P. T. Barnum
Life DatesJuly 5 1810 – April 7 1891
P.T. Barnum Phineas Taylor (P. T.) Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut on 5 July, 1810. Barnum’s name is popularly associated with the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, but the circus was only one facet of his career. He didn’t begin his involvement with the circus until he was in his sixties, following an extraordinarily successful tenure as the proprietor of the American Museum in New York City (1842 to 1868). In some respects the circus can be viewed as his retirement project. Barnum was approached by entrepreneur William C. Coup, who asked him to be a partner and lend his name to the circus that he, Coup, was creating; Barnum’s name was already famous and would be a draw. James A. Bailey, a better known partner of Barnum’s, entered the picture in the 1880s.
Barnum’s early life is covered in his autobiographies Life of P.T. Barnum and Struggles and Triumphs, as well as later biographies written by others. As a boy, Barnum was particularly well loved by his namesake maternal grandfather, who himself was known for his practical jokes and keen sense of humor. The family had little money and when Barnum’s father died, his teenaged son went to work in an uncle’s general store to help support the family. Here he learned a great deal about the competitive nature of people, and was exposed to local characters who constantly tried to best others and stretched the truth in making deals.
In 1829 Barnum married tailoress Charity Hallett, despite her mother’s disapproval, and started his own store while also running a lottery in Bethel. At age 21, he also became a newspaperman, producing 160 issues of the weekly Herald of Freedom, which ran from 1831 to 1834. He began the paper in defiant response to the Danbury newspaper editor’s refusal to print Barnum’s opinions, which were primarily reactionary to the predominant Calvinist views in the area. Barnum himself had been raised in the Congregational church but turned to the Universalist religion which offered a more uplifting view of humanity. Never shy about voicing his opinions in print, Barnum was sued for libel three times and jailed for 60 days while the paper was in print.
During his time as the editor of the Herald of Freedom, P.T. and his wife Charity had their first child, Caroline, who was born May 27, 1833. A few months after her birth, the young family moved to New York City. Barnum tried various ways to make a living, from selling groceries to running a boarding house for visitors from Connecticut. A man from Redding, Connecticut, alerted him to the possibility of purchasing an elderly African American woman named Joice Heth, whose owner billed her as 161 years old and the former nurse to George Washington. Barnum was intrigued, and purchased and freed her, but in fact the crippled and elderly woman, suffering from dementia and delusions, had little choice but to travel around to be displayed and tell her tales of raising young George. Later in life Barnum explicitly wrote that he regretted this exploitation, and he supported the 13th amendment during his political career in the Connecticut State Legislature. But at the time, in his mid-twenties, his experience with Heth gave him a taste for showmanship, which propelled him to starting a new career. Heth passed in 1836.
Through a clever business deal in 1841, Barnum acquired Scudder’s Museum, a rather tired place on Broadway that had ceased to attract visitors. Rejuvenating this museum quickly became his passion, and helped cement his status as the father of popular entertainment in America.
Barnum's American Museum operated at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street from 1841 to 1865 until it was destroyed by a fire, and then moved to 539-541 Broadway until that building too was destroyed by a fire in 1868. Wisely, Barnum first transformed the museum’s exterior so that passersby would be curious and want to come in. He added thousands of exhibits of all kinds: inventions, artwork, historical artifacts, scientific curiosities, natural history specimens, items of questionable origin and authenticity, stuffed and live animals, performers and newsmakers. He created a performance hall where many lectures and plays were presented, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Barnum continually provided new exhibits, held contests, and showed the latest innovations, and did whatever else would attract people to come to the museum and return to see more. He even offered women the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate in the presidential primary of 18__. He strove to provide educational amusements suitable for families, which was not widely done at the time. In the 1840s and 1850s, the museum became an extremely popular destination for the growing numbers of leisure travelers on a national and international level. This in turn helped to boost Barnum’s personal reputation at home and abroad.
In addition to the work of running the museum, Barnum promoted individual performers as a part of his business. His first such promotion was that of Charles S. Stratton, a little person whom Barnum met in Bridgeport while visiting his brother Philo Barnum. Charles was born in 1838 a rather large baby but his growth almost halted at around six months of age. Barnum was introduced to Charles when the boy was nearly five years old. At that time, Charles was only 24 inches (two feet or 60.96 centimeters) tall. He possessed an innate talent for performing, and was bright and personable. Barnum gave him his famous stage name, General Tom Thumb, taught him to perform, and they soon toured Europe and the United States, both of them becoming fabulously wealthy. Later on, Barnum engaged other little people including Stratton’s future wife, M. Lavinia Warren, Warren’s sister Minnie, and George Washington Morris Nutt, who was given the stage name of Commodore Nutt. Barnum also furthered the fame and career of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind and created an international animal celebrity, Jumbo the Elephant.
