In 1842, P. T. Barnum met a mermaid. She was just under three feet tall, with leathery skin, sharp teeth, and pendulous breasts. The mermaid had purportedly been caught by a fisherman off the coast of Japan. Mummified, she’d then been sold to an American sea captain. The sea captain tried to recoup the purchase price—roughly a hundred and thirty thousand dollars in today’s money—by exhibiting her in London, but the English papers were unkind. Soon the mermaid was second-billed to a “Learned Pig” named Toby. She fell into obscurity and then, eventually, into the hands of a Boston impresario.
When the mermaid was presented to Barnum, he was immediately taken with the shrivelled creature. The year before, he’d bought the American Museum, an establishment in lower Manhattan. It housed an eclectic collection of wax figures, statues, paintings, and animals both living and stuffed. Barnum’s chief interest in the venture lay, by his own account, in the “opportunities it afforded for rapidly making money,” and in the mermaid he saw a potential bonanza. The thing was an obvious fake—it had been stitched together out of parts of an orangutan, a baboon, and some kind of salmon—but that was a minor matter. How “to awaken curiosity to see and examine the specimen” was, Barnum said, “the all-important question.”
The scheme he came up with was to package one fraud inside another. Under a variety of assumed names, he composed letters to New York newspapers and arranged to have them mailed from cities including Montgomery, Alabama, and Charleston, South Carolina. The letters referred to a naturalist visiting from London, one Dr. Griffin, who’d recently procured “a veritable mermaid” from the “Fejee Islands.” Eventually, Dr. Griffin—actually, an associate of Barnum’s named Levi Lyman—checked into a hotel in Philadelphia, where he graciously invited a few journalists to view the specimen. Barnum, meanwhile, made the rounds of New York editors, complaining that his plan to exhibit the mermaid had been nixed by the fastidious Dr. Griffin. The woodcuts that he’d had made of the creature were now of no use to him, he said, so he’d allow them to be reproduced, free of charge. Three papers printed the images on the same day, each believing it had an exclusive.
“The mermaid fever was now getting pretty well up,” Barnum later recalled. When the specimen went on display at the American Museum, ticket sales tripled. Newspapers across the country printed notices about the “Fejee mermaid,” because, as Barnum observed, these “caught the attention of readers.” Thus the mermaid’s fame—and his own—“wafted from one end of the land to the other.”
Barnum lied easily and often. When he was not fabricating, he was exaggerating; he routinely inflated how much he’d spent on his various business ventures. He may or may not have said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but certainly he believed in this maxim and welcomed any imbroglio that would be noticed by the press. (Many times, he staged controversies for the express purpose of generating coverage.) He made a fortune, then lost it. While broke, he gave speeches on “the art of money-getting”; improbably enough, these proved extremely profitable. Toward the end of his life, Barnum toyed with the idea of running for President. His running mate, he suggested, should come from a state like Indiana. Barnum called himself the “Prince of Humbugs,” which, generously and perhaps presciently, left open the possibility that one day there would arise a king.
A new biography, “Barnum: An American Life” (Simon & Schuster), by Robert Wilson, traces the long arc of the showman’s career, which spanned most of the nineteenth century. According to Wilson, the editor of The American Scholar, Barnum’s peculiar gift lay in his relationship to his audience. Better than anyone who’d come before, the Prince of Humbugs understood that the public was willing—even eager—to be conned, provided there was enough entertainment to be had in the process. That theory of Barnum’s genius makes Wilson’s book peculiarly relevant, although it’s not altogether clear that this is the author’s intent.
Phineas Taylor Barnum—Tale to his family and friends—came from a long line of humbugs, Wilson relates. He was born in Bethel, Connecticut, in 1810, and named for his maternal grandfather. Uncle Phin, as the older man was known, had fought in the American Revolution and then managed to buy much of the property around Bethel. Growing up, Barnum was told that Uncle Phin had purchased a prime piece of farmland for him, a gift that made him the wealthiest child in town. Uncle Phin alluded to the purchase at least once a week, and Barnum’s parents, too, often mentioned their son’s good fortune. When, at the age of about twelve, Barnum was finally taken to visit—or, really, wade out to—his patrimony, he realized he’d been the victim of an elaborate prank: instead of fertile fields, he’d been deeded a hornet-infested swamp. If he was wounded by the hoax, he also seems to have profited from it. “My grandfather would go farther, wait longer, work harder and contrive deeper, to carry out a practical joke, than for anything else under heaven,” he later wrote. “In this one particular, as well as in many others, I am almost sorry to say I am his counterpart.”
