Understanding The Personality of P. T. Barnum, His Legacy and Family

Phineas Taylor Barnum, popular stylized as P.T Barnum, was a legendary American showman. He captivated his audience with sensational and amusing theatrical displays ranging from musical concerts to three-ring circus.

His story is usually sold as that with a ‘Grass to Grace’ theme, as he overcame several obstacles to achieve success. A lot has been written and said about him in various news articles and publications despite a relative lack of proof on some occasions. However, through thorough research, we’ve compiled a definitive account of everything you should know about the American icon.

P.T Barnum’s Early Life and Career Before He Became a Showman

Born to innkeeper and tailor, Philo Barnum and his second wife, Irene Taylor, on July 5, 1810, Phineas Taylor Barnum (P.T Barnum) came from a very nondescript background and humble beginnings. Although not often mentioned, he had four siblings named: Eder Barnum, Mary Barnum, Cordelia Barnum, and Almirah Barnum.

Understandably, the world remembers P.T Barnum for his circus and showman business. Still, it is also essential to note that he had a long and varied career, and he did not venture into the circus business until he was into his sixties.

As soon as he was of working age, he became a shopkeeper like his father. He soon started an unbiased and nonpartisan newspaper business called The Herald of Freedom in 1829. His often-controversial publications landed him in trouble often and led to his imprisonment on more than one occasion.

He stopped publication three years after. Amongst his other businesses include: a general store, real estate, lottery network and a book auctioning market. He sold his store in 1834 and moved to New York City in the same year.

His First Foray into Showmanship

P.T Barnum’s first foray into the showmanship business began in 1835 when he met a promoter whose fortunes were dwindling. The promoter was exhibiting a slave named Joice Heth, whom he claimed was George Washington’s mammy. Sensing an opportunity, Barnum purchased the slave and stuck to the promoter’s story, who claimed that Heth was 161 years old at the time. Some also argued that while Barnum freed Heth from slavery, he kept her in his employment.

To lend credence to his claims and stories, he forged baptism documents and sent an intermediary ahead to schedule meetings for Heth with ministers. He hoped that by presenting her alongside with the papers to these ministers, his claims would become substantiated and believed. He went further by writing and publishing her biography, The Life of Joice Heth, the Nurse of George Washington.

Having done his best to establish Heth and her story, Barnum started touring with Heth and charged people to see and talk to her. Although Heth was never close to her reported age of 161, she was old and had limited mobility. She, therefore, took pleasure in talking to people and making up stories about caring for George Washington.

At some point, Barnum was raking in $1500 per week for months, and anytime sales started to slip, he would concoct a new story and sell to the newspapers to get people visiting again. One such story was claiming Heth was not a real human being and was a machine made of whalebone, Indian rubber, and numberless springs. The result was a surge in ticket sales as the public wanted to verify this new information for themselves.

An Unexpected Death Ended His First Attempt

In 1837, Barnum encountered two unfortunate events that impacted his business negatively — the U.S. economy slumped, and Joice Heth died. After having her body autopsied, they determined that she was probably about 80 at the time of her death. Barnum made plans for Joice Heth to rest in the Barnum family plot in Connecticut.

For the next few years, Barnum did what he could with some small performing troupes.  But times were tough, and Barnum lost money in a side business investment he made.

P.T Barnum’s Greatest Creation: The Greatest Show on Earth

In the market for legal business and venture, Barnum outsmarted richer and more reputable bidders to purchase the American Museum located in New York City. The building was a five-story marble structure inundated with stuffed animals, waxwork figures, and other artistic presentations.

Barnum quickly went to work, transforming the museum into a carnival of live freaks, dramatic theatricals, beauty contests, and other sensational attractions. Sensing the public’s insatiable appetite for the unusual and bizarre, Barnum scouted all over for such spectacles, living or dead, genuine or fake. Using outrageous stunts, concerted and persistent marketing, and exaggerated publicity, he commanded international attention and turned his show into a global phenomenon.

Between 1842, when he purchased the American Museum, and 1868, when the last of two gruesome fire incidents forced him to relinquish ownership, Barnum’s unique showmanship brought in 82 million visitors. Among them were famous and royal figures in the form of Henry and William James, Charles Dickens, and Edward VII, the Prince of Wales at the time.

Barnum’s first successful show in the museum was the Feejee Mermaid, a finned body of a large fish topped by a human head. It was later discovered to be an act. He did have one or two genuine acts, and amongst them were the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng. They connected by a ligament below their breastbones.

