Phineas Taylor Barnum, (July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891) was an American showman, businessman, scam artist and entertainer, remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the circus that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Although Barnum was also an author, publisher, philanthropist, and for some time a politician, he said of himself, “I am a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,” and his personal aims were “to put money in his own coffers.” Barnum is widely, but erroneously, credited with coining the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Born in Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum became a small-business owner in his early twenties, and founded a weekly newspaper, before moving to New York City in 1834. He embarked on an entertainment career, first with a variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater,” and soon after by purchasing Scudder’s American Museum, which he renamed after himself. Barnum used the museum as a platform to promote hoaxes and human curiosities such as the ‘”Feejee” mermaid’ and “General Tom Thumb.” In 1850 he promoted the American tour of singer Jenny Lind, paying her an unprecedented $1,000 a night for 150 nights.
After economic reversals due to bad investments in the 1850s, and years of litigation and public humiliation, he used a lecture tour, mostly as a temperance speaker, to emerge from debt. His museum added America’s first aquarium and expanded the wax figure department.
Barnum served two terms in the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a Republican for Fairfield. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution over slavery and African-American suffrage, Barnum spoke before the legislature and said, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.” As mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut he worked to improve the water supply, bring gaslighting to streets, and to enforce liquor and prostitution laws. Barnum was instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and was its first president.
The circus business was the source of much of his enduring fame. He established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks,” which adopted many names over the years.
Barnum died in his sleep at home on April 7, 1891 and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut, a cemetery he designed.
Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of inn keeper, tailor and store-keeper Philo Barnum (1778–1826) and second wife Irene Taylor. He was the third great grandson of Thomas Barnum (1625–1695), the immigrant ancestor of the Barnum family in North America. His maternal grandfather Phineas Taylor was a Whig, legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and lottery schemer, and he had a great influence on his favorite grandson. Barnum was adept at arithmetic but hated physical work. He started as a store-keeper, and he learned haggling and using deception to make a sale. He was involved with the first lottery mania in the United States. He married Charity Hallett when he was 19.
The young husband had several businesses: a general store, a book auctioning trade, real estate speculation, and a state-wide lottery network. He became active in local politics and advocated against blue laws promulgated by Calvinists who sought to restrict gambling and travel. Barnum started a weekly paper in 1829, The Herald of Freedom, in Danbury, Connecticut. His editorials against church elders led to libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in imprisonment for two months, but he became a champion of the liberal movement upon his release. In 1834, when lotteries were banned in Connecticut, cutting off his main income, Barnum sold his store and moved to New York City. In 1835 he began as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, claimed by Barnum to have been George Washington’s nurse, and to be over 160 years old.