INTRODUCTION “DO YOU KNOW BARNUM?”
Adopting Mr. Emerson’s idea, I should say that Barnum is a representative man. He represents the enterprise and energy of his countrymen in the nineteenth century, as Washington represented their resistance to oppression in the century preceding.
—John Delaware Lewis, Across the Atlantic, 1851
In 1842, the man who would become America’s greatest showman received a visit from a museum owner in Boston who needed his help. Moses Kimball had made his way to P. T. Barnum’s office in New York City with a box that, he baldly claimed, contained the remains of a mermaid. When the box was opened and the object was unwrapped, what Barnum saw was a shrunken, blackish thing about three feet long that seemed pretty obviously to be the head and torso of a monkey joined to the lower portion of a large fish. Kimball had a story to go with this desiccated corpse, something about its being discovered by sailors in the South Seas, but he had no idea what to do with it. Although the two men had not previously met, their establishments had collaborated on several acts and exhibitions. Barnum had recently acquired a dusty old museum on lower Broadway, dubbed it the American Museum, and dedicated it to natural history, art and artifacts,
performances, and an exuberant miscellany of anything that caught his eye. The growing renown of the new museum, along with Barnum’s already established reputation as an impresario with a knack for publicity, made him a logical person for Kimball to go to for advice.1
While Kimball wondered what could be done with this grotesque specimen—so different from the beautiful mythological beings that people had imagined for centuries—Barnum didn’t hesitate. He offered to lease the object from Kimball and present it to the public himself. After giving the creature an exotic name—the Fejee Mermaid—he created a bold strategy to conjure up a storm of interest in it.
Within days Barnum was executing a complicated plan to acquire free publicity from the press. He sent letters to friends in cities in the South, all telling a made-up story about a British naturalist who had acquired the mermaid in the Fiji Islands and was stopping in New York on his way to London, where it would be put on display. This naturalist was supposedly passing through the South, and every few days a friend from a different southern city would mail one of Barnum’s letters, which were written as news reports of local happenings, to a different New York newspaper. While he was whetting the appetite of the press, Barnum had posters made of beautiful, bare-breasted mermaids with long blond curls, implying that this was what the Fejee Mermaid had once looked like. By the time the supposed naturalist reached New York, the press was in a frenzy, and Barnum gave three different newspapers an unsigned report that he had written defending the existence of mermaids, along with an idealized image in woodcut, suitable for printing. Each of the newspapers was promised an exclusive, and it was only when all three published the story on the same Sunday morning that they knew they had been hoodwinked. If the editors were miffed, they didn’t show it by withholding coverage of the exhibit. After all, Barnum was a steady advertiser, and this new exhibit would mean new ads each day in their newspapers.
It’s safe to say that most people who came to see the Fejee Mermaid and hear the ersatz naturalist talk about it were not taken in. But Barnum’s early publicity drew huge crowds to the display, and even if they doubted that this shriveled specimen had ever been the lovely, storied creature in the posters, still it was a thing worth seeing and judging
for themselves. Whatever the skepticism of his patrons, the showman didn’t let up in the weeks that followed. With a steady stream of ads, often warning that the display would soon be leaving for London, augmented by a barrage of pamphlets and posters, he kept the customers coming. When the flow of visitors finally slowed, he sent the Fejee Mermaid out on the road. His plan, which had come to him in an instant when he first saw the specimen, had worked to perfection.
Later in life, Barnum would confess that he was not proud of this exhibit, but even then he could not resist exulting in the success of his publicity scheme. The Fejee Mermaid was characteristic of Barnum’s exhibitions during his early years; even as a young man he had an unfailing sense of what the public wanted, yet he could be brazenly manipulative and unafraid of controversy. These qualities made him successful as a showman, but they also made it possible for him to push too far. When, for instance, he had put on tour an elderly slave woman who claimed to be the 161-year-old former nursemaid to George Washington, the newspapers and other guardians of public virtue howled, condemning him for exploiting her. At other times, Barnum drew criticism less for his actions than for his attitude. When he published the first version of his autobiography, in 1855, detailing his many humbugs and the riches they had afforded him, some reviewers were disgusted not so much by the original sins but by his seeming pride in admitting to them. He was often seen as a man who would do anything for a buck, and by the time he was middle-aged, the quip “Where’s Barnum?” was applied to any novelty, discovery, or invention of the day, under the assumption that he would soon show up to add it to his museum collection.
