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PT Barnum

America’s Master Showman and
the Prince of Humbugs

The art of spectacle reached it’s zenith during the Gilded Age in America and PT Barnum was it’s greatest protagonist.

Who said there’s a sucker born every minute? Well it wasn’t Phineas Taylor (aka PT) Barnum, though that phrase has often been attributed to him. Actually it was said to a reporter by one of Barnum’s competitors to explain how Barnum had managed to steal his idea and his audience. Barnum greatly respected his customers and would have been more likely to say there’s a "customer" born every minute. He did say "Every crowd has a silver lining," and he spent his entire adult life bringing crowds together so that he could separate them from their silver.
 
PT Barnum
PT Barnum was the most famous and colorful master showman of 19th century America. In an age when hucksterism and spectacle were the norm, Barnum raised it to a high art. He was often called "The Shakespeare of Advertising" because he believed in the power of advertising and publicity and used it to profit from the public's taste for what he called "Humbug." Barnum called himself the "Prince of Humbugs" because he could deceive people in such a way that they were greatly entertained, even though most of the attractions he promoted didn’t even come close to the tremendous buildup he gave them. 

The master showman was born in Bethel, Connecticut in 1810. His father died when he was fifteen years old and he was left alone to make his own way in the world. Through hard work and pluck he had saved enough by 1829 to start a weekly abolitionist newspaper called The Herald of Freedom. Unfortunately he was soon put out of business after several libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in a short jail term.

He moved to New York in 1834, and began his career in show business when he discovered Joice Heth, a woman who claimed to be 161 years old and had once been a slave and a nurse to George Washington. Heth entertained audiences with stories and songs about the young George Washington and drew very large crowds because, as one of Barnum’s handbills proclaimed, she "…was the first person who put clothes on the unconscious infant, who, in after days, led our heroic fathers on to glory, to victory, and freedom."

Joice Heth poster

Eventually the public's interest in her waned, so Barnum—ever resourceful— started spreading rumors that Heth was actually not a person at all, but instead was a mechanical automaton. One of Barnum’s anonymous letters to the newspaper said, "Joice Heth is not a human being. What purports to be a remarkably old woman, is simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numbers springs that ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch according to the will of the operator."

As a result of Barnum’s campaign to discredit Heth, many people revisited the exhibit to determine for themselves whether they had been duped the first time.—all the while Barnum continued to rake in the cash. Eventually Heth died and Barnum cashed in on her again when he had a public autopsy performed to determine her actual age. It turned out that Heth couldn’t have been much more than 80 years old. Barnum declared that he was "shocked" to find out he had been duped.

In 1841, Barnum opened the American Museum, located on Broadway in the heart of New York City. It became one of the most famous places of amusement in the entire world, where "500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe" were on exhibit. 

Barnum's American Museum

The collection included minerals, fossils, animals, natural wonders, minor deceptions and elaborate hoaxes. Also on display were a wide range of physical "freaks," including people he claimed were the world's tallest, shortest, heaviest, thinnest and hairiest, along with albinos, bearded ladies and other oddities.

Barnum’s Human Menagerie

Charles Stratton was a dwarf who was only 5 years old when Barnum began exhibiting him as General Tom Thumb. He was dressed in costumes imitating Napoleon, Hercules, Samson and many other characters such as a gladiator and a highlander, while he sang, danced, and told jokes.

In 1844 Barnum took Tom on the first of two European tours where he was presented to Queen Victoria of England, Queen Isabella of Spain and King Leopold of Belgium. In France, he was invited by King Louis-Philippe I to ride in a procession of royalty in a miniature carriage drawn by a matched set of four Shetland ponies.

In 1863, Tom married another dwarf named Lavinia Warren in a grand ceremony and a few days later they were guests of honor at a reception hosted by President Lincoln. After their marriage, Barnum often exhibited them with a normal-sized baby for dramatic effect, though they never actually had a child of their own.

