The pair traveled around America and Europe performing in front of numerous heads of state and countless celebrities earning both a fortune. Barnum added other human oddities to his museum including Chang and Eng, the Siamese twins, and Anna Swann, the giantess.
Visit our Phineas Taylor Barnum Exhibit.
While these exhibitions helped to garner Barnum fame and fortune, he had a desire to legitimize himself as a showman and as a businessman. One of his attempts to legitimize himself was Barnum's promotion of Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale. He orchestrated a massive American tour for Lind in 1850, shouldering a potentially devastating financial burden in order to secure her talents. Thanks in large part to his advertising prowess, the tour was a tremendous success for Lind and for Barnum.
Barnum also showed an affinity for politics and community building. He was instrumental in bringing major industries to Bridgeport. In 1865, he was elected to the Connecticut legislature. Ten years later, he became mayor of Bridgeport for one term, improving the city greatly. Among his many acheivements, such as street lighting and an improvement to the water supply, was the establishment of two great public parks named Washington Park and Seaside Park. He also established Mountain Grove Cemetery, where he was later buried.
By 1870, P.T. Barnum was planning to retire from show business when a new opportunity presented itself. William Coup and Dan Costello, two circus men, approached Barnum to join them in creating a new circus. The idea renewed Barnum's interest in show business and he agreed. He teamed up with James A. Bailey to form "Barnum and Bailey's Circus". The partnership was a strong one given Barnum's flair for showmanship and Bailey's understanding of the circus. They added a third ring to their circus, making it more impressive than those that had preceded it. Barnum's uncanny ability to acquire interesting attractions, such as Jumbo the elephant, helped the circus to prosper further.
Barnum's last great adventure came in 1891, when he and Bailey took their circus to London. After this trip, Barnum's health began to decline. Barnum asked a New York paper to print his obituary prior to his death so that he might have the chance to read it himself. A few weeks later, on April 7, 1891, Phineaus Taylor Barnum died in Bridgeport Connecticut. He was rumored to have asked after box office receipts shortly before his passing. Barnum's remains were interred at the Mountain Grove Cemetery. He was survived by his second wife, Nancy Fish, whom he married several years earlier following Charity's death, his children, and grandchildren.
Visit our Phineas Taylor Barnum Exhibit.