40 Facts About P.T. Barnum That Prove He Was More Bizarre Than His Portrayal In The Greatest Showman

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Thanks to Hugh Jackman portraying him in the wildly popular The Greatest Showman, P.T. Barnum has been rediscovered by modern audiences. And whether you know him as an entrepreneur or as a huckster, there’s no doubting the impact that the man had on popular culture. But while Jackman’s on-screen performance stayed true to life, there are certain things that the film just couldn’t include. These 40 seldom heard facts show just how little we really know about the “Prince of Humbug.”

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40. His taste for hoaxes came at an early age

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We all know that Barnum loved a good hoax, and he likely developed this appreciation after being hoodwinked himself early in life. As a boy, Barnum was led to believe he was “the richest child in town” by his grandfather. And he even promised the future circus-leader that he’d inherit a precious plot of ground in adulthood. Nevertheless, the young man soon discovered both of these claims to be untrue. But, encouraged by the pleasure his family gained from the prank, Barnum learned a valuable lesson in chicanery instead.

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39. He used his worthless inheritance to buy his first museum

With little money to their name, Barnum’s family left only a plot of marshland as their legacy. Yet somehow, Barnum managed to trade this for something of real worth. When he came to purchase his first museum in New York, the entrepreneur managed to mortgage his patch of dirt to the building’s previous owner. How? By craftily describing it as a “valuable and sentimental” location. Speaking to a friend beforehand, Barnum reportedly vowed to purchase the museum with “brass, for silver and gold I have none.”

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38. He held many jobs before finding his niche

Every businessperson worth their salt must first find their true calling – and Barnum was no different. Following his father’s death, Barnum’s family was in debt. So, the young man began his first job as a store clerk when he was aged 15. In the intervening years, besides working in a store, he became a director of lotteries and even published his own newspaper, the Herald of Freedom, in Connecticut.

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37. He purchased a slave who he advertised as being 161 years old

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Barnum’s first truly successful business venture apparently came in 1835, though, when he purchased a slave named Joice Heth. Elderly, blind and near paralysis, Heth was described by her former owners as being 161 years old. Moreover, they even claimed that she had nursed Founding Father George Washington in his infancy. And astonishingly, the public bought into this wild claim and the businessman reaped a fortune by exhibiting her as a human curiosity. So popular was Heth, in fact, that the exhibit reportedly earned Barnum $1,500 a week; that’s a whopping $43,000 today.

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36. He claimed to be fooled by Joice Heth’s real age

Having reaped a fortune claiming that Joice Heth was 161 years old, Barnum was only rumbled when she died in 1836. Indeed, the former slave’s autopsy – which he unashamedly turned into a ticketed attraction – revealed that she was only half her marketed age. But rather than admitting to misleading his patrons, Barnum argued that it was really Heth who had fooled him. And, naturally, newspapers reported the claim, which granted the businessman even more publicity.

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35. He was an abolitionist

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Judging by Barnum’s treatment of Joice Heth – whom he purchased in New York seven years after slavery was outlawed there – one would think that he was a proponent of forced labor. But while this may well have been true at one stage, the showman developed anti-slavery views in later life. In fact, in 1854 he left the Democratic Party owing to its stance against abolition, and he would later address the Connecticut legislature about the issue. “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with,” Barnum professed.

Image: Brady-Handy Photograph Collection

34. He hosted pro-Union events during the U.S. Civil War

By Barnum’s own admission, he was no fan of slavery. His support for abolition was so strong, in fact, that he took a Union-supporting stance during the U.S. Civil War. Throughout the conflict, the showman held various events in his museum in support of the North. And one such event saw Union agent Pauline Cushman deliver a lecture about her time spying on the Confederates. His endorsement came at a cost, though. You see, after witnessing a lecture in 1864, an embittered Southern arsonist set the venue alight.

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Image: Niko Tavernise – © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation via IMDb

33. He held minstrel shows

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Despite holding anti-slavery opinions, Barnum had a questionable view of African Americans. Like many people of his era, the businessman enjoyed blackface minstrel shows. And not only did he watch such performances, but he also produced and – at one point – acted in the offensive routines. But although the productions regularly featured insulting content, Barnum would often slip cutting social commentary into his scripts. He wasn’t afraid to mock topics such as white superiority, for example.

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32. His “Feejee Mermaid” had a gruesome origin

After the success that Barnum experienced with Joice Heth, he discovered that curiosities had immense business potential. But unable to find genuine abnormalities, the “Prince of Humbug” had to resort to a little deception. Accordingly, one exhibit, the “Feejee Mermaid,” was billed as the remains of a genuine creature from the South Pacific. In reality, though, it was the torso of an ape and the tail of a fish stitched together. But despite the obvious fraud, the exhibit became incredibly popular.

