circus poster from Ringling




Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 in Bethel, CT. He worked as a clerk in a general store in 1826 in Brooklyn, NY, and married Charity Hallet in 1829. In 1835, Barnum paid $1,000 to exhibit Joice Heth, a woman who said she was 161 years old and had been the nurse of George Washington. He purchased Scudder's American Museum in 1841 and reopened it in 1842 as Barnum's American Museum. It included the famous sign "This was to the egress" that in fact was the exit, forcing visitors to pay another 25 cents to re-enter. He offered such exhibits as "The Feejee Mermaid," an embalmed mermaid brought Calcutta by a Boston seaman, and "General Tom Thumb" (Charles Stratton), only 25 inches tall who would marry Lavinia Warren in 1863 and stood on top of a grand piano to greet their guests. In 1844 he toured Europe with some of his more famous exhibits and presented Tom Thumb to Queen Victoria. That same year, Matthew Brady opened his photo studio across the street from Barnum's museum in New York and began to sell daguerreotypes of the exhibits, gaining Barnum international fame. Jenny Lind , called the "Swedish Nightingale" by Barnum, made a singing tour of the U.S. 1850-52, earning Barnum $712,000 for 95 concerts, with some tickets selling for more than $600. In 1854, Barnum published his autobiography,The Life Of P.T. Barnum, and declared that he was retiring from business and giving up alcohol. However, in 1870 he created his first circus, Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus. It was the largest circus in America and grossed $400,000 in one year. By 1872 he expanded his "P.T. Barnum's Traveling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth" to a size covering five acres with 10,000 seats. His first wife died of heart disease in 1873. Barnum married Nancy Fish in London in 1874, the young daughter of his life-long friend John Fish. When living in Bridgeport CT with Nancy in 1875, he was elected mayor of the town for one term. In 1881 he merged with two London circus promoters James Bailey and James Hutchinson to create "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United"that was shortened to "Barnum & London Circus." In 1882, Barnum purchased Jumbo the elephant from the London Zoo for $10,000, transported it to America, where he was seen by an estimated 20 million before being struck by a train in 1885. Barnum reconstructed Jumbo around a wooden frame covered with the elephant's preserved 1500-pound skin, and he kept the object on exhibit in his circus until donating the skin to Tufts University where it finally was accidentally desroyed by fire in 1975. Barnum split from Bailey in 1885 but they were reunited in 1888 to form the new Barnum and Bailey Circus, the "Greatest Show on Earth" that toured England and the United States. P. T. Barnum died in 1891.

Barnum films:


Barnum portrait
from Tufts
Jumbo poster
from Ringling
Jumbo killed 9/15/1885
from celebritymorgue
Jenny Lind
from NPG

revised 9/12/05 by Schoenherr | Filmnotes