The celebrated circus owner and entertainment impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Connecticut on July 5, 1810. During a more than 50-year career, the self-described “Prince of Humbugs” established himself as the world’s premier purveyor of spectacle and hucksterism. He wowed the masses with larger than life hoaxes and shamelessly promoted everything from freak shows and zoos to alcohol prohibition. Check out 10 surprising facts about the 19th century’s most legendary showman.
1. Barnum was an entrepreneur from an early age.
Barnum’s knack for moneymaking first manifested during his youth in Bethel, Connecticut. The future showman sold snacks and homemade cherry rum during local gatherings, and by age 12, he had made enough money to purchase his own livestock. By 21, his holdings also included a general store, a small lottery and even his own newspaper called the “Herald of Freedom.”
2. He first rose to prominence by engineering a famous hoax.
In 1835, Barnum launched his career in entertainment by purchasing Joice Heth, a blind slave touted as being the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. After billing Heth as “the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world,” Barnum put her on display in New York and took her on a small tour of New England. Visitors lined up to gawk at her withered body and hear her tales of “dear little George,” and Barnum helped fuel popular interest by spreading a rumor that she was actually an automaton controlled by a ventriloquist. The truth about Heth didn’t emerge until after her death in February 1836. During a public autopsy—staged by Barnum at the price of 50 cents for admission—it was revealed that she was most likely no older than 80.
3. Barnum didn’t go into the circus business until relatively late in life.
Barnum is best known for his traveling three-ring circuses, but he didn’t make his first forays under the big top until he was 60 years old. Before then, he was better known as the owner of the Manhattan-based American Museum, a sprawling collection of historical artifacts, aquariums, animal menageries, zoological curiosities and freak shows. Some of the museum’s most notable exhibits included General Tom Thumb, a child dwarf who Barnum famously brought to audience with Queen Victoria of Britain; and the “Fejee Mermaid,” which was actually the upper half of a monkey sewn to the bottom of a fish. Barnum only launched his traveling circus after his museum was twice destroyed by fire. He later teamed with his famed partner James Bailey in 1881, and the two went on to make a fortune running their “Greatest Show on Earth.”
4. He helped popularize opera in the United States.
Despite his association with sideshow acts like the Nova Scotia Giantess and Zip the Pinhead, Barnum was also responsible for introducing many Americans to high culture. In 1850, he inked a deal that brought the European opera singer Jenny Lind to the United States on a multi-city tour. Lind was largely unknown before her arrival—Barnum himself had never heard the soprano—but he cultivated her celebrity with a media blitz and a nationwide contest to write a song for her to sing onstage. With his help, the “Swedish Nightingale” became an overnight sensation. Barnum reportedly netted a staggering $500,000 on the tour, and Lind’s popularity helped make opera a mainstay in American theaters.
5. Barnum 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, yet there is no proof of him ever using it. The quip’s precise origins are unclear, though some claim one of Barnum’s rivals may have first said it after seeing crowds queued up for one of his exhibits. For his part, Barnum always maintained that his patrons were not “suckers” but willing participants in his lighthearted pranks and hoaxes. “The people like to be humbugged,” he once said.
6. His famous elephant “Jumbo” is the mascot of Tufts University.
In 1882, Barnum purchased a gargantuan 6-ton African elephant named “Jumbo” from the London Zoological Society. The sale proved controversial in Britain, where the animal was a cherished national treasure, but it marked the start of “Jumbomania” in the United States. People turned out to Barnum’s circus in droves and bought Jumbo postcards, hats and other souvenirs. The elephant’s fame even helped popularize the word “jumbo” as a synonym for “large.” Jumbo’s reign came to an abrupt end in 1885, when he was accidentally struck by a freight train and killed during a performance in Ontario. Barnum had Jumbo’s hide stuffed and later donated it to Massachusetts’ Tufts University, a school where he served as a trustee. The pachyderm was a popular campus monument until it burned in a fire in 1975, but it remains both the school’s mascot and the inspiration for its nickname, the “Jumbos.”
7. Barnum once used his circus animals to test the strength of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Shortly after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, rumors that it was structurally unsound sparked a human stampede that left a dozen people dead. The bridge’s owners had previously turned down a $5,000 offer from Barnum to let him parade his circus animals across it as a publicity stunt, but they changed their minds after the accident. On the night of May 17, 1884, he marched 21 elephants and 17 camels over the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The famous Jumbo was part of the procession, as was “Toung Taloung,” a white elephant Barnum had recently acquired from Thailand. The parade was a priceless piece of advertising for Barnum’s circus, and the combined weight of the elephants—many of which tipped the scales at over 10,000 pounds—helped put to rest any worries about the bridge’s stability.
8. He was a famous supporter of the temperance movement.
While Barnum enjoyed the occasional tipple of wine or scotch in his younger days, he swore off alcohol entirely after attending a lecture by a pro-temperance reverend in the late-1840s. He would remain an avid teetotaler and prohibition advocate for the rest of his life, and regularly gave speeches on the evils of liquor. Drinking was forbidden in his American Museum, and visitors to its lecture room were treated to performances of “The Drunkard,” a cautionary play about alcoholism. Barnum liked to say that both he and his circus animals drank “nothing stronger than water,” but his famed elephant Jumbo reportedly loved beer and was known for his ability to down a full keg in a single sitting.
9. Barnum also served as a politician.
Barnum first dipped his toes in the political waters in 1865, when he won a seat in the Connecticut General Assembly as a Republican. Despite his past ownership of the slave Joice Heth, he quickly distinguished himself as one of the legislature’s most impassioned advocates of African American equality and voting rights. He later tried to run for the U.S. Congress—ironically, against a distant relative also named Barnum—but lost in a heated campaign. Following a stint as mayor of his adopted hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Barnum later returned to the Connecticut Legislator in the late 1870s and became a leading advocate for pro-temperance reforms and the abolition of the death penalty.
10. He spent years writing and updating his autobiography.
Along with his reputation as the “Prince of Humbugs,” Barnum owed much of his fame to the runaway success of his autobiography. “The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself” was first released in 1854 and was then continuously re-edited and re-issued over the following decades. New editions and appendices appeared on a near-annual basis, and Barnum helped increase sales by putting the book in the public domain and allowing anyone to publish it. He even instructed his widow to write a new chapter that chronicled the events of his 1891 death. All told, the book sold more than 1 million copies during Barnum’s lifetime.