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The Truth Behind The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman is a feel-good, family film with plenty of empowering messages about diversity, acceptance, and inclusiveness. But while the film has plenty of heart, it is not completely accurate—glossing over more controversial details, casting Barnum as the “hero”, and downplaying some of its more noteworthy historical figures. Here is the truth behind The Greatest Showman.


Barnum had a darker past than as portrayed in the film.

Image via Hollywood Reporter

The real P.T. Barnum was not that much of a hero. He started his show business career when he purchased an elderly slave named Joice Heth and advertised her as a 160-year-old former nurse of George Washington. Though she was blind and nearly paralyzed, he overworked her, and horrifyingly, hosted a live autopsy of her body after she died. Barnum also made several other controversial decisions, such as exhibiting the bearded lady when she was only an infant, and as a politician, passing legislation in Connecticut to ban all forms of contraception.


Jenny Lind was not just a jilted lover.

Image via Vanity Fair

In the film, Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera singer, falls in love with the married Barnum and leaves the tour in a huff when he rejects her advances. The real Lind, however, is much stronger than how she is portrayed by the film. She never had a romantic relationship with Barnum, and in fact, joined the tour not for profit, but to raise money for charity, particularly for schools in Sweden. Later, uncomfortable with how he marketed her, Lind split with Barnum, continued the tour on her own for a year, and donated all the proceeds from her concerts in America to multiple charities.


That joyless newspaper critic, James Gordon Bennett, was actually legendary.

Image via MusicalNewz

In the film, Bennett comes across as a sort of humorless killjoy, but his character is far more complex than that. The real Bennett was born in Scotland and immigrated to America, where he scrambled to survive. After a few jobs, he founded the New York Herald, which in its early days, operated out of a dilapidated basement office. His chance of success was low, but over the next few decades, managed to turn the Herald into a newspaper with the largest circulation in America and helped shape journalism into what it is today. His path crossed with Barnum’s most notably during the controversy surrounding the death and live autopsy of Joice Heth.

Despite it all, The Greatest Showman is still a film worth watching and its soundtrack is attention-grabbing, particularly “This Is Me”, the ultimate power anthem for anyone who ever felt out of place. Any musical film inspired by historical events can be expected to stretch the truth and glorify it a little bit for the sake of entertainment. After all, what P.T. Barnum and The Greatest Showman set out to do in the first place was exactly that—to entertain.

Dede Ahn

UCSB '20

Dede is a first year English major at UCSB. 
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