Barnum maintained additional business interests based in Bridgeport, some successful, others not. In 1851 he helped to develop the eastern part of Bridgeport, located on the east side of the Pequonnock River. He also served as the president of the Pequonnock National Bank, which was incorporated in May 1851 with $200,000 capital. It opened in August of that same year, and the bank endured until 1913 when it merged with the First Bridgeport National Bank. The Pequonnock printed various banknotes, as well as checks. Like contemporary checks that allow for featured graphics, the Pequonnock Bank printed images on their checks. This included images of both P.T. Barnum and Barnum’s home Iranistan. Other relatives of Barnum’s were also involved with the bank, including the Seeley family.
By 1854 the property that Barnum had in east Bridgeport was worth over one million dollars. He tried to attract businesses into the area, and made loans to various businesses including one Jerome Clock Company which was based out of New Haven. At the time, Barnum had no knowledge that the Jerome Clock Company was about to go under due to bankruptcy, and the company’s financial disaster brought Barnum down as well, as he had guaranteed about $450,000. By 1856, Barnum was in ruin, left his home of Iranistan with his family, and had to deal with both derisive public commentary and bankruptcy proceedings. Barnum writes frankly about this experience in his own book, Struggles and Triumphs, focusing particularly on not only the devastation of the loss, but also praising all of those who reached out to help him recover his fortune. He reprints the offer from Charles S. Stratton to go on tour again with Barnum as General Tom Thumb, which he took Stratton up on, as well as notes the others who helped him through this time. He also explicitly writes about the impact of his faith while getting through this time.
The failure of his real estate venture did not deter Barnum from continuing to develop and help his chosen home of Bridgeport. He helped to establish Mountain Grove Cemetery (1849), Seaside Park (1865), and Bridgeport Hospital (1878), in addition to entering political life to represent the area in spite of stating that he found politics distasteful.
In the 1850s, Barnum considered a run for governor of Connecticut. This morphed into a run for election to the Connecticut State Legislature in 1865. He stated explicitly that this was because of his strong feelings about the abolition of slavery, and he was put in office as the representative of Fairfield County on April 3, 1865. He was chair of the State Agricultural Committee where he did excellent work, and was well remembered for his speech delivered on May 26, 1865 that rallied not only for the ratification of the 13th amendment which would abolish slavery, but giving African American men the vote as well. These strong feelings came from not only lessons learned with Joice Heth, but also his fierce Universalist beliefs which heavily promoted equality.
Barnum remained in the Connecticut Legislature for two terms, and he ran for U.S. Congress as a Republican in 1867. He was beaten by William H. Barnum, a relative. The national scrutiny painted P.T.’s showmanship in a negative light, and the Republican party platform was hurt by his presence on it. Barnum himself was unhappy with all the commotion, the loss was quite welcome.
However, this was not the end of Barnum’s political career. From 1875-1876, Barnum served as the mayor of Bridgeport. He was nominated by a committee from the local Republican party, and initially declined it. It wasn’t until he was assured by the opposition that this was intended to be a compliment that Barnum accepted. He was elected by the city in spite of the fact it was largely During his one year term, Barnum commissioned new lighting for Bridgeport’s streets, supported the entry of local African Americans into trade unions, enforced liquor laws due to his own belief and promotion of temperance, and vastly improved the local water supply.
Barnum’s public life was busy, but he also had family life. Three more daughters were born to the couple: Helen (b. 18 April 1840), Frances (b. 1 May 1842), and Pauline (b. 1 March 1846). Frances died in April of 1844 just before her second birthday. Caroline and Helen lived long lives, but Pauline passed away at age 31 in 1877.
Barnum and Charity’s marriage was happy for some years, with Barnum writing in his autobiography that, “Although I was only little more than nineteen years old when I was married, I have always felt assured that if I had waited twenty years longer I could not have found another woman so well suited to my disposition and so admirable and valuable in every character as a wife, a mother, and a friend.” However as the couple grew older, changes occurred in their relationship that put distance between them. Barnum traveled frequently and for long periods of time, leaving Charity to raise their children. Charity apparently suffered from several unnamed health issues and did not have the energy, nor possibly the inclination, to keep up with her highly energetic husband; Barnum’s business ventures repeatedly put their financial stability at great risk which Charity undoubtedly found distressing. Barnum also began drinking heavily during the 1840s which impacted both the marriage and business relationships, although he came to realize this in 1849. He became a Temperance advocate after that, never drinking again and going on the lecture circuit to encourage others to do the same.
The interests of the two were probably also at odds on topics of theatre and entertainment about which Charity was far more conservative. Charity accompanied her husband on some of his tours, but according to Barnum she did not enjoy them. She had little love of Europe and was quite afraid of Niagara Falls, although their daughters enjoyed these experiences. Caroline’s diary, located at the Bridgeport History Center, offers insight into these family trips. According to Barnum, Charity was also not interested in “style,” so the wealth that allowed him to purchase expensive furnishings for their homes was not necessarily something she cared about. These differences and change in their relationship did not breed ill will, and Barnum was attentive in his own way. Their second home, the Italianate style Lindencroft, had gardens explicitly to indulge Charity’s enjoyment of gardening and their third home, the Victorian mansion Waldemere, was built close to Long Island Sound since the doctor recommended the sea air for Charity’s health.
