Phineas Taylor Barnum. America’s Greatest Showman, America’s Greatest Manipulator

By 22 agosto, 2015Historia, Radio
Phineas Taylor Barnum, el gran maestro de Circo

Aquí puedes escuchar el Audio-Documental hecho por mí sobre la interesante vida de P.T. Barnum

El siguiente texto está escrito en inglés. Fue un trabajo para la asignatura de “Introdución a la cultura del mundo anglosajón”, asignatura que estudié durante mi Erasmus en Bruselas, en la Universidad Saint Louis

The following text is written in english. This was a work for the subject of “Introduction to the culture of the English speaking world”. I studied this subject during my Erasmus in Brussels, in Saint Louis University.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, Maestro de Circo

PT Barnum de joven en Nueva York

I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them” or “There’s a sucker born every minute”. These are words of the great showman Phineas Taylor Barnum (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891), known for his famous manipulations in the world of entertainment. He used without modesty communication to obtain the success of his Circus, which was defined as “The greatest show on Earth”. Very criticized, very hated, but very dear and praised simultaneously, he was one of the most relevant figures of the 19th century, wellknown not only in The United States but in half a world since he made performances before the Kings and Czars of Europe. PT Barnum, inventor of the word freak to designate the strangest persons, this is his history:

Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut. Son of a landlord, Barnum began as businessman using roguish, bargaining and swindle methods. Very young, at 19 years old, he was married with Charity Hallet, the one he would live with for the following 50 years. The young husband started growing in the business world thanks to real-estate speculations and bets.
Also at a young age, he began his political life, opposing the blue laws of the Calvinists. Barnum initiated a weekly newspaper in 1829, The Herald of Freedom, in Danbury,
Connecticut. His progressive editorials and opposite of the Church, and his not always true news, took him before the judge for defamation, which resulted in two months of prison.
Nevertheless, at his exit, he turned into a hero of the liberal movement. There passed five years of economic prosperity until finally the lottery and bets were prohibited in Connecticut, cutting his principal source of income. Barnum had to sell his shop and his newspaper and moved with his family to New York, where he would begin a new life.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, Maestro de Circo

PT Barnum con el General Tom Thumb

In 1835 Barnum became a showman with the exhibition of Joice Heth, an elderly black slave who was said to be 161 years old and said to have been the nurse of the first president of the USA, George Washington. But the bargain lasted little because Joice Heth died one year later at the real age of 80 years old. After a year of mixed success with his first variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theatre”, followed by the Panic of 1837 and three years of difficult circumstances, he purchased Scudder’s American Museum, at Broadway, and Ann Street, in New York City, in 1841.
Barnum’s American Museum turned into a great popular show with his exhibitions and his spectacles. He innovated with the design of both the exteriors and the interiors. Everything was communicating, and Barnum knew it very well. In his spectacle there was a series of curiosities like albinos, giants, dwarfs, fat children, jugglers, magicians, exotic women, reproductions of
cities and famous battles, and occasionally, exhibition of animals of all kinds. Barnum called these strange creatures: freaks.

In 1842 Barnum introduced his first great trick: the mermaid Feejee. He managed to create an enormous anticipation in the city of New York, and all the newspapers were echoing the new. Nevertheless when he presented the mermaid, it was not like they all had supposed.
Actually it was a monkey which they had put in a salmon. With this circus of freaks prominent figures were joining him. One of the most important figures was the General Tom Thumb, the dwarf, the smallest person who could walk for him. Actually he was an orphan child who seemed to be older thanks to makeup. Though exploited Tom was always saying that he enjoyed his work. In 1843 PT Barnum contracted the Native American Hum-Fu-Mé, the first one of many Native Americans that he presented.

In 1844/45, due to legal problems, Barnum initiates a tour in Europe, where they acted for the Queen Victory of England. It was the biggest recognition for his company. Europe’s doors were opened, which allowed him to acquire dozens of attractions, automatons and other mechanical marvels. During his stay in United Kingdom Barnum tried to buy the house of birth of William Shakespeare.
PT Barnum, who had developed a very peculiar aspect, was in the summit of his life. At his return to United States he was already a celebrity, in spite of his controversial actions. At the
end of 1846 the Barnum’s Museum was visited by nearly 400.000 onlookers each year Phineas was already a powerful man. An example of this was that he could take in his company the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind, for 150,000 dollars. To promote his investment Barnum tackled a campaign of extraordinary advertising. Barnum assured that “the public is a strange
animal”, and for it he wanted to give an extraordinary spectacle with one of the biggest campaigns of advertising in history. Also it was one of the first times that commercialized
merchandising was used. The result was that almost 100,000 persons were waiting for Jenny Lind in the wharf. In the first week Barnum had already promoted the investment.

Barnum got into theatre and tried to attract a more familiar public and a more notable social class. For this, he created a new theatre called “Moral Lecture Room”, the first also opening at morning. Barnum turned into the soul of New York and organized samples of flowers, beauty contests, contests of hens and up to baby contests! In 1853 he finished his autobiography, which sold more than one million copies.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, Maestro de Circo

Los siameses Chang y Eng

In 1856 Barnum was in ruin. He had done a few investments in certain companies that had failed and some illegalities had been detected. The critics of Barnum were declaring that “the gods were becoming visible again”. To correct his situation he did a new European tour and gave conferences in several universities. In 1860 he paid his debt, resumed the business of the museum and constructed the mansion Lindencroft. His museums continued to be extended by aquariums, museums of wax or galleries of terror. But the circus also continued growing and at the end of 1860 the Siamese brothers Chang and Eng turned into a great attraction. In addition other freaks were added such as the apeman William Henry, a black dwarf by
microcephaly that was speaking a mysterious invented language, the giant Anna Swan or Commodore Nut.
Barnum’s company acted in the White House for the president Lincoln. Phineas demonstrated his commitment to the Union and collaborated economically. In 1865 the Barnum’s American
Museum suffered a fire for “unknown reasons”, though everything seems to indicate that there were political motivations. The circus man rebuilt the museum but in 1868 it was inflamed
again. This time the loss was too big and he left his museum.

Barnum then opened a new show with his ambulant circus: “PT Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hipodrome”, a trip that began in 1872 as “The greatest show on Earth”. The name of his circus became “Barnum & Bailey Circus” after fusing with James Bailey. In spite of new fires, Barnum and Bailey showed their capacity to surpass disasters or conspiracies. The “Barnum & Bailey Circus”, now with the great elephant Jumbo as star, was the first show that moved by train, and also the first one that had his particular train
personalized as way of doing advertising and of creating images. Given the lack of paved roads this one was a shrewd method.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, Maestro de Circo

Uno de los últimos carteles de Show de Barnum

But PT Barnum also had an intense relation with politics that we cannot forget. In spite of having slaves and racism in his shows, he supported Abraham Lincoln’s reason. There is a famous speech that he did before the Congress of the United States on the ratification of the
Thirteenth Amendment. He said “The human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit!” His major
political achievement was when Barnum became Bridgeport’s mayor in 1975, though only for one year due to his circus.

Barnum died in his dreamed home on April 7, 1891 and was buried in Mountain Grove’s cemetery, in Bridgeport. Barnum had donated the areas for this park in 1865. His circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers on July 8, 1907 for 400.000 dollars of that time. To his death the majority of the critics had excused him and he was praised for his good works. Barnum was acclaimed as an icon of the spirit of America and ingenuity and was, probably, the most famous American in the world of that epoch. Just before his death he wrote his obituary to be published in the Evening Sun. The legend says that before his death he asked: how much have we collected today?