The Incredible True Story of P.T. Barnum, Business Huckster
Huckster, fraud, con-artist, prankster, terrible businessman, incredible businessman. Any of these words and phrases could describe Phineas Taylor Barnum — and any of them would be fitting.
P.T. Barnum was one of America’s most captivating personalities, at once a man who gleefully deceived the public for his own gain while also pulling back the curtain, eventually. Barnum was a man who could take a few thousand dollars, make millions, then turn around and lose them all, and then turn around and repeat the whole process.
But there’s so much more to The Greatest Showman than a few mysterious carnival tents. Barnum’s life — much like his attractions — is a thing of wonder.
The Lessons of Barnum’s Youth
Barnum was born on July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, a quaint New England town within a two-hour train ride to New York City. His father, Philo, held many not terribly profitable jobs, including farmer, grocer, storekeeper, and country tavern keeper. His maternal grandfather, Phineas (for whom he was named after) really enjoyed practical jokes.
When Barnum was born, his grandfather bestowed him a mysterious tract of land called Ivy Island. He would frequently tell the young child that he was the richest boy in town because of it. At 10-years-old, P.T. finally got to visit the property — it was nothing more than a few acres of swampy, hornet-infested land.
His Father Died Young
Philo died when he was 48-years-old. P.T., at the age of 15, was now the man of the family. Philo had left nothing behind — little Barnum had to borrow money just to buy funeral shoes.
Shortly thereafter, in 1826, he went to apprentice as a clerk. Already, he was scheming to make more money — and get noticed. He traded for a wagon-load of green glass bottles in exchange for his own “unsalable goods at very profitable prices,” he wrote in his autobiography “Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years' Recollections of P. T. Barnum.”
Needing a way to dispose of the bottles along with some other worn-out containers, he created a lottery, with the highest prize being $25 worth of shop goods. He used the containers as ticket holders and quickly sold them off. The lottery became a smash hit, and eventually his businesses extended to several branches throughout Connecticut. Barnum moved back to Bethel and became a lottery agent, this time selling Connecticut lottery tickets. That led to enough success that he could open a sundry shop, the “yellow store,” along with his uncle.
But Barnum was not yet a shrewd businessman. The yellow store bled money as Barnum acquired too much debt; he bought out his uncle and closed up shop by 1833.
Barnum Gets Sued
While operating the yellow store, Barnum also became involved in local politics — well, insofar as writing about them. After a weekly paper in Danbury, Connecticut, refused to release some of his politically-charged editorials, Barnum created and distributed his very own newspaper, The Herald of Freedom, in 1831, at 21-years-old.
It didn’t go smoothly.
Barnum wasn’t a journalist, and as such, didn’t really know how far he could go. Over three years he was charged with libel three times. The first time, where he accused a Danbury butcher of being a political spy, the court fined him several hundred dollars. The second was withdrawn, while the third libel suit earned him a fine of $100 and 60 days in prison. He had accused a deacon from the town of Bethel of having “been guilty of taking usury of an orphan boy.”
Barnum was 23.
Getting a Taste of Notoriety
But Barnum reveled in his newfound notoriety and having gained the attention of the public. He wrote, “[A]t the end of my sixty days’ term the event was celebrated by a large concourse of people from the surrounding country…. An ode, written for the occasion, was sung; an eloquent oration on the freedom of the press was delivered; and several hundred gentlemen afterwards partook a sumptuous dinner followed by appropriate toasts and speeches.”
Selling both The Herald of Freedom and the yellow store, Barnum and his family (he had married Charity Hallett in 1829) took to New York City in the winter of 1834.
The Greatest Showman’s Rise Begins — with a Slave
After a short time being unable to find work in New York City, Barnum received a few hundred dollars from his “agent” in Bethel — opening a small boarding house and then a grocery store. None of these would make Barnum rich. That would begin in 1835 when an acquaintance showed him an advertisement for an exhibition of a peculiar woman.
Her name was Joice Heth, a slave woman who claimed to be the 161-year-old nursemaid to President George Washington. At the time, Heth was enslaved to another white man who toured her around the country, but the slave owner was looking to sell his act.
Barnum sensed an opportunity. He travelled to Philadelphia, where she was on exhibition, and “rented” her for one year for $1,000 — about $28,700 in today’s money. (Even though slavery was outlawed in much of the northeast, a loophole allowed a person to be rented, if not outright owned.) Barnum had to borrow $500 and sell out his share of the grocery store to come up with the cash.
It may have been his first real scheme. It was also his most unethical — and lucrative.
The “161-Year-Old Slave” Paves the Way to Barnum’s Fame and Fortune
Heth was skeletally thin, paralyzed from a stroke, toothless, and weighed 46 pounds. And by 1835, she was famous. Benjamin Reiss, author of “The Showman and the Slave,” told Biography, “She was for a time in the 1820s one of the most famous people, arguably, in America.”
