6 Facts You May Not Know About P.T. Barnum

The well-known circus owner and entertainment entrepreneur Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Connecticut on July 5th, 1810. Throughout his 50-year career, the “Prince of Humbugs” established himself as the world’s leader in spectacle and hucksterism. He amazed the masses with larger than life hoaxes and would shamelessly promote everything from freak shows to alcohol prohibition. Here are some surprising facts about the legendary 19th century showman.

Barnum Understood How to Make Money at an Early Age

Barnum’s knack for making money first occurred during his youth in Bethel, Connecticut. He sold snacks and homemade cherry run during local gatherings and by the age of 12, he had made enough money to buy his own livestock. By the age of 21, he also invested in a general store, a small lottery and his own newspaper that was titled “Herald of Freedom”.

He Rose to Popularity Thanks to a Famous Hoax

In 1835, Barnum began his career in entertainment by purchasing Joice Heth, a blind slave he claimed was the 161-year-old-former nurse of George Washington. After he billed Heth as “the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world”, he put her on display in New York. He also took her on a small tour throughout New England. Visitors would line up for miles to look at the withered old woman and hear her tales of “Dear little George”. Barnum helped to fuel even more interest in Heth by spreading a rumor that she was actually an automaton that was controlled by a ventriloquist. The truth didn’t emerge until after Heth’s death in February 1836. During a public autopsy, that was staged by Barnum at the price of 50 cents per person, it was revealed that she was actually no older than 80.

Barnum Didn’t Go into the Circus Business Until Later in Life

P.T. Barnum is best known for his three-ring circus, but he didn’t make his first appearance under the big top until he was 60. Before that, he was better known as the owner of the Manhattan-based American Museum, which was a massive collection of American artifacts, curiosities, freak shows and animal menageries. Some of the most notable exhibits included General Tom Thumb, a child dwarf, and the Fejee Mermaid which was actually the upper half of a monkey that was sewn to the bottom of a fish. He teamed up with James Bailey in 1881 and together they created the “Greatest Show on Earth.”

He Once Used His Circus Animals to Test the Strength of the Brooklyn Bridge

After the Brooklyn Bridge first opened in 1883, there were many rumors that it was not structurally sound. This sparked a human stampede that left a dozen people dead. The owners of the bridge had previously turned down an offer from Barnum for $5,000 to let him parade his circus animals across it for a publicity stunt. But they changed their minds after the accident. On May 17th, 1884, Barnum marched 21 elephants and 17 camels over the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The famous elephant Jumbo was part of the procession as well as “Toung Taloung” a white elephant that he had acquired from Thailand. The stunt helped to put to rest any fears about the bridge’s stability.

He Served as a Politician

Barnum first gave the world of politics a try in 1865 when he won a seat in the Connecticut General Assembly as a Republican. Despite his past ownership of a slave, he quickly distinguished himself as one of the legislature’s most impassioned advocates of African American equality and voting rights. He later attempted to run for U.S. Congress, ironically against a distant relative who was also named Barnum. But he lost in a heated campaign. After a stint as a mayor of his adopted hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Barnum later went back to being a Connecticut Legislator in the late 1870s. He also became a leading advocate for pro-temperance reforms and the abolition of the death penalty.

He Never Said “There’s a Sucker Born Every Minute”

Barnum is often credited with having coined the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute” in reference to his gullible customers. But there is no proof that he ever used it. The true origin of the phrase is unclear, though some claim that one of Barnum’s rivals may have first said it after seeing crowds in line for one of his exhibits. For his part, Barnum always maintained that his patrons were not “suckers” but willing participants in his lighthearted hoaxes. “The people like to be humbugged” he said.