Since his heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, P.T. Barnum’s name has been shorthand for ebullient humbuggery, maximalist entertainment, inexhaustible self-promotion, rags-to-riches industriousness—for fun. After The Greatest Showman (2017), a highly fictionalized musical that defied studio expectations to gross a Barnumesque $435 million, fades to black, the screen fills with a sober epigram: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” Barnum wrote this at the end of his life, during a period in which he referred to himself as “The Children’s Friend.” He groomed himself to look like Santa Claus.
Yet the images that animate his biographies—of which Robert Wilson’s Barnum is at least the fifteenth, not counting Barnum’s own serially revised and overlapping memoirs—are united by an eerier quality, suspended between the pitiful and the grotesque. The most indelible of these includes the Fejee Mermaid, a three-foot monstrosity composed of the lower half of a large fish stitched to the upper half of a small monkey scowling at the indignity of its afterlife. The What Is It? was a mentally disabled, microcephalic eighteen-year-old black man, four feet tall and fifty pounds, dressed in an ape costume, ordered by Barnum to speak in gibberish, and touted as the “connecting link between man and monkey.” The gargantuan elephant Jumbo, upon being purchased by Barnum and forced to leave the zoological gardens at London’s Regent’s Park, blurted a trumpet call, lay down in the road outside the park’s gates, and refused to budge for a full day. “Let him lay there for a week if he wants to,” said Barnum at the time. “It is the best advertisement in the world.”
There were also the catastrophic fires, five of them, that destroyed Barnum’s museums, circuses, and most opulent estate, yielding horrors equal in their majesty to any of his exhibitions: the pair of squealing white whales burned alive after their tank was shattered in a failed effort to douse the flames; the escaped tiger roaming the streets of lower Manhattan in a snowstorm; the white elephant that, having been led to safety, repeatedly charged back into the inferno in frantic determination to commit suicide.
Wilson is the editor of The American Scholar and the author of two previous biographies of nineteenth-century pioneers, the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and Clarence King, an explorer of the American West. When Wilson set out to write a new life of Barnum, he made a point of courting his predecessors. The most distinguished of these is the historian Neil Harris, whose Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (1973) uses Barnum’s story to examine the birth of modern American culture. Harris gave Wilson his blessing, telling him that “each generation seems to need its own” study of Barnum. Harris’s own thesis, however, suggests otherwise. Barnum built his legend, he writes at the beginning of Humbug, on “the myths and values of a self-proclaimed democracy.” This is what makes Barnum’s insights feel timeless: as long as Americans boast of the triumphs of our democracy (the wisdom of crowds, the beneficence of a free market, the promise of equality for all), his story will continue to mock such ideals as deranged humbug.
Like most great entertainers, Barnum was a born cynic. He grew up in Bethel, Connecticut, a poor rural village in which survival demanded cunning, wit, and ruthlessness—traits known collectively at the time as “Yankee cuteness.” Barnum was proud of his upbringing, which encouraged in him an insatiable appetite for wealth from the moment he learned to count. Wilson begins, as Barnum’s memoirs do, with the story of a practical joke played by Barnum’s beloved maternal grandfather, Phineas Taylor, for whom he was named. At Barnum’s christening in 1810, Phineas “gravely handed over” a gift deed to “Ivy Island,” five remote acres that his grandson was to inherit upon reaching his majority. For the next decade, as Barnum tells it, he was “continually hearing” about how he owned “one of the most valuable farms in the State”—from his grandfather, parents, even his neighbors, all of whom warned him against the perils of immodest wealth. “Now Taylor,” said his mother, “don’t become so excited when you see your property as to let your joy make you sick.” When Barnum finally treks to his inheritance at the age of ten, he discovers that Ivy Island is a waste of muddy bogs plagued by hornets and snakes. He shrieks and runs home.
