Bread and Circuses

Well, actually just the latter. In early May of 1872, the circus came to Washington, D.C.—and not just the usual political circus. This one was P.T. Barnum’s, and it featured the “famous horse-riding goat ‘Alexis,’ the wonderful snake-charmer,” and “four wild Fiji cannibals.” (One newspaper waggishly wondered what the cannibals were fed.)


(Barnum with General Tom Thumb, circa 1850.)

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, to Irena Taylor Barnum and Philo F. Barnum, a storekeeper and farmer. He was a capitalist from an early age, selling cookies and candy to schoolmates. When his father died, Barnum got a job clerking a store, saving up until he could open his own store three yeas later. But there was more to the man than simple finance. In 1831, he began publishing an abolitionist and nondenominational Christian newspaper, the Herald of Freedom. At one point he was jailed for libel; when he was set free, he was said to have been driven through town in an open coach accompanied by cannon blasts and a chorus singing “Yankee Doodle.”

After some economic reversals, he moved in 1834 to New York City, where he embarked on his first entertainment venture—scraping and borrowing $1,000 to purchase elderly slave Joice Heth. Claiming Heth was the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, Barnum set her free and installed her at a popular entertainment venue to tell stories about the father of the nation. His investment was sound: She brought in $750 weekly. But she was probably no more than 80 when she died two years later.

In 1836, Barnum bought his first circus and toured the South. This, along with other Barnum ventures, had its boom and busts. In 1841, Barnum finagled his way into taking over Scudder’s New York Museum (featuring a stuffed bison, wax figures, and a guillotine). He renamed it Barnum’s American Museum and it was considered to be the country’s first public museum of real importance. His financial strategy was to spend great sums of money on exhibits, then charge small entry fees and entice people to return for multiple visits. One famous humbug was the Fiji mermaid (a mishmash of a corpse with the top of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish). Another was the Woolly Horse, purportedly from explorer John C. Frémont’s trek through the Rocky Mountains and billed as having “his head where his tail should be.” (The horse had probably never been west of New York, and was simply housed backward in his stall.) For all his faith in Americans’ appetite for the bizarre and freakish (and his willingness to exploit that appetite with fake spectacles), there is no definitive proof he ever actually said a sucker is born every minute. (He might wish he had, though.)

Barnum also brought fame to Charles Stratton, a boy only two feet in height. Barnum re-christened him “General Tom Thumb” and paid him three dollars a week to entertain the public by singing, dancing, and chatting. The pair toured Europe to great acclaim. On the heels of that success, Barnum mortgaged everything he owned to bring soprano Jenny Lind to America; he is credited as singlehandedly doing more to increase U.S. appreciation for opera than just about anyone else.


(A popular portrait of Jenny Lind. My own maternal great-grandmother had a copy over her fireplace—for years I thought it was a relative. It now hangs in my uncle’s house. Imagine my surprise when years later I saw old photos of my paternal grandmother’s house with the same portrait over the sofa—and even later, when the images popped up gracing the set of the 90’s TV show Charmed.)

But for all his exploitive actions, Barnum had an abiding respect for humanity and freedom. As slavery became a more prominent political issue, Barnum, who had been a Jacksonian Democrat since youth, took up Republicanism in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. He had evolved from a man of common stereotypes of the 1840s to a leader for emancipation by the Civil War. During the Civil War, Barnum’s museum drew large audiences seeking diversion from the conflict. He added pro-Unionist exhibits, including an actress who had served as a spy for the Union and who lectured about her “thrilling adventures” behind Confederate lines. Barnum’s Unionist sympathies incited a Confederate arsonist to start a fire in 1864. On July 13, 1865, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground from a fire of unknown origin. Barnum re-established the Museum at another location in New York City, but this too was destroyed by fire in March 1868. This time the loss was too great, and Barnum retired from the museum business.

In 1865, he won a seat in the Connecticut legislature. At ratification of the 13th Amendment, Barnum spoke before the legislature and said, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.”

Aside from his one early foray, the man most associated with the circus didn’t really get involved in that business until he was 60 years old. In 1870, he established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks.” It soon became the first two-ring, then three-ring, circus, transported by up to seventy railroad freight cars (Barnum was one of the first circus owners to move his circus by train and probably the very first to buy his own train), and was renamed “P. T. Barnum’s New and Greatest Show on Earth.”

But he didn’t give up on politics and community involvement. Having reverted to the Democratic Party, Barnum supported Horace Greeley for president in 1872. Three years later he was himself elected mayor of Bridgeport as a Democrat, focusing on temperance issues as well as bringing gas lighting to streets. Barnum was again serving in the Connecticut state house in 1878, and was notably the legislative sponsor of a law enacted in 1879 that prohibited the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception” that remained in effect in Connecticut until being overturned in 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Barnum also made significant contributions to Tufts University, which features Jumbo the elephant as its mascot and refers to its students as “Jumbos.”

In 1891, realizing he was near death, Barnum reportedly had his own obituary written and printed in the newspaper so that he could read it. He died in Bridgeport at the ripe old age of 80.



About arwenbicknell

Editor by day, author by night.
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