Biography of Phineas Taylor Barnum

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Phineas Taylor Barnum, born in Bethel, Connecticut, USA, July 5, 1810, was America’s most famous showman and a self-proclaimed “Prince of Humbugs.” After starting out as a merchant and lottery ticket salesman, he fell into the occupation of showman in 1835 with the purchase of a decrepit hymn-singing black woman, Joice Heth, said to be 161 years old, whom he brazenly exhibited as the nurse of George Washington. Graduating to the equally sensational “Feejee Mermaid” (in reality the upper half of a monkey sewn to the body of a fish), he later madefortunes out of the midget TOM THUMB and the Swedish singer Jenny LIND. In these, as in all his enterprises, Barnum was one of the first impresarios to realize the value of massive, carefully planned publicity campaigns, by which he ensured notoriety for his exhibits and maximum profits for himself.

Between 1841 and 1868, Barnum was the proprietor of the AmericanMuseum in New York City, where thousands of curiosities, freaks, and wild animals were displayed, and he produced edifying melodramas such as The Drunkard in a large, well-equipped theater known as the “lecture room.” Stressing education and innocent amusement, the museum became one of New York’s most popular places of entertainment, with over 41 million tickets being sold during Barnum’s management. In 1871 he launched a mammoth traveling CIRCUS, museum, and menagerie. A merger with James A. Bailey’s London Circus ten years later led to the concern that eventually became known as the Barnum & Bailey Show, which in turn was acquired by the Ringling Brothers in 1907. During thewinter of 1889-90, Barnum climaxed his career by taking this “Greatest Show on Earth” to London, where he himself, driven around the hippodrome track in an open carriage, was one of the chief attractions.

Besides an active life as a showman, Barnum was a journalist, real estate speculator, and a popular lecturer. He served four terms in the Connecticut state legislature and one term as mayor of Bridgeport, where the Barnum Museum exists today. There he died on Apr. 7, 1891, a few days after reading his own obituary in the New York Evening Sun.

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