A challenge for Barnum’s biographers is that the most entertaining and least reliable record of his life comes from his own memoirs, the first edition of which was published before his forty-fifth birthday. Known to friends as “Tale” and standing six foot two, Barnum was a walking tall tale. In 1869 he published a “new and independent” autobiography, which he continued to revise and amend for the next twenty years, the “franker details” falling away in favor of what one later editor called “an atmosphere of pompous self-satisfaction.” To the memoirs Barnum added separate biographical volumes about his museum, the art of the humbug, a children’s book, and anecdotes from his travels.
Wilson faithfully repeats Barnum’s Ivy Island bit, as well as the boasts of arithmetic genius at the age of six and the account of a first trip to New York City at the age of eleven, where he stayed alone for a week at a hotel and squandered all his money, even bartering his own socks, on molasses candy—another Horatio Alger homily about the value of a buck. Wilson believes Barnum about the chiseling practiced at the country store where he clerked, which taught him the art of the con—“our ground coffee was as good as burned peas, beans, and corn could make, and our ginger was tolerable, considering the price of corn meal”—and does not question the authorized version of events until he reaches an episode dating from Barnum’s brief stint as a newspaper editor.
Barnum was drawn to the trade not by journalistic passion but by his early realization that popular success was impossible without overwhelming the public with advertising. He earned his first windfall in the lottery business after he invested in newspaper ads and tens of thousands of handbills and placards bearing “striking prefixes, affixes, staring capitals, marks of wonder, pictures, etc.” At twenty-one he used his profits to buy a printing press and founded a broadsheet, the Herald of Freedom. He wrote editorials attacking the frenzy of Christian revivalism in Connecticut and the hypocrisy of the parochial class. “A number of clergymen and deacons” were among his lottery customers, he liked to boast; he often related an anecdote, likely invented, about a pious churchgoing husband and wife who each bought tickets from him in secret, on the condition that he not inform the other.
His attacks on religious leaders drew libel charges, an effective promotion of his lottery business. After one suit led to a conviction, Barnum rejected a bond in favor of a sixty-day jail sentence, figuring that his imprisonment in the service of freedom of the press would make for good publicity. “The excitement in this and the neighboring towns is very great,” he wrote another editor, “and it will have a grand effect.”
With the apparent acquiescence of local authorities, Barnum turned his cell at the Danbury Common Jail into a communications shop, receiving a near-constant stream of visitors, well-wishers, and newspaper colleagues. A civic organization called the Committee on Arrangements was formed, probably by him, for the purpose of celebrating his valor. On the day of his release—“the day,” writes Wilson, “when his career as a showman began”—the committee escorted him to the courthouse, where, according to his own newspaper, a crowd of 1,500 had assembled. Prominent admirers serenaded him with hymns and recited odes in his honor.
Afterward several hundred men conveyed him to a nearby hotel for a “sumptuous dinner,” in which Barnum received another dozen or so accolades; one of the toasters hailed him as “a young man just on the threshold of active life whom neither bolts, nor bars, nor prison walls, can intimidate.” He was picked up by a six-horse coach that carried a small band blaring patriotic anthems; it was trailed by a marshal hoisting an American flag, forty people on horseback, and sixty additional carriages. A cannon fired on the village green and hundreds cheered as the twenty-two-year-old was paraded three miles to his home.
Did any of this actually happen? The only source Wilson lists is Barnum’s own Herald of Freedom. Wilson has his doubts—“odes and formal speeches do not occur on the spur of the moment, nor do bands and coaches arrive by chance”—though he grants the basic facts of Barnum’s account. In the spirit of fun, let it be so. What matters ultimately is that the occasion, fabricated or real, marks the crystallization of Barnum’s formula for popular success. Wilson writes:
Beginning on December 5, 1832, more would always be more, keeping sympathetic newspaper editors close would always be useful, commissioning songs and poems and speeches would ever enhance an occasion, mixing serious intentions with entertainment sure to draw a crowd would continue to be a good strategy for engaging the public, and his own notoriety would never fail to be a calling card ready at hand.
