Phineas Taylor “P.T.”Barnum was born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut, to Philo Barnum (1778-1826) and his second wife Irene Taylor. His father was an inn keeper, tailor, and store-keeper. P.T.’s third great grandfather, Thomas Barnum (1625-1695) emigrated from England and was the first Barnum ancestor in North America. He was the favorite grandson of his maternal grandfather Phineas Taylor, a Whig, legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and lottery schemer.
When he was 19 years old Barnum married Charity Hallett. The couple became the parents of four children: Caroline C. (Barnum) Thompson, Pauline T. Barnum, Helen M. (Barnum) Buchtel, and Frances I. Barnum. Charity Hallett Barnum was born on October 28, 1808, in Bethel, Fairfield, Connecticut, and passed away on November 19, 1873, place unknown.
Barnum was good at arithmetic but did not like physical work. His first job was as a store-keeper where he learned to haggle and deceive in order to make a sale. He had several businesses: a general store, a book auctioning trade, real estate speculation, and a state-wide lottery network. He was active in local politics and started The Herald of Freedom, a weekly paper, in 1829 in Danbury, Connecticut. He wrote editorials which led to libel suits by church leaders; he was prosecuted and spent two months in prison. His imprisonment led to his becoming “a champion of the liberal movement upon his release.”
In 1834 Barnum moved to New York City because Connecticut banned lotteries, the source of his main income. He became a showman in 1835. Barnum had a variety troupe called “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater.” He purchased Scudder’s American Museum in New York City in 1841; after improving the attraction, he changed the name to “Barnum’s American Museum. With its upgraded building and additional exhibits, it “became a popular showplace.”
Barnum had several other businesses before entering the circus business at age 60. With William Cameron Coup, Barnum established “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome” in 1870 in Delavan, Wisconsin; it was basically “a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of `freaks.’” The business had several name changes before merging in 1881 with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson and becoming “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, and The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United.” The title was soon shortened to “Barnum & Bailey’s.”
“This entertainment phenomenon was the first circus to display 3 rings, which made it the largest circus the world had ever seen. The show’s first primary attraction was Jumbo, an African elephant he purchased in 1882 from the London Zoo.” It also contained acts similar to his Traveling Menagerie (“acrobats, freak shows, and the world famous General Tom Thumb”). The business experienced fires, train disasters and other setbacks but continued forward. Barnum and Bailey split in 1885 but came back together in 1888 with “Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth”; this later became “Barnum & Bailey Circus,” which toured the world.
Barnum became a “business giant” and “marketing expert;” he also rode “around the arena in a chariot, prior to each performance,” “watching, supporting, and enjoying the marvel and wonder he had created.” He is quoted as stating, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” He was “one of the very first circus owners to move his circus by train (and probably the very first to buy his own train).” “His circus was sold to Ringling Brothers on July 8, 1907 for $400,000 (about $8.5 million in 2008 dollars).
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses ran separately until they merged in 1919 forming the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.” The Tufts University Biology Building honors Barnum, and Jumbo the elephant became the mascot of Tufts University.
In 1865 Barnum represented Fairfield, Connecticut in the state legislature; he was a Republican. After the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified, Barnum said in the legislature: “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”.
In 1875 Barnum also served as Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, during which time he “worked to improve the water supply, bring gas lighting to streets, and enforce liquor and prostitution laws. Barnum was instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and was its first president.”
Barnum died in his sleep at home on April 7, 1891; he was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut – a cemetery that he had designed himself.