One of the greatest myths about Phineas Taylor Barnum was that he said,
"There's a sucker born every minute."
But there is no proof that he ever made that famous statement.
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 shameless hucksterism, peerless spectacle,
and everything in between -- enough entertainment to earn the title
"master showman" a dozen times over.
And his publicity tricks masterfully hypnotized people to literally
throw money at him.
Barnum was born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut. The oldest of
five children, he showed his salesmanship at an early age, selling lottery
tickets when he was just 12 years old.
1825: Barnum obtains the services of Joice Heth, a woman
claiming to be 161 years old and the nurse of George Washington.
"Unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the
world!" shouted one of Barnum's handbills. Barnum shows her off in New
York and New England, generating about $1,500 per week.
1841: Barnum buys the struggling Scudder Museum in New York
City, renamed it as "Barnum's American Museum" and turns it into a 19th
Century version of Disneyland. He exhibits over "500,000 natural and
artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe".
One of the museum's features is a sign that read, "This way to the
egress". People, eager to see what an egress looked like, passed through
the door and found themselves out on the street ("egress" is another word
of exit) -- forced to pay another 25 cents to re-enter.
1842: He exhibits "The Feejee Mermaid", an embalmed mermaid
purchased near Calcutta by a Boston seaman. The publicity from the mermaid
increases his museum's attendance by 300 percent.
Barnum also hires Charles Stratton, who becomes world-famous as General
Tom Thumb. The two become close friends, and so successful that, in 1844,
they had an audience in England with Queen Victoria.
1850-52: He heavily promotes European opera star Jenny Lind to
the American public. "The Swedish Nightingale" performs 95 concerts for
Barnum, averaging $7,496 a show.
1854: Barnum writes and publishes his autobiography: The Life Of
P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself.
1870: P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan,
and Circus makes its debut. At the time, it was the largest circus venture
in American history. Barnum grosses $400,000 in his first year of
1872: Barnum was already referring to his enterprise as "The
Greatest Show On Earth". "P.T. Barnum's Traveling World's Fair, Great
Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth" now covered five acres and
accommodated 10,000 seated patrons at a time... and, to reach more people,
took to the rails.
1881: Barnum joins 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."
1882: Buys Jumbo The Elephant from London. 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.
1891: On April 7, several weeks before he died in his sleep,
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."