The missteps of Barnum’s early career would ultimately damage his reputation in a lasting way. Well after his death in 1891, his image in the public mind congealed around another phrase, this one attributed to Barnum himself: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The cynical saying implies that he was no better than a huckster, whose chief goal was using fast talk to trick people out of their money while giving them nothing in return. Even to this day, these words serve as shorthand for Barnum’s philosophy as a showman, but no evidence exists that he ever spoke or wrote them. What’s worse, they utterly misrepresent the man as he really was.
The actual arc of Barnum’s life is much more interesting, and much more consequential, than his present-day reputation suggests. He may have begun his career as a promoter of sketchy acts in a business that was often considered less than respectable, but he changed both himself and the business over the decades, earning the respect of Americans of every station. Because he had so determinedly placed himself in the public eye, people knew all about his early missteps as well as his successes—his “struggles and triumphs,” as the title of a later version of his autobiography puts it. He didn’t hesitate to show his flaws, but he would also reveal in time that he was that rare thing, a man who was steered by his ideals, becoming a better person as he navigated a long lifetime. Over many years, Barnum became a steady, civic-minded, fun-loving man who cultivated a close relationship with his audience and embodied many of the best aspects of the American character. He eventually won over the public with his unflagging energy, his wit and buoyant good humor, his patriotic zeal for the Union side in the Civil War, and his commitment to charitable causes, good government, and his Universalist faith.
He is known today primarily for his connection to the circus, but that came only in the last quarter of his long life. His principal occupations before that were running the American Museum and being the impresario behind the witty and talented dwarf Tom Thumb, the angelic Swedish soprano Jenny Lind—who created a sensation in America in the early 1850s—and dozens of other acts and traveling shows. Less well known today is that he was also a best-selling author, an inspirational lecturer on temperance and on success in business and in life, a real-estate developer, a builder, a banker, a state legislator, and the mayor of the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, near or in which he lived for most of his adult life. He was even a candidate for Congress, losing a bare-knuckle contest to a cousin also named Barnum. In all of these endeavors he was a promoter and self-promoter without peer, a relentless advertiser and an unfailingly imaginative concoctor of events or exhibits to draw the interest, often the feverish interest, of potential patrons.
Throughout his life, Barnum worked steadily to transform the image of public entertainment in America. In the long middle of his career, his American Museum included what he called a Lecture Room,
where, in addition to lectures, both dramas and melodramas were presented. At the time, theaters were not considered morally or even physically safe places for children and families. Prostitutes often plied their trade in the balconies, and sobriety was not much in evidence even in the orchestra seats. But Barnum enforced an environment in both the museum and the Lecture Room that was free of drunkenness, improper behavior, and anything else that could give offense to people whose scruples might otherwise keep them away. He emphasized the moral quality of his dramas and the safety of his exhibit spaces, ensuring that customers of all ages could enjoy them. Later he and his partner James A. Bailey brought this same commitment to the rough-and-tumble world of the traveling circus, presenting entertainment that even Barnum’s many preacher friends could defend, in a setting that was appropriate for families and children.