As a grandfather, photographs show Barnum to be very happy to sit and pose with his many grandchildren. Caroline Barnum (27 May 1833-10 May 1911) married David W. Thompson on 19 October 1852. The couple had two children, Frances Barnum Thompson, later Leigh (27 December 1853-27 January 1939) and Phineas Taylor Barnum Thompson (19 April 1865-27 February 1868). Helen Barnum, later Helen Hurd and then Helen Buchtel (18 April 1840-December 1915) had Helen Barnum Hurd (12 November 1858-1933), Julia Hurd (1860-1891) and Caroline Hurd (1862-1883) as well as Lelia Buchtel (no known dates.) Pauline (1 March 1846-11 April 11) married Nathan Seeley. They had Clinton Barnum Seeley (1868-1856), Herbert Seeley (1870-1914), and Jessica Seeley (1872-1896). There are several images of Charity sitting with her husband and the grandchildren as well, although there are no accounts remarking on her feelings towards her grandchildren.
Barnum was in England when Charity died on November 19, 1873. He remained there rather than attend the funeral, a decision which was probably based on the impracticality of transatlantic travel, which would have taken weeks. Charity was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Soon after Charity’s death, Barnum married an English woman named Nancy Fish, the daughter of his friend and agent John Fish. The couple was secretly married in England on February 14, 1874, only three months after Charity’s death. The marriage remained secret from almost everyone, including Nancy’s parents and Barnum’s children, until September 15, 1874, when the two had a public ceremony at the Church of the Divine Paternity on Fifth Avenue in New York City.
The May-December element of the marriage was remarked upon, as Nancy was born in 1850 and was thus 40 years Barnum’s junior, but the couple was generally happy together. Barnum traveled and conducted business, and while Nancy occasionally suffered from ill health, as Charity had in her lifetime, the two seemed to get along and shared a similar sense of humor, as well as enjoyment of the luxuries that wealth afforded them. The marriage also allowed Nancy to pursue her own hobbies, including collecting, reading, writing, horseback riding and carriage riding, and playing pianoforte. Barnum constructed Marina, his last home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, explicitly for Nancy, knowing she would outlive him and want a home more easily maintained than Waldemere, as well as one that allowed room for her interests and activities.
Barnum’s circus venture did not begin until 1871. He was approached by the showman William C. Coup, who had worked for Barnum many years previous. Barnum was familiar with Coup and respected his talents; Coup was interested in a partnership that would allow him to capitalize on Barnum’s fame by using his name, thus was born “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus.” The new network of railroads expanding across the country allowed the circus to travel far more efficiently and to reach more towns and cities than had been possible by wagon. Train travel also allowed the circus to become a much larger operation since the trains could transport innumerable wagons and tons of canvas for tents. The profits were incredibly high. By 1872, Barnum was nurturing the side show - a traveling version of the many performers who exhibited themselves in the American Museum - and the attraction proved to be popular. In 1873, Barnum built up a department in the circus dedicated only to advertising, and the success continued.
On April 30, 1874, Barnum opened the New York Hippodrome which also featured circus acts. The Hippodrome would go on to have both a permanent home in New York City, and a traveling component. A year later, P. T. Barnum’s Traveling World’s Fair was managed by John O’Brien. The sheer number of shows made it necessary for Barnum to create the Barnum Universal Exposition Company to manage it all. Financial issues and dissatisfaction dissolved the O’Brien partnership, and the Barnum Universal Exposition Company closed as well by the end of 1875. Starting in 1876, Barnum’s circus was now simply the “Greatest Show on Earth” and proved to be a major success.
In the 1880s, Barnum began to encounter competition from other circuses. This included the Great London Show of Cooper, Bailey, and Hutchinson--several name variations of this circus exist--whom Barnum eventually embraced as partners. The process involved a lot of legal negotiations, but on August 26, 1880, the Barnum and London Circus emerged. Great success continued, and by the mid-1880s the circus employed over seven hundred people. In 1887, disagreements prompted the partners to renegotiate contracts, dissolve existing partnerships, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus emerged. The younger partner, James A. Bailey, largely managed the circus, and continued on after Barnum’s death in 1891. After Bailey died in 1906, the circus was bought by Ringling Brothers, and continued to operate separately until the two shows were combined in 1919.
P. T. Barnum died on April 7, 1891 following a stroke. He was ill for some months prior to his death. He is buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, a park-like cemetery that he was instrumental in creating. The Barnum family plot is close to the Stratton family plot where Charles S. Stratton and M. Lavinia Warren, known as General and Mrs. Tom Thumb, are buried. A number of Barnum’s children and grandchildren are also in the same cemetery.