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The Man Behind the Magic – The Story of P.T. Barnum

The Greatest Showman is arguably one of the biggest blockbusters of the year, and part of the fascination is that it’s based on the true story of one of the first showmen – P.T. Barnum, who lived from 1810-1891. This article takes a look at Barnum’s real life, and what the film got right and what it left out.

The Greatest Showman stays true to Barnum’s modest beginnings, but in real life he also had five siblings and his mother to support. He was arrested three times for libel as the publisher of the Connecticut newspaper, Herald of Freedom. He really did have a wife named Charity, but his first start as a showman was when he “rented” and presented an elderly black woman named Joice Heth as the 161-year old nurse of George Washington. Slavery was outlawed in the North by this point, BUT he was still able to lease her for $1000 a year. After she died, P.T. Barnum’s taste for theatricality turned tasteless – he held a live autopsy in which 1500 spectators viewed Joice, and doctors revealed that she was likely half this age. Barnum also showed “Circassian Beauties”, giving them fake afros.

Barnum purchased the American Museum in New York, and looked for curiosities (whether real or fake) to draw in the public. Barnum was living in the age where anything that went against normative society was regarded with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Between 1842 and 1868, Barnum drew in 82 million visitors, ranging from Charles Dickens to Edward VII. The price was 25 cents, and visitors could see “living curiosities”, including an African-American man named William Henry Johnson who was publicised as “…a creature, found in the wilds of Africa…a kind of man-monkey”.

P.T. Barnum and General Tom Thumb

Barnum’s most profitable attraction was Charles Stratton, a 25 inch tall man who took the name of General Tom Thumb. As in the film, Barnum invested hugely in “The Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, who toured for nine months and brought in the modern equivalent of $21 million USD – although there is no evidence that they had the sort of infatuation shown in the film. Barnum did, however, hire Jenny to tour for him, promising her $1000 a night despite never having heard her sing. Far from the seductress she is portrayed as, in reality, Jenny Lind was modest and rejected suitors while she harboured the goal founding a music academy for girls in Stockholm.

Jenny Lind in 1850

Barnum fashioned himself as the “Prince of Humbugs”, and was described by his friends as both egotistical and thoughtful. He became mayor of Bridgeport, fighting against union discrimination against African-Americans as well as prostitution. This was quite a far cry from his days using racial differences to gain profit, but his remorse is doubtful – “with Barnum you never know if that’s part of the act or the contrition was genuine”, stated Benjamin Reiss, author of The Showman and the Slave. Barnum eventually wrote and published his autobiography, giving the rights to it freely for anyone to print and sell it in order to gain more publicity.

Barnum disowned one of his daughters in his will for committing adultery, and left a large bequest to his grandson. Barnum was in his sixties before he ventured into circus territory with his partner James Bailey, but it became more extravagant under his direction. Barnum also published the book Humbugs of the World, in which he described humbug as “…putting on glittering appearances – outside show – novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear”. When he fell ill at the age of eighty-one, Barnum requested that his obituary be published prematurely so that he could read it for himself.

The palatial residence of P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum lived an exhilarating life that is, literally, the stuff of films, but it is always worthwhile to take a look behind the legend and realise that Barnum’s exploitative nature, although a product of his time, was largely based in the othering of those who didn’t fit into the white patriarchal discourse. He was a showman, and his greatest trick was turning those who differed into spectacles for the public.

Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/P-T-Barnum

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-pt-barnum-greatest-humbug-them-all-180967634/

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/12/greatest-showman-hugh-jackman-p-t-barnum-jenny-lind

Images: Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons

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