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31. He showcased a – disappointing – model of Niagara Falls

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Through his less-than-genuine attractions, Barnum learned just how valuable trickery could be. Indeed, as he was reported to say, “The public appears to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.” And so to this end, the huckster began filling his museums with all manner of hoaxes. One such attraction, for example, purported to be a colossal recreation of Niagara Falls, complete with “Real Water.” But visitors to the exhibit were disappointed by what turned out to be an 18-inch diorama with only a minute amount of aqua.

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30. He made visitors pay to get into his museums – twice

Although we definitely disapprove of deception, we have to commend Barnum for his ingenious attempts to be tricky. Willing to profit from his customers’ gullibility, the entrepreneur used their lack of knowledge to his advantage. His museums’ exits, for example, were often signposted with the words “This Way to the Egress.” Yes, knowing full well that his more naïve patrons would follow them in hopes of seeing another bizarre oddity, Barnum actually encouraged his clients to leave. And he would then charge them an extra fee to get back in.

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29. He probably didn’t say his most famous quote

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Due to Barnum’s willingness to trick his clientele, the showman has earned a reputation as a huckster. And his most famous saying – “There’s a sucker born every minute” – has been commonly used to prove his contempt for the buying public. But although it may be his most attributed quote, modern scholars have disputed whether he actually uttered those words. Writing on the website History Buff, R. J. Brown claimed that the saying was most likely coined by banker David Hannum in response to the success of Barnum’s exhibits.

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28. He took other hoaxers to court

Despite Barnum’s proclivity for deception, he rather paradoxically detested other prominent humbug artists. In particular, the showman disliked William H. Mumler – a so-called spirit photographer. Why? Because Mumler sold the recently bereaved images that claimed to capture their loved one’s ghostly presence. So incensed was Barnum by the trickster’s exploitative business, in fact, that the showman actually testified against him during his 1869 fraud trial. And to this end, Barnum commissioned his own doctored photograph – in which he posed with Abraham Lincoln – to prove how simple the bogus images were to make.

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27. His entertainers grabbed the attention of the U.K.’s most famous monarch

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After making a fortune from hoaxes, Barnum soon gained further success by hiring more human curiosities – most famously Tom Thumb. Born Charles Stratton, Thumb was just 25 inches in height, and he worked the crowds at his employer’s museum while dressed as Napoleon Bonaparte. And while many today would find the act distasteful, 19th-century audiences couldn’t get enough of the entertainer. So much so, in fact, that Thumb received an audience with Queen Victoria during a visit to England.

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26. He instigated a lawsuit just for publicity

Besides being able to spin a hoax, Barnum was also a genius at promoting himself – and sometimes these two talents went hand in hand. When he began exhibiting “Bearded Lady” Josephine Clofullia, a bemused customer took the showman to court over false advertising. Claiming that Clofullia was really a man, the plaintiff and his case helped keep the showman in the press. And incredibly, the complaint turned out to be a ruse; the entertainer actually instigated the entire lawsuit in order to drum up free publicity.

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25. He wasn’t always lucky with the law

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Judging by Barnum’s fast and loose approach to truth telling, it’s a miracle that he didn’t suffer much legal repercussion. Yet the Greatest Showman wasn’t always lucky with the law. While still publishing the Herald of Freedom, Barnum regularly took potshots at the establishment – especially the church. And after printing scabrous stories about a local deacon, the newspaperman was sued for libel. However, Barnum lost the case and as a result was sent to prison for two months.

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24. He tried to own some of the world’s most famous tourist attractions

Thanks to Barnum’s success as a museum proprietor – in which he gained an audience of 38 million over 15 years – he began expanding his empire. But the future showman was perhaps a little too ambitious with some of his attempted purchases. In one instance, he tried to buy Niagara Falls and turn the natural wonder into a ticketed tourist attraction. And similarly, he placed a bid on the ruined city of Pompeii. In both cases, though, he was rebuffed by the sites’ respective owners – namely the U.S. and Italian governments.

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23. He opened the United States’ first aquarium

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Barnum was most certainly ahead of the curve when it came to giving audiences what they wanted. So, fittingly, upon its opening in 1842 in New York, the entertainer’s American Museum boasted an aquarium – the first venue in the entire country to do so. And using water gained from the nearby East River, the aquatic arena showcased a Beluga whale as its star attraction.

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22. He mistreated several whales in his possession

Hugh Jackman may have been lovable in The Greatest Showman, but Barnum had a dark side that the 2017 film barely acknowledges. Indeed, the entrepreneur mishandled the Beluga whales in his care to the point where at least four died within two days of being captured. And, sickeningly, Barnum actually used this to his advantage. In an advertisement for his aquarium, he encouraged visitors to see the remaining whales before they, too, met an untimely end.