In contrast with Uncle Phin, Barnum’s father, Philo, was a failure at money-getting, and when he died, in 1826, he left the family in debt. Still a teen-ager, Barnum was sent to clerk at a general store outside Bethel, where he staged his earliest recorded swindle. He advertised a “MAGNIFICENT LOTTERY!” and sold a thousand tickets at fifty cents apiece. Winners who came to claim their prizes received empty bottles or blackened tinware from the store’s inventory of old junk. Not surprisingly, the place soon closed.
Barnum tried opening his own store. He also founded a newspaper, the Herald of Freedom, and created an agency to sell lottery tickets. (This was long before government-sponsored gambling, and the contests were private ventures.) The store lost money. The Herald prompted several libel suits, including one that landed Barnum in jail. The agency, for its part, did quite nicely, until lotteries were banned by the Connecticut state legislature, in 1834.
The following year, Barnum finally found his vocation—or perhaps it found him. An acquaintance told him about a travelling act that was up for sale. It featured a woman, Joice Heth, who was advertised to be a hundred and sixty-one years old and the former nursemaid of George Washington. Barnum rushed to Philadelphia, where the show with Heth was playing. She was blind, toothless, and practically paralyzed. Still, as Barnum put it, she “was very garrulous when speaking of her protégé, ‘dear little George.’ ” He resolved to buy the act, which effectively meant buying Heth, who’d been a slave in Kentucky but whose legal status in Pennsylvania was murky.
In New York, Barnum engaged Levi Lyman, who later posed as Dr. Griffin, to serve as Heth’s director-cum-chaperon. The two men flooded the city with ads and, it seems, bribes; Lyman paid off editors to gin up interest. Whether or not New Yorkers were convinced by the claims made about Heth, they flocked to see her, and soon Barnum had made back the thousand dollars he’d paid for her. When the crowds in New York began to thin, he sent Heth and Lyman on to Providence, Boston, and Hartford. The abolitionist movement was strong in New England, so the flexible Lyman concocted a new story: the proceeds from the act were going to purchase the freedom of Heth’s great-grandchildren, back in Kentucky. Even by the standards of the time, Barnum’s use of Heth was shameful, a point made by at least one un-bought-off editor. A “more indecent mode of raising money than by the exhibition of an old woman—black or white—we can hardly imagine,” the Boston Atlas declared.
Barnum’s imagination, though, was not so limited. After Heth died, in 1836, he arranged for her to give one last show. Ostensibly to determine how old she had been, he staged a public autopsy. Fifteen hundred people bought tickets to the event, at an amphitheatre on Broadway. Based on the condition of her organs, the presiding physician concluded that Heth had been at most eighty. The New York Sun reported this finding the next day, under the headline “Precious Humbug Exposed.” To a rival paper, Lyman, presumably with Barnum’s blessing, peddled the fiction that the body on the table had not been Heth’s at all; she was in Connecticut, “alive and well.” Several other papers weighed in on the ghoulish dispute, providing Barnum with just the sort of attention he thrived on. “Newspaper and social controversy on the subject (and seldom have vastly more important matters been so largely discussed) served my purpose as ‘a showman’ by keeping my name before the public,” he crowed.
A few years after Heth’s demise, Barnum found his way to an even bigger hit, in the form of a very small person named Charles Stratton. Stratton had stopped growing when he was a baby, but in every other way had continued to develop normally. At the time Barnum encountered him, he was four years old and just two feet tall. Barnum entered into an agreement with Stratton’s parents, bumped his age up to eleven, and rechristened him General Tom Thumb.
