November 29, 2021

#08-158: P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman

P. T. Barnum

Note: The "Greatest Showman" or the "Prince of Humbugs," P.T. Barnum was a model of American ingenuity, with a bit of the con man thrown in.

Get Ready: Would you allow somebody to fool you out of a small amount of money if the result was entertaining?

Few Americans epitomize a certain less-savory aspect of the national character than one Phineas Taylor ("P. T.") Barnum. Some believe his motto was, "There's a sucker born every minute." Though there's no proof that he ever said it, it certainly seems to have been the guiding principle of his career.

Most people today remember Barnum as a founding partner of what became (through a merger) the "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus," known as "The Greatest Show on Earth." (High costs, low attendance, and animal rights protests led to its closure in 2017, after 146 years.)

But Barnum only began his circus when he was 60 years old. He got up to lots of hijinks before that! He published a weekly newspaper in his early twenties before moving to New York City in 1834. His first entertainment endeavor was a variety troupe called "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater."

Then, in 1841, he purchased a small museum and named it "Barnum's American Museum." Barnum filled what had been a legitimate museum of natural history with hoaxes, like the "Fiji mermaid"--half a baby monkey sewn to half a fish--and genuine "curiosities" like "General" Tom Thumb (born Charles Sherwood Stratton), a dwarf who as an adult stood only 3 feet 4 inches (102 centimeters) tall.

In 1850 Barnum promoted the American tour of famed opera singer Jenny Lind, known as the "Swedish Nightingale." He paid her huge sums of money, much of which she donated to schools in Sweden. Uncomfortable with Barnum's mercenary marketing schemes (he had made her so popular he was able to auction tickets for some appearances), she exercised an escape clause in her contract and toured on without him. They parted amicably.

Meanwhile, Barnum began to suffer financial reverses due to bad investments--and one of his rare marketing blunders. In 1855, temporarily retired, he wrote an autobiography in which he detailed the extent to which he had fooled the "suckers"--his customers. The backlash was swift and severe. But Barnum remained proud of his self-granted title, the "Prince of Humbugs." He always insisted that the public had received entertainment worth the price, and that he had never defrauded anyone.

He turned to temperance lectures and public service, serving in the Connecticut legislature, and later as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, to improve his finances--and his reputation. He also expanded operations at his museum, adding the first public aquarium in America, and expanding the "wax museum" of figures.

Then came the circus. One of its attractions is still mentioned by people today who never even heard of Barnum. He purchased an African elephant from the London Zoo in 1882, and that creature's name has become a synonym for "huge": its name was Jumbo.

Barnum died of a stroke at home, aged 80.


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. backlash
  2. blunders
  3. defrauded
  4. dwarf
  5. epitomize
  6. humbugs
  7. less-savory
  8. stroke
  9. temperance
  10. troupe

  1. a negative reaction
  2. a rupture of a blood vessel in the brain
  3. mistakes; errors
  4. imposters; fakes
  5. cheated
  6. an extremely short person
  7. a company of performers
  8. the anti-alcohol movement
  9. serve as a perfect example
  10. not so acceptable socially or morally

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 29, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. a; 2. c; 3. e; 4. f; 5. i; 6. d; 7. j; 8. b; 9. h; 10. g