Phineas Taylor Barnum was known to say “there’s a sucker born every minute.” No one is sure whether he actually coined that phrase, but he did say that “every crowd has a silver lining,” because he knew that the public was wiser and more curious than anyone could imagine. For 80 years he provided the public with a great deal of hucksterism, spectacle, and enough entertainment to earn him the title of “master showman” dozens of times over. Life magazine, if you’re old enough to remember the magazine, named him the “Patron Saint of Promoters.”
Barnum was born in Bethel Ct. in 1810, and as a child of 12 was already demonstrating a flair for salesmanship by selling lottery tickets. Drawn to the spectacular, when Barnum was in his 20’s, he solicited the services of a woman named Joice Heth, who claimed to be 161 years old and the nursemaid of George Washington. He passed out handbills advertising the event as “the most astonishing and interesting curiosities of the world,” He brought her on exhibition in both New York and New England, making $1500 a week. Now that was in the early 1800’s, so that amount of money, which wouldn’t be too shabby now, was like 100 times the value in those early days!
Earning success by showing every variety of curiosity, Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway in New York City. The way his mind worked, his wish was to exhibit the outrageous and the unbelievable. There he put on exhibit hundreds of thousands of natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe. He was somewhat of a shyster, leading patrons through the museum with a sign that read “to the Egress,” The Egress was the exit, so after they left the building they would have to pay another 25 cents to re-enter the museum! He exhibited “The Feegee Mermaid,” supposedly an embalmed mermaid purchased in Calcutta. The authenticity was doubted, but nevertheless, the crowds continued to come and have their imaginations captured by these spectacles.
PT Barnum teamed up in 1842 with Charles Stratton, who later earned fame as General Tom Thumb. This pair of charlatans were so successful in their scams and misadventures that they were given an audience with presidents and the Queen of England, Queen Victoria. It is said that Barnum’s name, although connected with the great American Circus, reached his highest point of fame in 1850, when he presented European opera star, Jenny Lind to the American audiences, who nicknamed her “The Swedish Nightingale.” Jenny Lind performed over 100 concerts for Barnum, enchanting audiences wherever she sang.
PT Barnum was actually 60 years old before he put together his traveling circus, which he named “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus”. This circus was actually the largest circus in American history to perform with the phrase “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Barnum was a clever businessman, showing profits of $400,000 the first year of operation. By 1872 he had coined several names for his traveling show…”PT Barnum’s Traveling World’s Fair”, the “Great Roman Hippodrome”, as well as the familiar “Greatest Show on Earth”. PT Barnum’s biggest success ever, came with his acquisition of Jumbo the Elephant, who was billed as the “Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race, Whose Like the World Will Never See Again.”
The partnership of Barnum and Bailey split in 1885, but they rekindled their relationship again in 1888 when their “Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” first toured America. Several weeks before his death, Barnum ran his obituary on the cover of the New York Sun.
It was his wish that he would be able to read his own obituary. His show was appearing at New York’s Madison Square Garden at the time.
The circus was in need of a winter training facility and chose Venice, Fl as it’s headquarters. Many circus greats trained and practiced at the Ringling Drive South facility in Venice, Florida. Since many of the existing cast of clowns were in their 50’s and 60’s, a Clown College was set up in Venice and enjoyed much success, pulling new talent from all over the U.S., South America and Europe. In1960, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus moved its winter headquarters from Sarasota, where it had been since 1927, to Tampa. The closing of the railroad forced the move. For years the circus had traveled by train from city to city, to thrill children and adults alike. The Clown College closed its doors in 1997, having trained 1,400 clowns.
Not everyone knew the thrill of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. My grandmother would take us every year to Madison Square Garden. The excitement would build as we gazed across the rows of “freaks” that was situated outside the arena. The Giant, the Half Man, Half Woman, the Monkey Man, and more, filled us with terror and excitement! The smell of animals and popcorn, and the promise of twenty clowns exciting a Volkswagen just never lost their thrill. The elephants, the acrobats and the Grand Master who announced each act…one of the better memories of my childhood and of so many other kid’s, I’m sure. There will never be another circus that will measure up to P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth!