5 Things You Didn't Know About P.T. Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum, commonly known as P.T. Barnum, was born in Connecticut on this day in 1810. Barnum would go on to found what became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Here are 5 amazing facts you probably didn't know about history's greatest showman.


When His Museum Burned for the Second Time, He Opened a Traveling Circus Barnum is best known for his traveling three-ring circuses, but he didn't start performing beneath the big top until he was 60 years old. He was better known before then as the owner of the American Museum in Manhattan, which housed a vast collection of historical artifacts, animal menageries, and freak shows. Some of the museum’s most notable exhibits included General Tom Thumb, a child dwarf, and the “Fejee Mermaid.” Barnum only launched his traveling circus after his museum was twice destroyed by fire. He later teamed with his famed partner James Bailey in 1881, and the two went on to make a fortune running their “Greatest Show on Earth.”

His Famous Elephant “Jumbo” Is The Mascot of Tufts University Barnum bought a massive 6-ton African elephant named "Jumbo" from the London Zoological Society in 1882. The sale sparked outrage in the United Kingdom, where the animal was regarded as a national treasure, but also ushered in "Jumbomania" in the United States. People turned out to Barnum’s circus in droves and bought Jumbo postcards, hats, and other souvenirs. The elephant's reputation even contributed to the emergence of the term "jumbo" as a synonym for "large." Jumbo's reign came to an end in 1885, when he was accidentally killed by a freight train in Ontario. Barnum had Jumbo's hide stuffed and donated it to Tufts University in Massachusetts. It remains both the school’s mascot and the inspiration for its nickname, the "Jumbos."


Barnum Used His Circus Animals To Prove The Brooklyn Bridge Was Safe Shortly after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883, rumors that it was structurally unsound sparked a human stampede that left a dozen people dead. The bridge’s owners had previously turned down a $5,000 offer from Barnum to let him parade his circus animals across it as a publicity stunt, but they changed their minds after the accident. On the night of May 17, 1884, he marched 21 elephants and 17 camels across the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn. The famous Jumbo led the procession. The parade was a priceless piece of advertising for Barnum’s circus, and the combined weight of the elephants—many of which tipped the scales at over 10,000 pounds—helped put to rest any worries about the bridge’s stability.

He Was A Master Hoaxer Many of Barnum’s most popular acts were nothing but hoaxes, yet he still made a lot of money off of them, even after they were exposed as frauds. People flocked to witness his famed fakes, including the "Feejee Mermaid." Barnum presented the creature as if it were a mermaid, but it was actually half a monkey sewn to half a fish. Other hoaxes include the Cardiff Giant, supposedly a petrified giant and Joyce Heth, an old woman who Barnum claimed was the 161-year-old former nanny of George Washington.

Barnum Made An Unusual Request To A New York Newspaper In 1891, Barnum was in poor health but still wanted to get the last laugh. He persuaded the New York Evening Sun to publish his obituary while he was still alive, so he could read it before he died. Barnum died only days later, at age 81.

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