He was born in Bethel, Conn., on the day after the Fourth of July, 1810. It is fitting that his birthday came so close to the nation's because, in many ways, Phineas Taylor Barnum was the epitome of the new American common man -- or, at least, the flip side of the lionization of same.
P.T.'s maternal grandfather loved a good joke, and he promised the boy valuable land which turned out to be swampy. From him, young Phineas learned the sharp practices he used as a grocer, supplementing his income by organizing lotteries and publishing a newspaper.
In 1835, he paid $1,000 for a black woman named Joice Heth, who was reputed to be 161 years young and a wet nurse of George Washington. Young Barnum proved masterful in pamphlets and newspaper publicity, and he offered a tobacco-stained "bill of sale" to one Auguste Washington dated 1727.
To drum up business in Boston, he mailed an anonymous letter to a local paper claiming Heth was a "curiously-constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber and numberless springs made to move at the slightest touch." Curious throngs of the common man turned out to see for themselves.
In 1841, Barnum bought a small museum on Broadway, which he dubbed "The American Museum." He hired a band to play outside, but he hired poor musicians so that the crowds that gathered wouldn't linger on the sidewalk. The museum was made by the hiring of a 5-year-old midget Barnum called "Tom Thumb." His new employer promptly claimed the 15-pound Tom was 11 and English and settled in for a long and profitable partnership.
Another big attraction was the "Fiji Mermaid," a 3-foot half-fish, half-monkey. He delayed its New York appearance and sent letters postmarked throughout the South describing the creature. A debate ensued, and Barnum's ad trumpeted, "When doctors disagree ...," implying that the American common man would have to judge for himself.
Barnum wrote a bestselling autobiography in which he conceded some malarkies and denied others. Like Harry Houdini and Edgar Allen Poe, he was both deceiver and exposer, and in 1865, he published a large book called "Humbugs of the World." In it, the ex-grocer listed some great tricks practiced on credulous humanity, including religious imposters, stock frauds and mediums. Of himself, Barnum quoted an employee: "First he humbugs them, and then they pay to hear him tell how he did it."
Barnum's downhill years were softened by victories in wealth and prestige. Attractions like Jenny Lind, Jumbo, Col. Tom Thumb, Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and the traveling three-ring circus which carried his name around the globe all combined to give Barnum the lucre and legitimacy he unceasingly craved.
Jenny Lind, "the Swedish nightingale," was a skilled and true singer of light opera who thought she was a sensation in Europe; she found out what a sensation really was when she toured America in partnership with the man known as the "Shakespeare of Advertising." In 93 concerts in cities around the country -- including New Orleans, where she stayed at the Pontalba Apartments -- Lind the soprano grossed nearly $177,000 in 1851 dollars.
Barnum the impresario grossed $535,000.
Those numbers seem childish when put next to the Jumbo-esque figures assembled by Jumbo, an internationally famous, monstrous elephant acquired in 1882. Jumbo had been the star of a London zoo, the darling of Queen Victoria and John Ruskin, when Barnum bought and shipped him to America. Until killed by an Ontario train three years later, Jumbo had returned countless dividends on his $30,000 cost. In fact, he grossed $336,000 in the first six weeks.
Barnum's banquet was highlighted by main courses like these, but the spark to appetite for things Phineas came from spicy tidbits. Like the two "Wild Men of Borneo," Plutano and Waino, aka Hiram and Barney Davis of Long Island. Or America's first "Marimba Band," which Barnum claimed Stanley brought out of Africa after finding Livingston. They were actually recruited from the bowels of the Bowery.
Then there was the "Cardiff Giant," which was a hoax on a hoax. In 1869, a farmer claimed to have found a fossilized man more than 10 feet tall and weighing 2,990 pounds. It turned out to be made of gypsum, but it persuaded two Yale professors and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Barnum tried to buy the creature and when that failed, he built his own for the American Museum. The farmer sued, but Barnum said he was only showing a hoax of a hoax, and there was no crime in this.
He worried about posterity and told a reporter so. The New York Sun responded with the unprecedented step of printing Barnum's full obituary while he was still alive. "Mr. Barnum has had almost everything in his life," declared the paper. " There is no reason why he should not have this last pleasure."
Humbug, P.T. Barnum must have thought. Sheer humbug.