As luck would have it, Stratton proved to be a theatrical prodigy. In almost no time, Barnum had taught him how to sing, dance, swing a cane, and do impersonations. (By all accounts, he could pull off a wicked Napoleon.) Wearing an overcoat, Barnum would sometimes show up at the American Museum right as a performance was scheduled to begin. Patrons would crowd around him, demanding to know where Tom Thumb was. After a few minutes, Stratton would emerge from an extra-deep pocket in Barnum’s coat: “Here I am, sir!”
“They’re all native to the region.”Cartoon by Amy Hwang
Barnum sent Stratton on a tour up and down the East Coast, during which, it was claimed, the boy was seen “by nearly half a million persons.” Next, he took him to England, where, after considerable conniving, he managed to get him an audience with Queen Victoria. She was amused. This coup turned Tom Thumb into a sensation. “I felt the golden shower was beginning to fall,” Barnum later recalled. The two went on to Paris, where Tom Thumb appeared on the Champs-Élysées in a tiny carriage pulled by two Shetland ponies. In France, the boy performed his Napoleon imitation only once, at the request of King Louis-Philippe, during a private show at the royal country palace.
Barnum remained with Tom Thumb in Europe for nearly three years. Exactly how much money he made from the trip is unknown; probably it was the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars in today’s money. Returning to the United States in 1847, Barnum used his newfound wealth to expand his operations in all directions. He booked the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind on a U.S. tour. He renovated and enlarged the American Museum, adding a theatre to the complex. For his family—he now had a wife and three daughters—he built an enormous mansion in Bridgeport. (The place, called Iranistan, looked like a mashup of the Taj Mahal and the British Parliament.) He created a circus, P. T. Barnum’s Great Asiatic Caravan, Museum, and Menagerie; invested in an early version of a fire extinguisher, the Phillips Fire Annihilator; and launched another newspaper, the Illustrated News. He bought up a large chunk of Bridgeport, divided it into lots, and began lending money to the purchasers of those lots. Then he went broke.
According to Barnum’s version of events, he was ruined by a perfidious business partner, who tricked him into endorsing half a million dollars’ worth of promissory notes. But Barnum never convincingly explained how the deception worked, and there is some question about whether it ever took place. The business partner maintained that he was the one who’d been duped. And even though Barnum insisted that he’d had no inkling of the impending disaster, he had transferred a number of his assets to associates and to his wife, Charity, months before he declared bankruptcy. “Without Charity, I’m nothing,” he would joke. (Iranistan, which had been valued at thirty-two thousand dollars, somehow ended up mortgaged for more than three times that much.)
Those who had deplored Barnum’s humbug-fuelled rise exulted in his fall. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that it showed the gods to be “visible again.” James Gordon Bennett, a longtime Barnum foe and the editor of the New York Herald, wrote, “It is a case eminently adapted to ‘point a moral or adorn a tale.’ ” But from other quarters came outpourings of sympathy and support. The citizens of Bridgeport offered to lend Barnum fifty thousand dollars. Stratton, now eighteen years old, volunteered to help, and he and Barnum set off on another tour of Britain, which proved just as successful as the first. Barnum also developed his lecture on “the art of money-getting,” and took it on the road. (On the lecture circuit, he was accompanied by the Fejee mermaid.) A few years after he declared himself bankrupt, Barnum boasted to a pal that the American Museum, which he had “leased” to his wife and some friends, was earning him ninety thousand dollars a year. As Wilson points out, “he told a much different story to those still making claims” on the notes he had signed. The holders of these had to settle for less than twenty cents on the dollar.
Wilson admires Barnum. He thinks it’s regrettable that he’s been reduced to a caricature, to the kind of person who’d sneer, “There’s a sucker born every minute”—another Barnum line that Barnum probably never actually uttered. In Wilson’s telling, Barnum is a far more complex character—a huckster, yes, but one with high-minded ideals that he strove, sometimes successfully, to live up to. As evidence, he points to the showman’s evolving views on slavery.
As a young man, Barnum briefly owned slaves. During a swing through the South in the late eighteen-thirties, he acquired a man and an unrelated woman and her child; then, before heading north again, he sold them. But by the mid-eighteen-fifties, at least on paper, Barnum had become an abolitionist. In a letter dated 1855, he wrote that he had “grown to abhor the curse from witnessing its fruits.” (In the same letter, Barnum claimed to have “spent months on the cotton plantations of Mississippi”; as Wilson notes, this was almost certainly a fabrication.)
Also around 1855, Barnum switched his allegiance from the Democratic to the Republican Party. During the Civil War, he ardently supported the Union, filling his museum with military paraphernalia and staging patriotic dramas in the theatre. The museum came to be identified with the Northern cause, and when Confederate agents travelled to New York in the fall of 1864, planning to burn down the city, one of the blazes they set was at Barnum’s establishment. (All the fires were quickly put out, and Barnum capitalized on the plot by commissioning a wax figure of an agent named Robert Cobb Kennedy, who was later executed.) As the war was drawing to a close, Barnum decided to run for the Connecticut state legislature, and won. Once in office, he fought to extend voting rights to blacks.
“Over many years, Barnum became a steady, civic-minded, fun-loving man” who “embodied many of the best aspects of the American character,” Wilson writes at one point. Barnum became “a better person as he navigated a long lifetime,” he says at another. As cruel as Barnum’s stunts seem now, Wilson asks that we view them in their context. “Human curiosities” were a standard feature of the travelling acts of the day. Even as Barnum was exhibiting his Tom Thumb, another dwarf called Tom Thumb was making the rounds; and, in the mid-nineteenth century, minstrel shows were a popular form of entertainment. “We live in an ahistorical age,” Wilson laments.
But if, as Wilson suggests, Barnum became “a better person” with age, “better” is a relative term. Twenty-five years after the Heth affair, Barnum put on display a microcephalic black man named William Henry Johnson. “On the Origin of Species” had recently been published, and Barnum advertised Johnson as the “connecting link” between humans and apes. For a while, he exhibited as “Aztec Children” two other microcephalics. A long-running act at his museum featured a family of Danish albinos, who were billed as “white negroes” from Madagascar.
And the later-life hoaxes weren’t solely professional. When Barnum was sixty-three, his long-suffering wife, Charity, died. The showman had by this time gone all in on a circus—the so-called “Greatest Show on Earth”—and was in Hamburg, meeting with Europe’s leading animal supplier. (The supplier, Carl Hagenbeck, would remember Barnum as der König aller Schausteller, “the king of all showmen.”) “However deep his private grief was,” Wilson writes, Barnum didn’t return from Germany upon receiving the news. Instead, he sailed for London, “where he could be among friends.” Charity had been in her grave for less than three months when Barnum married one of these “friends,” a comely twenty-three-year-old named Nancy Fish. He came back to Connecticut without Fish, then staged a second, sham wedding six months later.
In his autobiography, which he published and then repeatedly revised over the years, Barnum is, by turns, confiding and aggrandizing. He lays out the sordid details of the Heth affair, then maintains that he was shocked to learn her true age. The book’s self-regard is breathtaking. For “the elevation and refinement of musical taste,” he has “done more than any man living,” Barnum writes. His museums have been “the largest and most interesting ever.” For instructing “the masses” about animals, “no author, or university even has ever accomplished as much.” He has been “a public benefactor, to an extent seldom paralleled in the histories of professed and professional philanthropists.”
Doubtless it’s true that the cartoon Barnum doesn’t do justice to the real one, who brought so much pleasure and excitement to his contemporaries. The museum, the Tom Thumb tour, the Jenny Lind performances, the circuses—these were the “Game of Thrones” of their day. But to ask readers to look past Barnum’s faults would seem to miss the point.
Barnum became one of the most celebrated men in America not despite his bigotry and duplicity, his flimflamming and self-dealing, but because of them. He didn’t so much fool the public as indulge it. This held for Joice Heth and the Fejee mermaid and also for himself; he turned P. T. Barnum into yet another relentlessly promoted exhibit—the Greatest Showman on Earth. Americans, he knew, were drawn to such humbug. Why they are still being drawn to it is a puzzle that, now more than ever, demands our attention. ♦