As one of Barnum’s early partners told him in a letter, “Remember, all we need to insure success is notoriety.”
All press was good press to Barnum, at least in the early stages of his career, before he devoted himself to political crusades against slavery, railroad monopolies, and alcohol. It’s the reason why the expression, without evidence, is often attributed to him. (Also mistakenly attributed is “There’s a sucker born every minute,” a phrase far too crude for his tastes, no matter how much he might have agreed with the sentiment.) One of Barnum’s most reliable tactics derived from his realization that public skepticism need not be a hindrance but could be the main draw.
His first success as a traveling showman came with Joice Heth, an elderly black woman who claimed to be 161 years old and the nursemaid of George Washington. In her act she sang ancient hymns, recounted anecdotes about raising “dear little George,” and brandished a creased and worn bill of sale from the Washington family, dated 1727. Initially Barnum used his lottery methods to boost attendance—pamphlets, posters, and aggressive courting of newspaper editors, which included outright cash bribery. When ticket sales began to decline, however, he leveraged public skepticism of Heth’s age to revive business. A newspaper received an anonymous letter claiming that the elderly black woman was, in fact, “not a human being” but “a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, India-rubber, and numberless springs ingeniously put together.” At the prospect of an ancient robotic nursemaid, sales rebounded. When, shortly thereafter, Heth died, Barnum sold tickets to her autopsy. The next day, after headlines revealed that Heth had been no more than eighty years old, Barnum’s associate convinced the editor of the New York Herald that the autopsy had itself been a hoax—a new outrage that, in Barnum’s words, further served “my purpose as ‘a showman’ by keeping my name before the public.”
His marketing of skepticism was more than a sales trick: it became his career’s organizing theme. During an age, in Neil Harris’s phrase, of “technological progress and egalitarian self-confidence,” Americans were flattered to be granted the privilege of judging what was real and what was humbug. Barnum invited them in on the joke. “The deal he would make with his audiences,” writes Wilson,
was that they would be entertained and that they would get their money’s worth, either by enjoying the state of doubt in which one of his exhibits placed them or by sharing in the pleasure of distinguishing between what was false and what was true.
In his entertainments, dignified experts—scholars, priests, newspaper editors—became props and figures of mockery. Only the common man was invested with real authority, and he voted with coins.
Barnum invented almost none of his material. Many of his acts were stolen from Europe. Twenty years before the Fejee Mermaid came into Barnum’s possession, it had been a sensation in London, which is also where he found the Siamese twins Chang and Eng, Jumbo the Elephant, and the Happy Family, a menagerie of animals that would have been hostile in the wild but lived amicably together in a single cage. His first smash success, an American tour by the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, began only after she had become one of the most famous performers in Europe, her portrait ubiquitous on popular merchandise and in the press, though Barnum downplayed this fact at every opportunity. At least two dwarves named Tom Thumb had been exhibited in New York before he found his own. Barnum’s genius lay in salesmanship. He knew what would sell and how to sell it. And he did it on a larger scale than anybody had dared to imagine, let alone risk: an American scale.
There are limits to the jollity that can be summoned from the reflected thrills of more than a century ago. Barnum’s most vivid moments are the fugitive flashes of a different Barnum, a doppelgänger whom he banished from his own memoirs and largely succeeded in concealing from the historical record.
Some of these details are less incriminatory than revelatory, suggesting a narrative that doesn’t square with the one he cultivated for public consumption. Wilson suggests that Barnum—who in his writing made references to Charles Dickens and Walter Scott, and in his personal life made painfully obsequious efforts to befriend William Thackeray and Mark Twain, and sought to buy and transport to the United States the birthplace of William Shakespeare—was a novelist manqué. While hustling in New York in his early thirties, before he had established his first museum, he published serially, in newspaper columns, a picaresque autobiographical novella called The Adventurers of an Adventurer, Being Some Passages in the Life of Barnaby Diddledum. It appears he never stopped writing it, at least in his mind. Subsequent installments took the form of his almanac-like advertisements, promotional pamphlets printed by the ten thousand (some the length of novellas themselves, and larded with gratuitous embellishments and subplots), and his auto-hagiographies.