A Midget Named Charles Stratton and a Pivot to Music

However, Barnum’s most popular attraction was a dwarf named Charles Stratton, who was 25 inches tall and was discovered by Barnum. Proving to be his most profitable exhibit, he displayed Stratton under the name of General Tom Thumb and sold close to 20 million tickets. After an initial reception by President Abraham Lincoln, Barnum and General Tom Thumb also enjoyed a triumphal tour abroad even performing before Queen Victoria.

P.T Barnum
P.T Barnum with General Tom Thumb: image source

Barnum sought to diversify his image from just a promoter of freaks to convener of artistic attractions. He risked his entire fortune by bringing Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano whom he had neither seen nor heard and who was a relative unknown in the United States, to perform.

Dubbing Lind “The Swedish Nightingale,” Barnum embarked on the largest publicity and marketing campaign he had ever attempted. It proved successful as Lind’s opening night in New York City, before a capacity audience of 5,000. Her subsequent nine months of concerts across the United States raked in vast sums of money and made P.T Barnum even more popular.

More Than Just a Showman

Phineas Taylor (PT) Barnum was not just a showman. He was also a politician. Contesting under the Republican party, He was elected to two terms in the Connecticut state legislature (1865 and 1866), to represent the town of Fairfield. He was elected by acclamation as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a decade later.

After the civil war ended, Barnum ran for the state legislature expressly to ratify the 14th Amendment of the U.S Constitution. He fought to extend Connecticut state voting rights to African American men, as he stated in his speech to the legislature on May 26, 1865.

P.T Barnum was also an author who published books on varying subjects ranging from his autobiography to books on attaining and accumulating wealth. Goodreads have attributed 30 distinct works to him. In 1855, he published his autobiography titled, The Life of P.T Barnum, written by Himself. He claims the book sold over a million copies, although it remains officially unverified.

An Unremarkable Death for a Remarkable Man

Having lived a wildly remarkable and fulfilling life, it was perhaps ironic that he died with minimal fuss and theatrics. At 6.22 pm on April 7, 1891, P. T. Barnum passed away quietly after battling with stroke for over a year. Perhaps very much aware he had little time left and wanted to fight the ailment with minimal attention as possible, he requested the newspaper industry to print his obituary a year earlier.

On the day of his death, he spent most of the day in a state of semi-unconsciousness, and his last word was ‘Yes’ in answer to if he wanted water. Telegrams were dispatched to family members when it became clear that he would not survive the day. He died at Marina, his residence in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

P.T Barnum was a Man with a Complex Legacy

Often regarded as the greatest showman of all time, P.T Barnum left behind mixed sentiments after his passing. While he was praised for his good works and labeled an icon of American spirit and ingenuity, others have cast more light on his darker acts and exposed unsavory actions and business dealings.

A statue of him was placed at Seaside Park in 1893 by his close friends and business partners James Bailey, James Hutchinson, and W.W Cole.

Much loved in Connecticut; the city issued a commemorative coin with his portrait to celebrate its centennial anniversary in 1936. In 2004, The Bethel Historical Society also commissioned a life-sized sculpture to honor the 200th anniversary of his birth. Sculpted by David Gesualdi and placed outside the public library, they dedicated the statue on September 26, 2010.

On the flip side, some have contested that his legacy contains acts of racism, exploitation, and greediness. A major accusation leveled at him is his treatment of Joice Heth. Some felt he exploited and overworked her while she was alive. He also exploited her death when he charged the 1500 people 50p each to watch her being cut open during the autopsy to determine her age.

His Personal Life and End of the Barnum Family Show Business

At the age of 19, P.T Barnum got married to the love of his life, Charity Hallett, who was two years older than he was. They were married for 44 years before her death on November 19, 1873. Overcome with grief at her passing, Barnum was unable to make it to her funeral.

His marriage to Charity Hallett produced four daughters: Caroline Cornelia, who died in 1911 at the age of 78; Helen Maria, who lived until she was 80; Frances Irena was born in 1842 but died two years after. The couple’s last child, Pauline Taylor, was birthed in 1846 and lived 71 years before her death in 1917.

Having lost his first wife in 1873, P.T Barnum remarried the following year to Nancy Fish. She was 40 years younger than he was and was the daughter of a British admirer of his. She died in 1891.

P.T Barnum
P.T Barnum with his second wife, Nancy Fish: image source

It is unclear and unknown at this point if any descendant of P.T Barnum is currently in modern-day show business. This line of career seemed to die with the mismanagement, irresponsibility, and laziness of two grandsons of his: Herbert Barnum Seeley and Clinton Barnum Seeley.


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