Phineas Taylor Barnum (July 5, 1810- April 7, 1891)
Entrepreneur, Showman, Politician, Circus Manager
"Without promotion something terrible happens... nothing!"


The Early Years (1810-1835)

On July 5, 1810, Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut; he became the eldest of Irena Taylor and Philo Barnum's five children. Barnum, who hated manual labor, began developing his skills as a salesman early in life, when he started working in his father's general store as a 12-year-old. After his father's death in 1825, Barnum worked as a shopkeeper and lottery director until he eloped with seamstress, Charity Hallett at 19 years of age. In 1831, he became the publisher of The Herald of Freedom, a newspaper which reflected his liberal beliefs, and eventually caused him to be imprisoned for 60 days after being found guilty of libel. Following his release from jail, Phineas moved to New York, where his career as a showman originated.

P.T. Becomes the "Prince of "Humbugs" (1835-1891)

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In 1835, Barnum hired the former slave, Joice Heth for his freakshow, and advertised her as George Washington's 161-year-old nurse. Barnum toured the county with his new attraction until she died a year later. A public autopsy revealed the woman had only been about 80-years-old; however Barnum discredited the report, claiming that they had examined the wrong body. In 1842, he purchased Scudder's American Museum in New York City, and quickly renamed it Barnum's American Museum and expanded on their collection of curios, adding trained dogs and fleas, albinos and obese men. Of the American Museum's countless exhibits, some of the most famous were the Chinese Siamese twins, Chang and Eng; Annie Jones, the bearded lady, who was probably a man; Anna Swan, the world's tallest girl; and the "feejee" mermaid, ma
Barnum and Tom Thumb
de from a monkey's body and a fish tail. Shortly after opening his new museum, Barnum introduced Charles Sherwood Stratton, a midget who had stopped growing at a little over two feet, and weighed fifteen pounds. Stratton, nicknamed "General Tom Thumb," was only five, when employed by Barnum, but he passed for about seven years older. Barnum trained him to dance, sing and impersonate famous people, which greatly amused many because of his short stature, Barnum sold over 20 million tickets displaying Stratton, approximately a quarter of all the tickets he ever sold. Barnum and Tom Thumb also found international fame, when the toured Europe, and entertained various royalty, including Queen Victoria of England and the French King Louis Phillipe. In 1850, Jenny Lind, "The Swedish Nightingale" was such a success in Europe that Barnum had the revolutionary idea to bring the 30-year-old singer to America, and risked bankruptcy in doing so. Although nobody was familiar with the European celebrity, P.T.'s great talent for advertising quickly made her famous and popularized the practice of importing foreign musicians and singers to the United States. Barnum's various hoaxes earned him the title, "Prince of Humbugs," but he felt no shame in constantly deceiving the public, because he believe that they all secretly wanted to be tricked. His exhibits were often so outrageous, everyone knew they were impossible, yet it was people's doubt and simultaneous desire to believe that Barnum thrived on. Some of his smaller money-making schemes could be viewed as scams, but nobody complained about the awful band he hired to play outside the museum so that people would hurry in, or the signs leading to the "egress," which people imagined to be some exotic display, but really dumped them outside so that they were forced to pay admission again in order to re-enter. Barnum never actually said, "there's a sucker born every minute," but the saying perfectly sums up his personal philosophy, and knowing how to take advantage of every "sucker" was the key to his success in becoming one of the country's first millionaires.

Politics and Tragedy (1850-1876)

In the early 1850's, Barnum became interested in developing the farmland of East Bridgeport, Connecticut, and so loaned large sums of money to the Jerome Clock Company to persuade them to move into this new area. In 1855, the company collapsed, and the once millionaire, Barnum, became completely bankrupt. Barnum began lecturing on his specialty, "The Art of Money-Getting," and many of Barnum's old performers, who had gone on to work independently, returned, eager to help their former boss by temporarily re-joining his show. Although he was able to save himself from debt within five years, this minor financial setback was followed by numerous fires, which added to Barnum's troubles. In 1857, his widely-renowned home in Bridgeport, the Iranistan, burned down and his original and rebuilt museums were also consumed by fires in 1865, 1868, and 1872. Barnum's wife, Charity died in 1873, and a year later, at 64, he married Nancy Fish, who was only 24-years-old. Throughout the 1860's, P.T. became increasingly involved in politics, and was elected to serve the Connecticut Legislature during this time. He also unsuccessfully ran for Congress, but became the mayor of his hometown, Bridgeport from 1875-1876.

