Circus sensation: PT Barnum's greatest wheezes

Antonio Melechi reveals how PT Barnum – the brains behind General Tom Thumb, the Feejee Mermaid and a wildly successful circus – turned a flair for outrageous stunts and hoaxes into a multi-million dollar concern... 
 
This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine
PT Barnum with the three-foot-tall General Tom Thumb in c1850 (when Tom was about 12). Barnum plucked his diminutive distant cousin from obscurity and made him a star. (Alamy)
 
British travellers to 19th-century America were taken aback by the go-getting commercialism of their Atlantic cousins. In 1834, during a long visit to the eastern states, the economist Harriet Martineau saw that in “a country where the whole course is open to everyone”, the appetite for success led to reckless and ill-considered enterprise. For Martineau, the wildfire culture of self-improvement was tethered to a deep-seated conformism, “a fear of singularity” evident in the tendency to offer indiscriminate praise. “Every book that comes out is exalted to the skies. The public orators flatter the people; the people flatter the orators. The clergymen praise their flocks; and the flocks stand amazed at the excellence of their clergymen.” 
 
When Phineas Taylor Barnum made his first trip to England in 1844, as promoter to General Tom Thumb, the star-spangled showman was every inch the caricature of Martineau’s glib-tongued Yankee. Wherever he went, Barnum had one hand on his wallet, ready to “do business”. In London, he made a beeline for Madame Tussauds waxworks, offering top dollar to buy the collection outright. At Lord Byron’s ancestral home, he tried to negotiate a price for a tree upon which the poet had etched his name. And during a lightning tour of Stratford, Barnum made a shameless bid to purchase Shakespeare’s one-time home, prompting Punch magazine to commence a series of drolleries that lampooned his crass speculations.  
 
A native of Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum had tried his hand at all kinds of work, from encyclopaedia salesman to editor of an abolitionist newspaper, before finding his true metier. In 1835, not long after taking on a grocery store in New York, the 25-year-old caught wind of some intriguing news. A friend had recently sold his interest in an Afro-American slave by the name of Joice Heth, purportedly 161 years of age and the one-time nurse of George Washington. Sensing an opportunity to break into New York’s entertainment business, Barnum made his way to Philadelphia’s Masonic Hall, where the ‘wonderful negress’ was regaling visitors with recollections of ‘dear old George’, with tearful memories of her Virginia childhood, and a medley of impromptu hymns. 
 
Barnum was impressed. As “far as outward indications were concerned, she might almost have been called 1,000 years old”. Better still, Heth’s present owner was prepared to do a deal: for $1,000 the supercentenarian nurse was his. Returning to New York, Barnum quickly penned a shower of breathless adverts for his “ancient lady”. Within weeks of showing Heth at Niblo’s Garden saloon, the grocer-turned-showman was counting weekly receipts of $750, and already considering what curiosity he might next purchase. 
 

PT Barnum is depicted as a wily old fox preying on people’s “phrenological bump of credulity” in a cartoon from Punch in 1884. The press didn’t share the public’s enthusiasm for the showman’s hoaxes. (Getty Images)
 

Entertainment business

 
At first, Barnum struggled to replicate the success he achieved with Joice Heth. Briefly abandoning the entertainment business, he squandered much of his earnings on a failed cologne and boot-blacking business, enduring a short stint as sales agent for Sears’ Pictorial Illustrations of the Bible
 
Then, late in 1841, after dabbling with journalism and copywriting, he succeeded in acquiring Scudder’s American Museum, the beleaguered home to an extensive collection of automata, dioramas and human oddities. Looking to turn the museum into Broadway’s premier attraction – and believing that “the only way to make a million from my patrons was to give them abundant and wholesome attractions for a small sum of money” – he embarked on a manic spending spree, buying and hiring an array of new attractions, drawn “from every branch of nature and art, comprising a cyclopaedical synopsis of everything worth seeing and knowing in this curious world’s curious economy”. 
 
The new exhibits that Barnum brought to his five-storey emporium – among them the Feejee Mermaid, a ghoulish amalgamation of a monkey’s head and a fish’s tail – caused a sensation. But they were only half the story. With unflagging chutzpah, he began to rebrand old exhibits – an Indian war club became ‘The Club that Killed Captain Cook’ – dreaming up all kinds of promotional strategies to make the New York museum “the town wonder and the town talk”. In no time at all, takings went through the roof. 
 
After little more than a year, Barnum’s penchant for outlandish publicity allowed him to pay off all debts and secretly acquire a second venue, Peale’s American Museum, so that he could foster a bogus rivalry between the two institutions. 
 
A 1920s poster for Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. When Barnum launched his circus 50 years earlier, it soon became a global entertainment phenomenon. (Alamy)
 

Sing, dance and mime

 
And it wasn’t just America that fell for Barnum’s charms. Soon his curiosities were causing a stir in Britain – none more so than the showman’s three-foot-tall distant cousin, General Tom Thumb. Barnum plucked Tom from obscurity and – having taught him to sing, dance, mime and do impersonations – made him a star, one who performed in front of Queen Victoria three times.
 
Barnum was now a seriously wealthy man, able to spend vast sums of money on building a grand Moorish palace in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This lavish new residence was based on Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, and Barnum named it ‘Iranistan’. 
 
But success came at a price. Now a committed teetotaller, Barnum set out “to make my amusements totally unobjectionable to the religious and moral community, and at the same time combine sufficient amusement with instruction to please all”. 
 