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21. He was a patron of the arts

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Although it may seem strange today, theater was looked down upon by the 19th century’s upper classes. And believe it or not, Barnum had a part in changing the public’s perception of the art form. A fan of the stage, the showman built a plush theater in New York in the hope of attracting a respectable crowd. So to that end, he put on famous plays such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin – but with sanitized, altered endings so as not to upset his clientele.

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20. He loved the Bard perhaps a little too much

During their visits to Barnum’s theater, audiences saw a wide range of productions, including several by William Shakespeare. Barnum himself was, of course, a big supporter of the Bard. Indeed, he’d probably be deemed a fanboy today. And in a sign of his admiration, the showman tried to buy Shakespeare’s former house and ship it to America. Needless to say, though, his offer was rejected.

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19. He got America to fall in love with a Swedish opera star – before they even heard her sing

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A talented salesperson, Barnum could have sold honey to a bee. In fact, his aptitude for sales was so good that he made Swedish soprano Jenny Lind a Stateside superstar before she’d even uttered a note there. In 1850 Barnum paid the then-unknown singer $150,000 – $4 million in today’s money – to perform in America. And using his press contacts, the entrepreneur drummed up so much publicity that Lind drew a staggering 30,000-strong crowd upon her arrival in New York.

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18. His museums were seemingly cursed

Despite Barnum’s success in business, he faced considerable misfortune when it came to the standing of his buildings. In 1865, his American Museum burned to the ground – an event that killed lots of the natural exhibits in his possession. Then just three years later, his second museum suffered a similar fate owing to a faulty boiler. And even after their owner’s death, his museums were still plagued with bad luck. To wit, his final museum – in Bridgeport, Connecticut – was almost destroyed by a tornado in 2010.

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17. He was the victim of a ruse himself

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Viewed by some as a huckster, Barnum made a fortune from staging elaborate hoaxes. Ironically, however, the Humbug artist would become the victim of a trick that drove him to financial ruin. You see, in his attempts to develop Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1850s, the showman invested heavily in the Jerome Clock Company; Barnum hoped that the company would move production to his native town. But the project turned out to be the work of scammers, and the entrepreneur declared bankruptcy as a result.

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16. He clawed back his wealth with some very appropriately titled lectures

After Barnum lost his fortune, he became the nation’s laughing stock. Undeterred, though, the entrepreneur pushed on, and by the end of 1860 he was solvent once more. Funnily enough, he achieved solvency by staging a lecture series named “The Art of Money Getting.” And as if to prove its title correct, the collection of talks attracted a huge crowd and a vast amount of wealth. That’s right, over 100 years before Donald Trump was espousing The Art of the Deal, Barnum showed just how well get-rich-quick schemes could be done.

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15. His famous elephant had a bit of a drinking problem

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Barnum may be known today as a circus owner, but the salesman wasn’t always the most famous thing under his big top. That honor fell to Jumbo the Elephant, who quickly became the show’s star attraction after his purchase in 1882. Standing at over ten feet tall, the Sudanese-born Jumbo would wow audiences with his size and feats of strength. One act for which the creature was particularly known saw him guzzle a barrel of beer in a single giant gulp.

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14. He was an accomplished drinker

With Jumbo’s habit of downing a barrel of beer onstage every night – as well his taste for whiskey – the elephant could drink anyone under the table. His capacity to drink was, in fact, matched only by that of Barnum himself, who had an insatiable thirst for booze. At one point in his life, the entertainer had an enormous tolerance for the good stuff. Indeed, Barnum was reportedly quaffing an entire bottle of fizz with lunch each day. We can only imagine what the hangovers were like.

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13. He gave up alcohol – as well as some very expensive champagne – later in life

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Despite Barnum imbibing heavily during his youth, he began to question his drinking habits after turning 40. Indeed, after witnessing the ill effects of alcohol on his peers, the showman decided to give up everything but wine. It wasn’t until he became involved with the temperance movement, however, that he vowed to go completely teetotal. And wishing to celebrate his sobriety in dramatic fashion, the entrepreneur emptied every bottle of vintage fizz that he owned onto the grass outside his house soon after.

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12. He gave the Brooklyn Bridge a real test of endurance

Of course, Barnum knew how to generate engrossing news stories. And he also wasn’t above turning real-life tragedy into a publicity stunt. After a fatal stampede turned public opinion against the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, the showman saw an opportunity. Under the guise of demonstrating the bridge’s safety, the circus leader marched a herd of 21 jumbos over the bridge the following year. As the New York Times remarked, “It seemed as if Noah’s Ark were emptying itself over on Long Island.”

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11. His beloved elephant was hit by a train

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Due to an increasing demand for Barnum’s circus shows, the exhibition began traveling by train in order to reach a larger audience. But while this strategy helped the circus leader expand his empire, it had tragic results for his biggest star. Before an 1885 date in Ontario, Jumbo the Elephant was struck and killed by an oncoming train while being led to his cage. In typical fashion, though, the showman later claimed to journalists that Jumbo had heroically sacrificed himself to save his human master.

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10. He soon got over Jumbo’s death

Although Barnum owed Jumbo a great deal for helping expand his brand, the circus owner didn’t stay in mourning for too long following his old friend’s death. Shortly after Jumbo’s passing, in fact, Barnum purchased another elephant. Named Alice, she was exhibited alongside the former star’s preserved body. Sadly, though, both elephants suffered a similarly horrible fate. Just one year after her purchase, Alice died in a fire. Meanwhile, after being donated to Massachusetts’ Tufts University, Jumbo’s body burned to ashes in a blaze in 1975.

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9. He had a complicated relationship with Mark Twain

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Thanks at least in part to his traveling circus, Barnum was, in his day, one of the most famous personalities in the United States. In fact, there was only one person who could compete with his popularity at the time: the author Mark Twain. And interestingly, the pair’s relationship was marked by both a mutual appreciation and envy. Twain, it’s said, particularly admired his rival’s ability to tap into public tastes. However, the writer detested the exploitative nature of the showman’s exhibits and avoided forging a personal relationship with him for this reason.

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8. He had political aspirations

It’s not unusual for celebrities to swap the glamour of showbiz for the prestige of politics. And judging by Barnum’s own political aspirations, this wasn’t a practice unique to the modern age. A committed Republican, the showman campaigned for office and won a seat on the Connecticut legislature in 1865. Moreover, the entrepreneur later made a bid for Congress. But he proved unpopular with voters – due in part to his status as a former slave owner – and lost the race to his cousin.

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7. He loved the town of Bridgeport, Connecticut

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Through his life, Barnum showed considerable commitment to improving his hometown of Bridgeport. And his hard work was duly rewarded in 1875 when he was elected mayor of the Connecticut town. During his tenure, the showman helped bring the settlement into the modern age by introducing running water and street lights. Meanwhile, elements of his temperance beliefs also shone through in his policies, which saw him attempt to prohibit drinking establishments and sex work.

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6. He designed his own cemetery

All through the city of Bridgeport, one can still find many signs of Barnum’s influence on the town. However, the most intriguing of these reminders has to be the Mountain Grove Cemetery, which was personally designed by the man himself. Constructed in 1849, the cemetery would be the showman’s final resting place following his death in 1891. And fittingly, the entertainer seemingly honored his own passing by installing a monument on the grounds mere weeks before his death.

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5. He had his own building opened on a college campus

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Admittedly, there was little in Barnum’s stage shows that would have appealed to a cultured mind. Yet that doesn’t mean that the showman didn’t do his part to better the nation’s education. A supporter of Tufts University, he was one of the institution’s first trustees. In addition, he donated $50,000 – or $1.2 million in today’s money – to open a museum on campus. And the entertainer wasn’t modest about his contribution, either. That’s right, above the building’s transom, he had the words “Barnum Fecit” – Latin for “Barnum Made it” – proudly inscribed.

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4. He married his second wife only three months after his first’s death

Anyone who’s seen The Greatest Showman will be familiar with Barnum’s first wife, Charity Hallet, played by Michelle Williams. But although the two shared a loving relationship onscreen, she wasn’t the only woman in Barnum’s life. Following Hallett’s 1873 death, the circus leader met and fell in love with Nancy Fish – a woman 41 years his junior. And in an extreme example of a whirlwind romance, the two got hitched only 13 weeks after his first wife’s passing. Obviously, the showman was no fan of taking things slowly.

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3. He was obsessive about his autobiography

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It can be said that Barnum’s fame had many parallels with that experienced by celebrities today; and like many stars of the modern era, he penned his own autobiography. The showman’s book wasn’t just a source of spare change, however. Released in 1855, the text was compulsively revised and revisited by the entertainer even after its publication. And by the time of his death, the tome had sold a million units – or so Barnum claimed. If true, though, this was thanks in part to it entering the public domain in 1884.

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2. He read his own obituary

With Barnum’s name known in every corner of the globe, his reputation was of paramount importance to him. Yes, the showman cared about his public image above all else – perhaps even more so than he did about his wealth and empire. And in an act so ludicrous that it could only have been thought up by the man himself, he actually asked for newspapers to print his obituary before his death. Why, you ask? Well, because he wanted to read it, of course.

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1. He had a fitting final request

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No man lives forever – not even someone like Barnum. In late 1890 the showman fell ill and became confined to his home. Despite his sickness, however, the entrepreneur remained committed to his business until his eventual death in April 1891. And fittingly, his final words – as reported at the time – were used to enquire about his circus’ takings after a show at Madison Square Gardens the previous night.

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