Yet the charming life of Barnaby Diddledum left no room for unsympathetic detail. Barnum makes much in his autobiography of his impossibly cool reaction to the cataclysmic fires that haunted his career. Fires destroyed Iranistan, his gargantuan Oriental sandstone villa bedecked with minarets and elaborate scrollwork and five onion domes; his American Museum, with its freaks and “numberless exotic animals” and “one million objects”; his second museum, of even larger scale, four years later; the Hippotheatron in Manhattan, where he held his circus (“everything destroyed except 2 elephants, 1 camel”); and the circus’s winter quarters in Bridgeport, Connecticut (killing every animal but a lion and thirty elephants). In each case he gives his readers the sense that, upon receiving the news over breakfast, he returns to his paper, takes a ruminative bite of croissant, and finishes sipping his tea, before wiring his scouts with orders to replace all that has been lost and more.
He neglects to report that he reacted with the same supreme sangfroid to more personal losses. After being informed of the death of his youngest daughter, Frances, before her second birthday, he declined to cut short a British tour with Tom Thumb (apart from one mention, he ignores Frances in all of his writing). Nor did he return from another European engagement when Charity, his invalid wife of forty-four years, passed away; he missed her funeral, though he insisted that he had mourned her in his Italian hotel room (“my lonely head was bowed, and my tears flowed”). During the same trip, if not earlier, he began a relationship with Nancy Fish, a friend’s daughter forty years his junior, whom he married less than three months into his widowhood. When he finally returned with Fish to his estate after their honeymoon, his family was still wearing black. He would later joke to a reporter that he planned to spread Charity’s ashes on his icy front stair to prevent his second wife from slipping.
Wilson finds himself in the uncomfortable position of celebrating Barnum’s outrageousness while pausing to censure those qualities that “a modern sensibility must struggle to understand”: the casual if spirited racism of his early career; his aloof attitude toward the women in his life; his indifference to the capture, torture, and indiscriminate slaughter of animals. “It is hard not to feel disappointed in him,” writes Wilson, though disappointment is nearly the opposite of fun. Neil Harris set himself the challenge of studying Barnum as an exemplar of his time; Wilson tries to make sense of Barnum in ours. But Barnum refuses to submit. The contortionist act forces Wilson into a retiring middle ground: “Barnum embodied some of America’s worst impulses, but also many of its best.”
The most disturbing line of the book comes not from anything Barnum did but from a lesson he learned. The success of General Tom Thumb’s act—a precocious young “dwarf,” dressed in military attire and paraded about on a carriage pulled by Shetland ponies and attended by a liveried footman—yielded several successors. The first of these was George Washington Morrison Nutt, whom Barnum renamed Commodore Nutt. He debuted twenty years after his predecessor, who was no longer a reliable draw, having grown taller, fatter, and altogether less charming. Still the resemblance between Thumb and Nutt led crowds to question whether the two were the same person. Barnum, always quick to capitalize on his audience’s skepticism—“to turn all doubts into hard cash,” as he put it—brought the two men together on stage. To his surprise, this only deepened the audience’s suspicion. The more he tried to convince customers of their error, he wrote, “the more they winked and looked wise, and said, ‘It’s pretty well done, but you can’t take me in.’” He had trained his audiences in the art of the humbug too well. “It is very amusing,” Barnum concludes, to see how easily people “deceive themselves by being too incredulous.”
Wilson notes this episode only in passing, but to an American reader in 2020, it barks from the page. The great danger to democracy today comes not from marks slow to spot a humbug but from a public made cynical to the point of believing that everything, and everyone, is a humbug, especially the humorless class of credentialed experts whom Barnum took such joy in ridiculing. In the end, though, it’s a distinction without a difference. Too credulous or too incredulous—you’re a sucker either way.