Tom Thumb and his wife, Lavinia Warren

Barnum liked to exhibit giants and dwarfs together in order to accentuate their differences. Anna Swan was 8 feet tall and said to be "the tallest women in the world." She was often paired with George Washington Morrison "Commodore" Nutt, who at 29 inches tall was even smaller than Tom Thumb and billed as "the shortest man in the world."

Anna Swan and "Commodore" Nutt

Barnum built carriages for both Anna and Commodore Nutt so they could travel around New York City attracting large crowds that would follow them to the American Museum. Anna’s huge carriage was pulled by two Clydesdales, while Commodore Nutt’s was shaped like a walnut and pulled by two Shetland ponies.

"The Missing Link" and "Zip the Pinhead" was William Henry Johnson, a black dwarf with a very small head. Though he was born in the US, Barnum claimed he was a member of a previously undiscovered African tribe. He wore a fur-covered ape suit and cavorted about as people threw him coins, which to their great amusement, he threw right back at them.

William Henry Johnson aka "Zip the Pinhead"

After Barnum’s death, Johnson managed his own very lucrative career and continued to exhibit himself well into the 1920s. He lived to be 84, finally passing away in his large and comfortable home in Connecticut in 1929. He was reported to have said on his deathbed, "I sure fooled 'em a long time."

Feodor Jeftichew was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and suffered from a genetic disorder which caused him to have thick, long hair that covered his entire body. Barnum promoted him as "Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy" who "looks like a man, barks like a dog and crawls on his belly like a snake." 

Jo-Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy

Advertising posters proclaimed him "The most prodigious paragon of all prodigies secured by P.T. Barnum in 50 years. The human-skye terrier. The crowning mystery of nature's contradictions."

Josephine "Madame" Clofullia became the most famous bearded lady of the 19th century, thanks to Barnum’s talent for promotion. Josephine greatly admired Napoleon III and styled her beard after his. 

Josephine "Madame" Clofullia

Napoleon was so flattered when he learned of it that he sent Madame Clofullia a large diamond, which she wore in her beard whenever she was on exhibit.

Constentenus, the Tattooed Man was covered with 388 oriental designs. 

Constentenus, the Tattooed Man

Barnum always made up exotic stories about his attractions and claimed that Constentenus was captured by the Khan of Kashagar and forcibly tattooed as an alternative to death.

Jonathan Bass was a famous ossified man exhibited by Barnum for many years. 

Jonathan Bass, The Ossified Man

He suffered from a disease that caused bone to develop in his muscles, tendons and ligaments and which eventually immobilized him to the extent that he had to be fed a liquid diet. He died when he was dropped by an attendant who was carrying him.

Jenny Lind was a Swedish opera singer that Barnum hired to come to the United States in 1850 to give 150 concerts for what was then a princely sum of $1,000 per concert. When she asked Barnum why he hired her before he had even heard her sing, 

Jenny Lind, The Swedish Nightingale

Barnum replied "I have more faith in your reputation than in my musical judgment." Barnum did such a fine job of promoting the tour that when Jenny Lind’s ship arrived in New York there were 30,000 people there to greet her even though no one in the US had yet heard her sing. 

Barnum retired from show business in 1855, but it wasn’t long before financial difficulties forced him to go back to work. 

Barnum and Bailey’s Circus

In 1871, he created the "Greatest Show on Earth" a circus, menagerie and collection of side shows that traveled around the world and exists today as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.

In 1882, Barnum bought a huge elephant by the name of Jumbo from the London Zoo. Jumbo was a sensation when he arrived in New York and later toured around the country in his own custom-made railroad car. 

Jumbo

Three years later, after Jumbo was accidentally killed in a train yard, Barnum had Jumbo reconstructed by building a wooden frame and covering it with the elephant's skin so that he could continue to exhibit him.

Barnum was 81 when he died in 1891 from heart disease. A couple of weeks prior to his death, he said to reporters that the press never had anything nice to say about someone till after they were dead, so the next day The New York Sun ran his obituary on the front page under the banner "Great And Only Barnum — He Wanted To Read His Obituary — Here It Is."

P.T. Barnum wrote in his autobiography titled Struggles and Triumphs, "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."
 

 

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