Summer temps in Louisiana can be brutal, but they’re the price we pay for typically mild winters, as the great showman P.T. Barnum, the subject of a new biography by Robert Wilson, seemed to understand.
Barnum, Wilson tells readers, was in New Orleans during the yuletide holidays of 1872 to attend part of the Southern tour of his circus. By taking his attractions through the South in winter, he could send “to warmer zones the exotic animals in the show that were sensitive to cold weather.” It was, the ceaselessly self-promotional Barnum said, a way to combine “my humanitarian feelings with my pecuniary interest.”
But Barnum’s Louisiana Christmas was not to be a merry one. “He was in New Orleans breakfasting at the St. Louis hotel on the morning of Christmas Eve,” Wilson writes, when word came that a fire had destroyed many of his animals.
Barnum, deft at making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, turned the disaster to his advantage, promising that by spring, his newly constituted circus would be even better than the old one. The entertainment mogul made good on that pledge, his new circus “requiring more than ninety-five rail cars, compared to sixty-five needed to start the 1872 season,” Wilson adds.
Of course, Barnum’s promises didn’t always pan out, which is why the remark famously attributed to him, that there’s a sucker born every minute, seems much in keeping with his personality.
He’d even written an 1865 book about how to spot humbug, presumably because he’s trafficked in so much of it himself that he knew how to spot it. “Barnum’s book,” says Wilson, “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.”
Barnum called himself “The Prince of Humbug,” an apt description for the man who conceived spectacular sideshows. “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,” Wilson adds.
Given Barnum’s background, it seemed inevitable that he would enter politics. He eventually became mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, although he’d failed in his attempt to get elected to Congress.
Perhaps that involved a level of blather that not even P.T. Barnum could muster. If he were alive today, he’d find even stiffer competition in the ranks of humbugs.