Phineas Taylor Barnum was a lot of things. He was a businessman, entertainer, scam artist, promoter of hoaxes, author, publisher, politician, and philanthropist. However, in his own words, he described himself as “a showman by profession”. He is widely remembered, though, as the founder of a circus that would eventually grow into the globally renowned Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut in 5 July 1810. During his early 20s, he engaged in several businesses –general store, book auctioning trade, real estate, and a statewide lottery. In 1829, he established a weekly paper, the Herald of Freedom, where he wrote editorials that attacked church elders. These eventually led to libel suits for which is was imprisoned for two months. When Connecticut banned the lottery, Barnum lost a significant source of income, leading him to relocate to New York City.
It was in the Big Apple that Barnum started his career as a showman. He purchased a blind, paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, whom he claimed to be 160 years old and to have been a nurse of George Washington. He successfully exhibited the woman in tours around America until she died at 80 years old.
After Heth died, Barnum formed his first variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater”. However, it gained only mixed success. In 1841, he purchased Scudder’s American Museum, improved its building and added more exhibits, and renamed it Barnum’s American Museum. This was a huge success.
Through the museum, Barnum exhibited his first major hoax, the Feejee mermaid, a creature with the head of a monkey and tail of a fish. Later, he introduced “the Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone”, Charles Stratton but who was more generally known as General Tom Thumb. Stratton was four years old at the time, but he was claimed to be 11. With the money he earned from his museum, Barnum purchased other museums as well.
Barnum went on to engage in other business ventures where he would lose his wealth, but regain it again. In 1865, Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground. He immediately built another but this, too, was burned in 1868. This led to his retirement from the museum business.
It was not until 1871, when he was already 61 years old, that he entered into the circus business. A circus owner in Delavan, Wisconsin named William Cameron Coup invited Barnum into a partnership that was later to be known as the P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, & Hippodrome.
The rest, as they say, is history.