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
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
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
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
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
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.