CHARLOTTE, NC. One of the most popular movies of 2017 was The Greatest Showman. It starred Hugh Jackman in the lead role as the internationally famous huckster P.T. Barnum. The film celebrates Barnum’s contributions to show business in a glamorized musical version of his life that was often as controversial as it was fascinating.
Today, Myth Trivia looks at some of the more interesting aspects of this ever popular and justifiably famous hoax-lover’s career as uncovered by a website known as scribol.com
In the beginning
It’s very likely that Barnum’s passion for a good con arrived at an early age. That was a time when he, himself, was hoodwinked.
Barnum’s own grandfather led the naive young boy to believe he was “the richest child in town.” Gramps went so far as to promise him an inheritance of some valuable real estate when he came of age.
Upon learning that neither story was true, Barnum became fascinated by the process of the prank, which had given his family considerable pleasure over the years. As it turned out, it was his grandfather’s scam that led young Barnum into his lifelong pursuit of trickery.
Barnum as a young huckster
As his reputation grew, P.T. Barnum became noted as the author of that ever popular saying “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Today, this time-honored phrase is commonly used by writers and historians to demonstrate Barnum’s contempt for his gullible patrons. On the other hand, most scholars today believe the words were actually those of banker David Hannum in his response to the success of Barnum’s exhibits.
In 1835, Barnum’s first truly effective business scheme came into being when he purchased a slave named Joice Heth. As an abolitionist, Barnum had no intention of perpetuating the previous life of his elderly, blind, and nearly paralyzed human goods. Despite that, the showman did take advantage of her condition, promoting her to audiences as being 161 years-old. Barnum added even more blarney to his tall tale when he claimed that Heth had once nursed George Washington during his infancy.
For whatever reasons, the public took the bait and Barnum parlayed the investment in his human exhibit into a whopping $1,500 a week payday. That’s comparable to $43,000 in today’s US currency.
Following his success with Joice Heth, Barnum realized that curiosities had immense business potential that were limited only by his immense creativity.
The Prince of Humbug
Unable to to find, at first, genuine examples of human abnormalities, the “Prince of Humbug” resorted to other deceptions such as the “Feejee Mermaid.” Billing his exhibit as the remains of a rare creature from the South Pacific, Barnum attached the torso of an ape to the tail of a fish, again duping the public into thinking they were seeing one of the world’s greatest oddities.
Despite Barnum’s obvious fraud, this exhibit became wildly popular. P.T.’s cash register continued to overflow.
Creating the new language of consumer hype
Even the English language became a source of monetary gain for that ever ingenious entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum. In many of his museums Barnum would collect the entrance fee and then post signs that read “This way to Egress.” Patrons would naively file in, only to discover they had exited from the exhibit. In order to see the actual attraction, Barnum would charge the suckers a second fee to get back in.
Introducing Jumbo, the Elephant
One reason the “Greatest Show on Earth” no longer exists today is due to public outcries of inhumane treatment of animals. In Barnum’s day however, Jumbo the Elephant, a mammoth beast that stood more than 10 feet high, was a star attraction of his circus. The Sudanese-born pachyderm not only wowed audiences with his size. He also astounded them with his feats of strength. But his most popular stunt was guzzling a barrel of beer in a single gulp. Jumbo likely enjoyed this one, too.
For the record, Jumbo died tragically when he was accidentally hit by a train.
Barnum creates the country’s first aquatic venue. And a cemetery
Not all of Barnum’s ventures were cons, however. In 1842 in New York, his American Museum boasted an aquarium using water from the nearby East River. It was the first aquatic venue in the country. It even showcased a Beluga whale as its star attraction.
Even today one of the most intriguing attractions in Barnum’s hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut is the Mountain Grove Cemetery, which he designed himself and built in 1849.
Judgment Day for P.T. Barnum. In advance…
With such a notable reputation, Barnum cared about his public image above all else. As such, he requested newspapers to print his obituary several days before he died. The reason? He wanted to read it in advance of his death.
P.T. Barnum passed away in 1891 and was buried in his own cemetery. As a tribute to himself, he honored his passing by installing a monument on the grounds mere weeks before his death.
Thus, even in death, the “Prince of Humbug” was still larger than life.
— Headline image: Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. He appears in the hit 21st Century Fox movie musical “The Greatest Showman.” Fair use in biographical sketch referencing the film.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world.
Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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