Barnum advertised extensively, both through traditional posters and planting stories in the press. He hailed her as “The Greatest Natural and National Curiosity in the World,” according to The New Yorker. In one instance, he planted a story that she wasn’t human at all, but just a machine made of whalebone and leather. When ticket sales dried up in New York, he took her around New England, claiming that proceeds from her exhibition would be used to free her family from slavery.
In truth, Heth received no money during her time with Barnum, where he displayed her for six days a week, up to 12 hours a day, for nine months until she died in 1836.
Even after her death, Barnum found a way to profit. He announced that Heth would be publicly autopsied, and you, too, could view it — for a price. According to Smithsonian, 1,500 people paid 50 cents each to watch the autopsy in a New York saloon. Using those numbers, Barnum netted $750, or $21,500 in 2018 dollars.
And when doctors claimed she had died around the age of 80, Barnum announced that her death was a hoax — the real Joice Heth was alive and well — the cut-up body on the table was another’s corpse.
Barnum had found his calling.
Barnum’s First Performances
While touring with Heth, Barnum had met an Italian man named Signor Antonio who performed circus feats like stilt walking, plate spinning, and balancing acts. Barnum convinced him to change his name to Signor Vivalla and employed him with a one-year contract at $12 a week — about $344 today.
Barnum and Vivalla travelled around the Northeast, and it was here that Barnum first appeared on the stage. He was Vivalla’s aide, helping him arrange plates to spin and a gun to fire while he hopped about on 10-foot-stilts.
Still, Barnum wasn’t making enough. He did receive $150 for a few acts, but the money dried up in Washington; he pawned his watch and chain for $35 and had to borrow money to buy it back. So, he schemed again. This time, he offered $1,000 to anyone who could perform as well as Vivalla. One man, only identified as Roberts, accepted the offer, and Barnum did his best to whip up excitement via posters and the press.
When the time came, the house had sold out to a public here to see a true competition between two curious athletes. In truth, Roberts and Vivalla had been performing their “competition” behind the scenes. While Roberts really did — according to Barnum — answer the challenge in earnest, the rest was an act.
The three traveled about to perform the same scheme throughout New England. Eventually Barnum took his act to a travelling circus, where they performed until May of 1837.
Still Hustling, Still Broke
By 1841, Barnum was back in New York, having momentarily tired of the circus lifestyle. He tried his hand at selling picture bibles but was unsuccessful. He leased a saloon with his brother-in-law, but that also made little money. He wrote advertisements for the Bowery Theater for $4 a week. He was getting by, but it just wasn’t enough. A mortgagor wrote him a letter basically telling him that he never expected Barnum to pay him back.
But then he happened across a game changer — Scudder’s American Museum.
He Bought a Museum
Although Barnum had little money, he talked his way into purchasing the American Museum — but not without battling a rival. Barnum struck a verbal agreement with the museum’s owners to buy the place for $12,000, to be paid in installments. But the Peale Museum company offered more money, and the owners went with it instead.
So, Barnum, convinced the company was going to buy up the American Museum, pocket the cash, and screw over the shareholders did what Barnum did best: He published several rants and hit pieces in the papers, calling the stock dead, and cautioning any possible investors.
The Peale Museum company — now calling itself the New York Museum Company — offered him a job to buy his silence. Barnum agreed, but when the company couldn’t pay its first installment, Barnum convinced the owner to sell him the museum again.
And the spectacle began.
It’s a Museum of Wonders
Barnum’s American Museum opened in 1842, and the public poured into its halls. It was huge success — Barnum had vowed not to eat a hot dinner, except for Sundays, until his debt was repaid; he was solvent within a year.
Eventually the five-story museum would hold 850,000 curiosities, both real and fake, from exotic animals to people with medical abnormalities. Live plays and acts in the lecture room, like Shakespearean plays and a morality play warning against alcohol use (Barnum was a teetotaler) were also offered, and it only cost 25 cents.
In its heyday, its collection included ventriloquists, flea circuses, dwarves, giants, historical dioramas, mechanical figures, glass blowers, American Revolution artifacts, Siamese twins, beluga whales, a polar bear, rabbit-fed boa constrictors, exotic birds, waxworks, scientific instruments, a mechanical chess player (it was a fraud), and beautiful panoramas.
The most famous hoax of them all was probably the “FeeJee Mermaid,” which Barnum heavily advertised. It was little more than the mummified remains of the upper half of a young monkey and the bottom half a fish stitched together.
