On the glorious day of July, 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut the most influential American showman of the nineteenth century, was born to proud parents, Irena Taylor and Philo F. Barnum. They named their precious little bundle of joy Phineas Taylor Barnum; he’d later become known as P.T. Barnum to the world as a showman extraordinaire.
As a young child, he attended the only church in Bethel, a Calvinist church called the Congregational but he didn’t believe it was the right faith for him. Apparently, the teachings and preachings of this church left him with visions of the burning and groans and moans of those cast into hell. Fortunately, his grandfather introduced him to a, much more, loving and forgiving God. He served, for a number of years, as clerk of the Universalist Church of Danbury, Connecticut.
As a young man he worked as a clerk in his father’s store, ran a fruit and confectionery store and was a lottery agent in Pennsylvania, he married Charity Hall in 1829. The marriage produced four children.
He edited the Herald of Freedom from 1831 to 1834, a newspaper in Danbury which he began, to fight a sectarian attempt to unite church and state. Because of this effort he was convicted of libel for statements he made about his opponents and sent to jail for sixty days. However, his stay in jail didn’t seem to be so harsh as he later wrote “I had my room papered and carpeted previously to taking possession.” While jailed, important religious leaders were among his many visitors.
Barnum found himself in New York City in 1835, running a boarding house and grocery store. There is where he had his first taste of show business. He had an exhibit of a woman named Joice Heth, who claimed to be a 161 years old and was once the nurse of George Washington. For about $1,000. investment, he made $1,500. per week. From there, he traveled through the South with his first circus. His traveling circus prepared him to open his American Museum in 1842, located in New York City, this brought him his first fortune.
He exhibited the “Feejee Mermaid”; supposedly an embalmed mermaid purchased near Calcutta, which had mixed reviews as to rather it was, indeed, a mermaid but no one doubted Barnum’s ability to capture the imagination of the public.
Also in 1842, he hired a young man by the name of Charles Stratton, later known as the world famous Tom Thumb. This exhibit became so famous, they had an audience with the Queen of England. Stratton and Barnum became very close friends.
Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale” was presented to the public in 1850. She was an European opera star and it is said, she was his greatest success.
Mr. Barnum was a life long member and generous supporter of Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Universalist society. He never failed to give the society what ever it needed in terms of finances and gave generously to the church after a fire of which included a new furnace, organ and even stained glass windows. He was the church trustee, he enjoyed entertaining the ministers and the congregation on the beach at Long Island Sound.
By all accounts P.T. Barnum was a deeply religious and honest man. He was known to treat his church and his customers fairly. Because of this high moral character it is hard to believe he actually uttered the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute”, this is a myth. He did, however, say “Every cloud has a silver lining.”
Barnum brought a traveling show to Brooklyn in 1870, it’s first performance was in front of 10,000 people. From here it metamorphosed into the “Great Traveling World’s Fair.” Ten years later it had become the Barnum and Bailey Circus,”The Greatest Show on Earth.” This show grossed $400,000 in it’s first year. A fortune even by today’s standards, if you asked me.
His wife Charity died in 1873, the following year he married Nancy Fish. On April 7, 1891, at the height of his popularity, Phineas Taylor Barnum passed peaceably into death. Several weeks earlier, responding to a comment Barnum made that the press says nice things about you after you’re dead, The New York Sun printed his obituary, on the front page, the headline read, “Great and only Barnum – He Wanted to Read His Obituary- Here it is.”
Barnum’s last words were reported to be, appropriately “Ask Bailey what the box office was at the Garden last night”, referring to the show that was appearing at Madison Square Garden.
Upon his death, P. T. Barnum left generous donations to the Bridgeport Universalist society, Tufts College, St. Lawrence University, Lombard College, the Universalist Publishing House, the Chapin Home and the Woman’s Centenary Association.
He was laid to rest at Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut.