July 5: Happy Birthday PT Barnum

Various notable, odd and historical things occurred on July 5 of interest.  The thing of most interest to me is that today is PT Barnum‘s birthday.

Phineas Taylor Barnum
Phineas Taylor Barnum

Who was PT Barnum?  Shame on you – born July 5, 1810, Phineas Taylor Barnum was the founder of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (which still operates today) and remembered for bringing his show of “freaks” – “The Greatest Show On Earth” – to the world from 1871 to 1882.

He didn’t enter the circus business until he was 61 – proving that you can start any new venture at any age successfully.  Prior to becoming famous as the man who would give the world “The Swedish Nightingale”, “General Tom Thumb” and “The Feejee Mermaid”, amongst others, Barnum was a businessman, editor of a local newspaper, unsuccessful candidate for Congress (twice) and elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a Republican for Fairfield, serving two terms.

He famously said before the legislature after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution over slavery and African-American suffrage: “A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot – it is still an immortal spirit!”

Despite being a purveyor of “humbug” (he also has been credited with the line “There’s a sucker born every minute” – although this is false and only part of popular belief due to it’s use in the Broadway musical “Barnum!” loosely based on his life), he saw his own work as pure entertainment and escapism for the masses and had, in fact, a very strong moral core and a true community spirit.

Evidence of this came to the fore when, as Mayor of Bridgeport (for a year in 1875), he enforced liquor and prostitution laws, as well as working to improve the water supply and bring gaslighting to the streets. He was also instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, which was founded in 1878, and became the hospital’s first president.  He was also active against slavery in the lead up to the American Civil War – staging black and white minstral shows that satirized white’s attitudes to blacks and plays such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, where he rewrote the ending with Tom and other slaves being freed.

Original Barnum & Bailey Circus Poster
Original Barnum & Bailey Circus Poster (available to purchase)

Interestingly, he also campaigned against various spiritualist mediums (very popular in his day) for their praying on those who had lost loved ones.  Long before Harry Houdini, Barnum was exposing the various “tricks” used by mediums to get people to part with their money and he offered $500 to any medium who could prove power to communicate with the dead.  The money was never claimed.

Possibly the world’s first showbusiness millionaire, PT Barnum died on April 7, 1891 at home in his sleep.  He asked about the box office receipts for the day and a few hours later he had passed.

Although Barnum was many things during his life – businessman, author, publisher, philanthropist, and sometime politician – he said of himself: “I am a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me”.

Happy birthday to the man who not only gave us “The Greatest Show On Earth”, but was also one of our greatest and successful showmen of all time.

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