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...
Sing, dance and mime
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.
George Washington’s 161-year-old nurse
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’.
This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine