Person : Barnum, P. T.

Alternative Names:
Barnum, Phineas Taylor
Birth Year: 1810
Death Year: 1891

The Shakespeare of advertising and the prince of humbug, P.T. Barnum became a household name. Barnum was born July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut. He remarked that he was a “Yankee Doodle Dandy plus one.” Barnum attended school to master basic skills and at the age of eight, went to work in his father’s dry goods store. Barnum’s grandfather Phineas Taylor, for whom he had been named, played a cruel practical joke on Phineas by giving him a worthless piece of property, Ivy Island. Even though Barnum became the butt of jokes in town, this worthless piece of property taught him a great lesson for life, “People like to be humbugged.” When his father died in 1826, Barnum went to work for the new owners of his father’s store becoming the sole support for the family.

In 1829, Phineas married Charity Hallett, an attractive “tailoress,” ran a store, operated a lottery and published a newspaper. Barnum used this newspaper to attack a minister in nearby Danbury Connecticut, which landed him in jail for 60 days but continued to publish his paper from jail.

His first venture into the art of the spectacle was in 1835. Barnum heard about a Negress in 1835 named Joice Heth, who was being exhibited in Philadelphia. She was reportedly to be a hundred and sixty-one years old, and to have been George Washington’s nurse. Barnum went to see her and bought her for $1,000 and took her back to New York to exhibit. Joice Heth became an instant hit with the citizens of New York grossing Barnum $1,500 a week.

Having tried numerous ventures to success, Barnum took a chance that would make him famous. In 1841, using all of his money and putting up as collateral his grandfather’s joke, Ivy Island, Barnum bought the Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway and Ann Street. Barnum promptly changed its name to Barnum’s American Museum. Today Barnum is thought of as a circus person with his name so prominently associated with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. For most of Barnum’s life, however he was a museum owner in New York City. His fame grew not only through the owner-ship of the museums, but with attraction he brought to the museum. When the museum open on January 1, 1842, Barnum offered curiosities from all over the world. There were albinos, “educated” dogs, jugglers, dioramas, living statues, the Feeji mermaid a “6 foot” man-eating chicken; (a six foot tall man eating a piece of chicken) and a sign that stated “To the Egress.” When the people followed the arrows to this exhibit, they found themselves in the alley.

Barnum was not only known in America, his popularity had spread to Europe. In 1842 Barnum traveled to Europe and spent some time with Queen Victoria. Barnum was known as the person that displayed many “oddities” at his museum and wanted some respectability. Without ever hearing her sing a note, he engaged the services of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. Barnum offered her $200,000 plus a percentage of the box office for 150 shows. He divided the seats into sections and colored coded the tickets to reflect ticket prices. Barnum spent a fortune advertising her and this advertising paid off when more than 30,000 people greeted Jenny Lind when she arrived in America. Jenny Lind was a “pre-sold” super star.

In March of 1868 Barnum’s museum burned to the ground sending Barnum into self imposed retirement. During this retirement, Barnum started writing his autobiography “Struggles and Triumphs.” In 1871, Barnum was enticed out of retirement by William Cameron Coup and Dan Castello to become a partner in the P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus. In 1875, Coup and Barnum separated their partnership.

For the next seventeen years until his death in 1891 Barnum continued his ventures into the world of the circus. Barnum partnered with P. A. Older (Barnum or Barnum and Older) 1872-1873, John O’Brien 1874-1875, Avery Smith 1876; John J. Nathans, Lewis June, and George F. Bailey, (Barnum) 1876-1880; James A. Bailey and James Hutchinson (Barnum and London) 1881-1885; James Hutchinson, William W. Cole and James E. Cooper, (Barnum) 1886-1887; and James Bailey (B&B) 1888-1891.

Barnum, in 1875, became Mayor of Bridgeport, Ct. and also ran for the US Senate and lost. His last big adventure was acquisition of an African elephant, “Jumbo” from the London Zoo. Jumbo arrived in New York harbor in 1882 and became an instant sensation. Unfortunately, Jumbo was killed in 1885 by a freight train while being led to the train after the evening’s performance.

Barnum passed away April 7, 1891 at the age of eighty leaving the world a name that will be forever associated with the circus and advertising.

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