Barnum (upper right) and Bailey (lower left)

"The Greatest Show on Earth" (1871-1891)

Although P.T. is most often remembered for being the "Circus guy," he did not become involved in this business until he was 61-years-old. On April 10, 1871, he opened the Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome, his three-ring circus in Brooklyn, New York, promoting i
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t as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Barnum cannot be credited with the invention of the circus; however he played a major part in the circus’s transformation from a simple, wagon-based carnival to an electrified, railroad-traveling, extravagant, show with three rings under one big tent. In 1881, Barnum faced a great deal of opposition from younger circus managers, and so merged with his biggest competitor, 34-year-old, James A. Bailey, creating the Barnum and Bailey Circus, which became the nation’s most popular. A year later, Barnum bought, Jumbo, “The Only Mastodon on Earth,” from England’s Royal Zoological Gardens for $10,000. England’s later outrage over the “vandalism” of the elephant, only added to his popularity in America, and when Jumbo died in 1885, Barnum glorified the story, claiming that Jumbo had been victimized, while heroically attempting to move a younger elephant out of the path of an oncoming locomotive. After so many decades of perfecting the art of publicity, Barnum became so obsessed by it that when his health began to deteriorate, he ran his own obituary in the Evening Sunso that he could read it. Barnum died on April 7, 1891, leaving no heir, and was mourned by many at a funeral he had already planned for himself; as a true businessman until the end his final words were, "Ask Bailey what the box office was at the Garden last night."

Lasting Impression (1810-today-?)

Phineas Taylor Barnum was a true celebrity and innovator of his era, and the enormity of his influence can still be observed today. LIFE Magazine called him the "patron saint of promoters" on their list of the Top 100 Most Important People of the Millennium; as a public relations genius, P.T. showed the world the power of publicity. Whenever a particular exhibit's popularity began declining, Barnum would publish an article questioning its authenticity which quickly and effectively re-captured the masses' interest; some people even think that Barnum started the fires at Iranistan and the American Museum in order to stay in the spotlight. He also realized the importance of timing, submitting reviews of his show stuffed with praise to the newspapers of towns they were performing in next. Barnum's talent for propaganda made Jenny Lind's success in America possible, and paved the way for the countless foreign celebrities we have today. As one of the first circus-managers to convert from gaslights and wagons to the more efficient use of electricity and trains, Barnum is recognized for recreating this industry, with his addition of three rings under one big top tent; many of the terms and phrases he is credited with the coining of come from this time period as well.

Quotes, Publications, and Coined Phrases

  • "The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived"
  • "Without promotion something terrible happens... nothing!"
  • "Every crowd has a silver lining"
  • "Money is a terrible master, but an excellent servant"
  • "More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing nothing, than by believing too much"
  • "If I shoot at the sun I may hit a star"
  • "Those who really desire to attain an independence, have only set their minds upon it, and adopt the proper means, as they do in regard to any other object they wish to accomplish, and the thing is easily done"
  • "Many a fortune has slipped through a man's fingers because he was engaged in too many occupations at a time."
  • "There is a good sense in the old caution against having too many irons in the fire at once."
  • "Politeness and civility are the best capital ever invested in business. Large stores, gilt signs, flaming advertisements, will all prove unavailing if you or your employees treat your patrons abruptly."
  • "If you hesitate, some bolder hand will stretch out before you and get the prize"
  • "A man who is known to be strictly honest, may be ever so poor, bu the has the purses of all the community at his disposal, for all know that if he promises to return what he borrows, he will never disappoint them"
  • "We are all, no doubt, born for a wise purpose"
  • "Unless a man enters upon a vocation intended for him by nature, and best suited to his peculiar genius, he cannot succeed"
  • Throw your hat in the ring
  • Grandstanding
  • Jumbo
  • Get the show on the road
  • Siamese twins
  • Rain or shine
Published Works:
  • Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1854)
  • The Humbugs of the World (1865)
  • Struggles and Triumphs (1869)

Works Cited

Saxon, A. H., Phineas T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man, 1989.

Adams, Bluford, E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture, 1997; Kunhardt, Philip B., P. T. Barnum: America's Greatest Showman, 1995; Root, Harvey W., The Unkown Barnum, 1927; Saxon, A. H., P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man, 1989.

"Phineas Taylor Barnum." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Gale Group, 1999.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.</span>

"Phineas Taylor Barnum." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008. [[|</span]]>

"Phineas Taylor Barnum."Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.

"P. T. Barnum." Business Leader Profiles for Students. Vol. 1. Gale Research, 1999.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008. [[|