P.T. Barnum

There is no proof that Phineas Taylor Barnum ever said, "there's a sucker born every minute." He did, however, say that "every crowd has a silver lining," and acknowledged that "the public is wiser than many imagine."

In his 80 years, Barnum gave the wise public of the 19th century shameless hucksterism, peerless spectacle, and everything in between -- enough entertainment to earn the title "master showman" a dozen times over. In choosing Barnum as one of the 100 most important people of the millennium, LIFE magazine dubbed him "the patron saint of promoters."

Barnum was born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut. The oldest of five children, he showed his flair for salesmanship at an early age, selling lottery tickets when he was just 12 years old.

When he was 25, Barnum paid $1,000 to obtain the services of Joice Heth, a woman who claimed to be 161 years old and the nurse of George Washington. "Unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world!" read one of Barnum's handbills. Barnum exhibited her in New York and New England, raking in about $1,500 per week.

In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder's American Museum on Broadway in New York City. He exhibited "500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe," and kept traffic moving through the museum with a sign that read, "This way to the egress" -- "egress" was another word for exit, and Barnum's patrons would have to pay another quarter to reenter the Museum!

A year later, he exhibited "The Feejee Mermaid," ostensibly an embalmed mermaid purchased near Calcutta by a Boston seaman. Belief in the mermaid's authenticity was mixed, but nobody doubted Barnum's ability to capture the imagination of the public.

Later in 1842, Barnum hired Charles Stratton, who became world-famous as General Tom Thumb. The two became close friends, and so successful that, in 1844, they had an audience in England with Queen Victoria.

While Barnum's name will forever be connected with the great American circus, it is often said that his greatest success came in 1850, when he presented European opera star Jenny Lind to the American public. "The Swedish Nightingale" sang 95 concerts for Barnum.

In 1854, Barnum wrote and published his autobiography: The Life Of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. Sixteen years later, his association with the entertainment form that still bears his name would begin.

Barnum was 60 years old when P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Circus made its debut. At the time, it was the largest circus venture in American history. "We ought to have a big show," Barnum said. "The public expects it, and will appreciate it." Appreciate it they did: Barnum grossed $400,000 in his first year of operation.

By 1872, Barnum was already referring to his enterprise as "The Greatest Show On Earth" -- and it was! "P.T. Barnum's Traveling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth" covered five acres and accommodated 10,000 seated patrons at a time ... and, to reach more people, took to the rails.

In 1881, Barnum joined promotional forces with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson. The result was "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United." It soon became known as the "Barnum & London Circus."

One of Barnum's biggest successes -- literally! -- came in 1882 with his acquisition of Jumbo. Dubbed "The Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race, Whose Like the World Will Never See Again," Jumbo arrived in New York on April 9, 1882, and attracted enormous crowds on his way to his name becoming a part of the language.

Barnum and Bailey went their separate ways in 1885, but rekindled their business relationship once again in 1888. That year, the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth" first toured America.

Several weeks before he died in his sleep, on April 7, 1891, Barnum read his own obituary: The New York Sun newspaper, responding to Barnum's comment that the press says nice things about people after they die, ran his obituary on the front page with the headline, "Great And Only Barnum -- He Wanted To Read His Obituary -- Here It Is."

Appropriately, it is reported that Barnum's last words were about the show, which was appearing in New York's Madison Square Garden at the time: "Ask Bailey what the box office was at the Garden last night."

Following a funeral service that Barnum himself had planned and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne," the great showman was laid to rest at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

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