Master of the Show: P.T. Barnum is Born

The Fiji Mermaid, Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker, General Tom Thumb the Midget – besides being considered “freaks”, they all had in common one man, P.T. Barnum. He was a master showman whose rise to fame came in the 19th century thanks to his traveling “freak shows”. But Barnum was more than that; he was above all else an entrepreneur and a highly successful salesman. Barnum knew how to get people talking. Today, the legacy of his work lives on in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, still billed as ‘The Greatest Show On Earth.’

Born on July 5, 1810 in the small town of Bethel, Connecticut, Phineas Taylor Barnum was the first child of a modestly successful inn and store keeper. He was named after his maternal grandfather. His parents were Calvinists, taking the young Barnum every Sunday to the Congregational, the only church in Bethel. After smelling “the sulphurous fumes” and hearing “the shrieks and groans of those in hell,” Barnum realized the faith was not for him. Instead, he grew attached to the Universalist principles of his grandfather. He began attending Universalist gatherings and even served as a clerk at the Universalist Church in Danbury, Connecticut for a number of years.

Barnum was a strong student and particularly excelled in mathematics. One night, when Barnum was ten years old, a teacher woke him up in order to settle a bet he had made with a neighbour. The bet was that Barnum could calculate the number of feet in a load of wood in five minutes. Barnum did it in less than two minutes, much to the amazement of all the onlookers.

It was in his father’s country store where Barnum would receive his first job; when he was 15 years old, his father died, and Barnum became a store clerk. From there, he would embark on a number of different career paths: a clerk in Brooklyn, a fruit store owner back at home, and even a lottery agent in Pennsylvania. Most of America had found itself caught up in a lottery mania and Barnum wanted to get in on the action. However, after none of the ventures proved particularly successful, Barnum decided to start his own weekly newspaper.

In 1829, Barnum launched The Herald of Freedom in Danbury, Connecticut. He wanted the paper to fight against what he saw as the increasingly dangerous union of church and state. As a result of some of the statements he printed, Barnum was charged three times with libel. He was even once convicted and forced to spend 60 days in jail, but the time passed comfortably, he says: “I had my room papered and carpeted previously to taking possession.” He received countless visitors and when he was released, it was a public relations spectacle.

By 1835, Barnum had moved back to New York City to again follow in his father’s footsteps in opening up a grocery store and a boarding house. It was here in the Big Apple where Barnum’s start in show business would begin.

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