Making His Fortune From the Museum
Barnum once said his museum, open six days a week for 15 hours a day, could pull in up to 15,000 visitors per day. The museum would get so crowded that he made a “To the Egress” sign pointing to the exit. Customers, believing “egress” to be some kind of animal attraction, soon found themselves outside and needing to pay another quarter to get back in.
The Great Fire
Unfortunately for Barnum, his museum wouldn’t last long. One day during the summer of 1865, a fire broke out in an office at half past noon. The flames spread throughout the five-story building, slowly consuming every hoax and antique alike. All persons were evacuated, but numerous animals were burned alive — or boiled alive, like the whales. Thirty thousand people watched in the street as birds flew to their freedom and frantic animals dropped to their doom.
A New York Times article estimated the value of Barnum’s collection at $300,000. Barnum wrote that it was worth $400,000 “at the lowest estimate” and, with only $40,000 worth of insurance at a 5 percent premium, “had paid the insurance companies more than they returned to me.”
It is suspected that the Confederate Army of Manhattan burned the museum down; they had attempted to incinerate Barnum’s museum the year prior in a conspiracy to firebomb the city.
Barnum opened another museum at another location, but it too burned down in 1868.
The Swedish Nightingale Gamble
While Barnum was making money hand over mutated fist, he still wanted to command a higher respect beyond museum curator — he probably had his eye on political office — and so he found a different kind of touring act: the opera. Namely, a 30-year-old opera singer named Jenny Lind, known as “The Swedish Nightingale,” who had amounted considerable fame in Europe and had just retired. Barnum had never heard Lind sing before, and Lind was unknown to the American public.
Rather than take a measured risk, Barnum lured her to America by promising her $1,000 a night for up to 150 concerts — the modern-day equivalent of more than $32,000, per night. Lind would also need a baritone artist to sing alongside her and a conductor. In total, Barnum pledged $187,000 for the upcoming Lind tour — about $6 million today.
Oh, and all expenses were included.
Raking in Millions
Barnum had six months before Lind’s first concert. With so much on the line, Barnum kicked his advertising campaign into overdrive. He went about sending letters to the press, creating singing competitions, and even flat-out buying reviews.
And it worked. When Lind arrived in New York City in 1850, she was greeted by thousands of people vying for a look at the Swedish Nightingale, and later, they flocked to her concerts. Not only did she make bags full of cash in concert, Barnum made her a full-blown celebrity. According to Vanity Fair, women’s hats, opera glasses, Lind paper dolls, and even her own branded chewing tobacco were sold to the American public.
After 95 concerts, Jenny Lind netted $176,675 ($5.7 million in today’s dollars), and Barnum raked in a gross of $545,487 ($17.6 million).
Attempted Retirement and True Notoriety
After his first retirement in 1855, Barnum wrote an autobiography. It was the same one quoted in this article, however, it was probably more candid — Barnum would re-release and edit his biographies up until his death, each time either adding more information or curbing some of his more distasteful acts.
Because Barnum had written a book that pulled back the curtain of his exploits, the book did him no initial favors. Public backlash ensued — it turns out, people don’t like being made for fools. The New York Times called his success only possible through “the systematic, adroit, and persevering plan of obtaining money under false pretenses from the public at large.”
He also found himself $110,000 in debt after investing in a clock company, which failed spectacularly (Barnum had wanted to move the company to Bridgeport, where it would be the epicenter of a revitalization plan in the town.) Barnum had to again claw his way back into the public heart and mind. This time he did so by writing another book, “The Art of Money-Getting, Or Success in Life,” which proved popular.
Mayor Barnum and His Final Egress
Barnum came out of retirement again in 1871, this time to help promote and back a traveling circus, then known as “P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome," also known as “The Greatest Show on Earth,” then later known as “Barnum and Bailey Circus” and finally the “Ringling Bros.”
The circus stopped running in 2017; it had been operational for 147 years.
Barnum won election to the Connecticut Legislature in 1865, and later became mayor of Bridgeport in 1875. According to Connecticut History: “While in office, he crusaded to lower utility rates, improve water supplies, and close the city’s houses of prostitution.” Despite his treatment of Judice Heth and his own public confession that he had owned and whipped his slaves, Barnum expressed regret and ran on abolitionist principals. He helped found Bridgeport Hospital and became its first president in 1878.
In 1891, Barnum died from a stroke in his home. His last word was “Yes,” after being asked if he wanted a drink of water, according to his obituary in The New York Times. He was 80 years old.
The Fascination With Barnum Endures
More than 100 years later, people remain interested in the tale of P.T. Barnum. The 2017 film “The Greatest Showman” — which some critics noted took P.T. Barnum-like liberties with the facts — was a huge hit. It grossed more than $434 million at the box office worldwide, and was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture.
Joice Heth's name does not appear in the movie's cast.