In public, Barnum feigned indifference to a growing chorus of criticism of his business practices, apparently preferring “to be roundly abused than not noticed at all”. Privately, he was concerned that continued attention on his hoaxes might come to cast a troublesome shadow over a burgeoning portfolio of business and civic interests. Wishing to be perceived as a Bible-carrying captain of industry, Barnum made furtive overtures in the direction of his most persistent influential critics, asking that they stop referring to “myself or my actions in a spirit of ridicule or abuse”. 
 
Much of the criticism centred around his position as the self-styled ‘Prince of Humbugs’. Barnum, with an eye on a seat in Congress, argued that humbug was simply hype, ‘harmless’ puffery to sell his hoaxes to sensation-seeking customers. Yet there was no escaping the dictionary definition of the term as “an imposition under fair pretences” or, in verb form, “to deceive; to impose upon”.
 

Dazzling thrills

 
The final act in Barnum’s showstopping career began as a business alliance with seasoned circus men WC Coup and Dan Castello. Formed in 1870, ‘PT Barnum’s Grand (or Great) Travelling Museum, Menagerie and Circus’ was America’s largest travelling circus. With ballet dancers, acrobats, chariot-racers, flamethrowers and an ever-expanding procession of animal acts, this 60-car, railroading behemoth brought a nightly thunderstorm of dazzling thrills into every major town. This was the circus as never seen before. “There are things so mighty, so awful, so truly gigantic,” wrote one observer, “that the mind shrinks before them and shrivels… One of these things is Barnum’s One and Only Greatest Show on Earth.” 
 
When Barnum died in 1891, leaving an estate valued at $10m, his name remained a byword for the kinds of humbug that his commercial empire had been founded on. The unscrupulous romancing of the press and the museum-going public and the artfully faked monstrosities were, however, by no means his only legacy. 
 
The swaggering emissary of Yankee ‘push’ (wrongly credited with coining the saying that there was a sucker born every minute), Barnum had become the acceptable face of 19th-century capitalism. A ‘Shakespeare of Advertising’, author of one of the century’s bestselling autobiographies (1855’s The Life of PT Barnum), his industrious lies and dollar-chasing heroics had lifted him, as one commentator wryly noted, “head and shoulders above the swindlers, blacklegs, blackguards and humble riggers of the day”. Next to these ordinary humbugs, PT Barnum was, truly, in a class of his own.   
 

Barnum's greatest wheezes

 
The Feejee Mermaid
In July 1842, the PT Barnum marketing machine went into overdrive, telling the world about a mermaid that he had acquired for display in his American Museum in New York. The mermaid had, he said, been caught near the Feejee Islands in the South Pacific, and its authenticity had been confirmed by Dr J Griffin of the British Lyceum of Natural History. 
 
The people of New York were transfixed, and flocked to the museum in their droves. When they got there, they found something quite different to the beautiful ocean maiden that the Barnum advertising campaign had promised. What they set eyes on was a ghoulish amalgamation of a monkey’s withered head and torso and a fish tail, which had been stitched together by Japanese fishermen earlier in the century.
 
‘The Feejee Mermaid’ was, of course, a hoax masterminded by Barnum. And the esteemed Dr J Griffin? He was Levi Lyman, Barnum’s accomplice-in-deception. The press railed at Barnum’s audacity. But that didn’t stop the ring and clunk of the cash registers.
 

The mermaid that wasn’t: Barnum’s nautical curiosity was a monkey’s head stitched to a fish’s tail. (British Library)
 
George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse
In 1835, Barnum somehow managed to persuade the public that a black woman called Joice Heth was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington. And, when interest in Heth waned, he came up with the idea of exposing her as an automaton. “What purports to be a remarkably old woman is simply… made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numerous springs ingeniously put together, and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will 
of the operator.” 
 
The ruse worked perfectly. By inviting viewers to determine for themselves whether Heth was a flesh-and-blood supercentenarian or a mechanical illusion, Barnum fastened on to a hoax strategy that would serve him only too well in the future. 
 

A poster promoting Barnum’s “ancient lady”, Joice Heth. (Somers Historical Society)
 
The misshapen man-monkey
Barnum repeatedly presented the public with curiosities that he advertised as missing links in the evolutionary chain. One of the first of these freaks of nature was the ‘man-monkey’, which he brought to Piccadilly’s Egyptian Hall in 1844. Barnum claimed the creature had been captured in the forests of California. In fact, it was a seasoned circus performer by the name of Harvey Leech. By blacking Leech up and covering his muscular and misshapen body with matted hair, Barnum expected his Wild Man to appeal to thousands of Londoners. And it did – despite being exposed 
as a hoax by The Times.
 
Jumbo, the 5-tonne elephant
Forty years after offending the British public with a bid to buy the cottage in which Shakespeare was born, Barnum was at it again. This time, he had his sights set on Jumbo, the five-tonne African elephant who had become a firm favourite with crowds at London’s Zoological Gardens. 
 
Once Barnum’s agent succeeded in agreeing a $10,000 fee for Jumbo, “the outrageous sale of a national character” led to a groundswell of patriotic opposition. Jumbo-mania peaked in March 1882, when the Zoological Society’s decision to sell was legally challenged by two of its own fellows. Despite petitions to parliament, the court found in favour of the society and, over the next three years, Jumbo went on to become the star attraction in Barnum & Bailey’s travelling circus, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’.
 

Jumbo the elephant is the star attraction in this c1882 poster for Barnum & Bailey’s circus. (Alamy)
 
Antonio Melechi’s books include Servants of the Supernatural: The Night Side of the Victorian Mind (Arrow, 2009).
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here