By the end of his life, he was admired and respected not only in the United States but also across much of the globe. When the Barnum & Bailey Circus, immodestly but accurately called The Greatest Show on Earth, traveled through the American heartland in the 1880s, Barnum would often go out to meet the show and thereby boost its attendance numbers. Rural circus-goers took special trains put on to carry them to the cities where the traveling extravaganza typically stopped. The reason for these excursions, on what were known as “Barnum days,” was often to see the showman as much as the show. He had become as close to a global celebrity as a person could be at the time. After Ulysses S. Grant’s second term as president, the great general made a two-year tour of the world, promoting the United States. Upon his return, Barnum said to him, “General, I think you are the best known American living,” to which Grant replied, “By no means. You beat me sky-high, for wherever I went . . . the constant inquiry was, ‘Do you know Barnum?’?”2
CENTRAL TO BARNUM’S PHILOSOPHY AND success was the relationship to his audience that he developed during his decades as a showman. That relationship centered on the single word most associated with Barnum in his lifetime: humbug. As he himself wrote in
his 1865 book, The Humbugs of the World, Webster’s definition is “to deceive; to impose on.” Definitions today include the words hoax, fraud, impostor, nonsense, trick. Barnum’s book is a survey of such practices, intended, he said, to save the rising generation from being bamboozled by the unscrupulous, whether in religion, business, politics, medicine, or science. But for Barnum, not all forms of humbug were hurtful; sometimes humbuggery could be harmless, even joyous. He claimed that, for him, the “generally accepted definition” of humbug focused on this benign variety, what he defined as “putting on glittering appearances . . . novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.” In other words, what he did. The crux of the matter was that a person who attracted patrons in this way but then “foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money,” would not get a second chance from customers who would “properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor.”3
So for Barnum, who sometimes called himself the “Prince of Humbugs,” humbuggery was a mildly deceitful way to get people in the door, but its harmlessness depended entirely on how satisfied they were once inside. “I don’t believe in ‘duping the public,’?” he wrote in a letter in 1860, “but I believe in first attracting & then pleasing them.” For many years, he charged only a quarter, half that for children, to visit his museum and see his shows there, while he tirelessly searched the globe for more and better acts, exhibits, and curiosities, and spent freely on them to reward that small investment by his patrons. People might be drawn in to see the human curiosities he exhibited, the giants and little people of both sexes, the bearded ladies, fat children, and stick-like men, the albinos, American Indians, Chinese princesses, Siamese twins, and the What Is It?—an exhibit presented as the possible missing link between beast and man suggested by Darwin’s recent book about evolution. But once inside his museum, they would be exposed to what he advertised as a million objects. In a period when public education, photography, the telegraph, the railroad, and the newspaper were all making the world a smaller and more knowable place, people flocked to Barnum’s museum, and when he took displays to other cities, he rarely failed to draw big crowds.4
As a businessman, Barnum never apologized for making vast amounts of money, but he did believe that his museum offered his
patrons the chance to learn. And if a little trickery—such as turning a hideous, shrunken thing into an alluring mermaid from the South Pacific—was needed to get people to view the serious exhibits, then, he came to believe, they should be in on the trick. He would often hint at the dubiousness of his latest sensation, even promoting his skeptics’ views, and then challenge his audience to judge for themselves. This strategy was good for business if people were moved to go back for a second look, paying a second quarter, but it also recognized the need his customers felt to exercise their own critical skills. He generally approached them with a knowing wink so they could be part of the fun. “Good old Barnum,” they would say with affection upon figuring out what they were seeing. He entertained but also stimulated them, making them feel excited about their growing understanding of the world beyond the rural homestead, the isolated village, or the crowded urban neighborhood.
The nineteenth century was a time of rapid democratization in both the United States and Europe, as the old monarchical and aristocratic structures and the barriers of class came tumbling down. Barnum, who was born ten years into the century and died nine years before its end, embodied the period’s great narrative of breaking social boundaries. Americans often saw him as an exemplar of what it meant to be one of them, and the Europeans he encountered on his many trips abroad also saw him as a representative of the American character. He was born into a family that had to hustle in its small Connecticut village to stay solvent. Through hard work, a lot of brass, and a genius for exploiting the new technologies related to communication and transportation, he became world famous and wealthy beyond his dreams. And he did it all by appealing to popular tastes and interests. He understood what ordinary Americans wanted, as they sought forms of entertainment beyond staring into the fire of an evening or listening to readings from the Bible after the family supper.5
We live in an ahistorical age, one that is quick to condemn historical figures using the standards of the present. We too easily dismiss them for their worst qualities even if they are counterbalanced or even heavily outweighed by their best qualities. Barnum’s reputation today has fallen so far that his name often evokes comparisons to scoundrels,
to politicians who lie shamelessly to the public, to deceptive advertisers, or to sleight-of-hand businessmen. But this doesn’t do justice to the full story of who he was. Barnum embodied some of America’s worst impulses, but also many of its best. He came to represent much of what was most admirable about his young country, and he did so with a sense of humor and a joy in living that is rare in today’s public figures. He led a rich, event-filled, exhilarating life, one indeed characterized by both struggles and triumphs. His is a life well worth knowing and celebrating.