P.T. Barnum: Exploiter or Uplifter?


For 146 years, the Barnum and Bailey Circus
was known for being the greatest show on earth. None of it would have been possible if it
were not for an ambitious entrepreneur named PT Barnum. While his life and career were
sometimes the source of controversy, he truly was a brilliant businessman, and many of his
ideas forever changed the entertainment industry as we know it today.
Early Life Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in 1810 in
Bethel, Connecticut. His parents, Philo Barnum and Irene Taylor were farmers who rented out
rooms in their home for extra income. His grandfather was a well-respected judge in
the town. On the day of his baptism, PT Barnum inherited a 4.7-acre piece of land from his
grandfather called “Ivy Island”. His parents were poor, but as a child, he grew up believing
that he was the richest kid in town, because he thought that he inherited a private island
somewhere that he could build a house on some day. When he was 10 years old, his parents
finally took him on a trip to visit Ivy Island, where he discovered that it was virtually
worthless. The island was muddy land in the middle of a swamp, and it was filled with
poisonous snakes, ticks, and poison ivy. He never did anything with the land. Today, it
now part of a nature reserve called the Bethel Land Trust. This was clearly disappointing, and it left
him yearning for a reality where he truly would be rich enough to buy a private island
some day. But he wasn’t interested in the traditional ways of making money. By his own
admission, he had the reputation of being “the laziest boy in town”, because he
hated doing farm work and manual labor. Instead of forcing Phineas into caring for the family
farm, his father helped get him a job as a clerk in the town grocery store. This was
a perfect fit, and Phineas grew to love the idea of running his own business. When he
was only 15 years old, his father died, and he was now the man of the family. This motivated
him even more to make as much money as he possibly could. He was possessed by the entrepreneurial
spirit, and he began trying different business ventures right away. His most successful business as a teenager
was running a lottery. While working in the grocery store, he had an endless supply of
glass bottles and tin advertising trays that he was expected to throw away. He knew that
these items would be useful in people’s homes, and he wanted to recycle them in some
way. But people were not interested in buying them second-hand. He started selling tickets
for a lottery, instead. He promised that half of the tickets sold would be guaranteed to
win something. There were a few big cash prizes, and consolation prizes were those items he
got for free. He sold 1,000 tickets in just the first week, and he continued to run the
lottery over and over again. When he was just 16 years old, he used all
of the money he earned from these lotteries to move to Brooklyn, New York to open his
own grocery store. Unfortunately, he caught smallpox, and had to move back to Connecticut
so his mother could help nurse him back to health. After recovering from his illness,
he knew he needed to try again. When he was 18, he opened up a confectionary shop in his
home town that sold fruit and candy. He was able to run more lotteries in his own store.
He married his first wife, Charity Hallett, when he was 19 years old, and she was 21.
They would eventually go on to have four daughters together. While he was never overly romantic,
he did write that his wife was a “treasure”, and that “Without Charity, I am nothing.” When he was 21, he wrote several passionate
articles about politics and sent them in to the local newspaper, but they were all rejected.
He decided that if no one was going to publish his work, he would self-publish his own paper,
called The Herald Freedom. He had enough money to buy his own printing press, and handed
out the newspapers in town. In one of his articles, he exposed the corrupt leaders of
the town’s local church. The men sued him for libel, since he had no proof to back up
his claims in court. He ended up paying a $100 fine and spent 60 days in jail. When
he was released, he became a local hero, and a leader of the liberal movement. Everyone
loved him in Bridgeport, but he decided that he achieved all he could possibly do in Connecticut.
He wanted to move to New York City, where he knew he would have so many more opportunities
to earn his fortune. The First Taste Of Show Business
PT and Charity Barnum bought a boarding house in New York City so they could earn some income
by renting out their extra rooms, just like his parents had done back in Connecticut.
He used his knowledge from working in retail to have partial ownership of a grocery store
without having to do any of the work, and continued to run his weekly lotteries. He
set himself up in a pretty great financial situation, and he was still in his early 20’s.
His family’s basic needs of food and housing were met, but his sights were on bigger and
better ways to make as much money as he possibly could. When he was 25 years old, he met a man who
told him about Joice Heth, who was an elderly African American slave woman. She claimed
to be George Washington’s nanny, and would go on and on with her stories of their time
together. If this was true, it would have made her 161 years old. Barnum was able to
pay her owner $1,000 in order to put her on display. She looked so incredibly old, that
people actually believed that she may have truly been 161. People came from all over
New York City to see her. She died after only one year of touring. There was a public autopsy
that revealed she was only about 80 years old, but people were not angry about the deception.
While it was a “humbug”, people still enjoyed the spectacle. This gave PT Barnum
a preview of the showman experience. If he could find even more fantastic and interesting
attractions, he didn’t have to do any of the hard manual labor he dreaded so much.
He could just hire talented people to perform, and collect the money from ticket sales. PT Barnum tried to sell tickets to acts with
performers who specialized in juggling and plate spinning, but most of those shows did
not do well, because people had seen these acts before. He realized that he had gotten
very lucky with having Joice Heth as his very first attraction. People really wanted to
pay for something they had never seen, but he had a difficult time figuring out what
to look for without having any experience in the entertainment industry. When he was
26, he temporarily left behind his wife and children to join a traveling circus in order
to educate himself on everything he needed to know about show business. The owner of the circus was a man named Aaron
Turner, and Barnum told him that he was eager to learn more about the business. Turner decided
to give him a first-hand experience with getting a crowd’s attention. The day before their
opening show, Turner pointed at PT Barnum when he was standing in front of a crowd,
claiming that Barnum was Reverend Ephraim Avery, who was well-known in the newspapers
for being acquitted of murder. Everyone knew that Avery was truly guilty, and they were
all talking about him. Not many people knew what he actually looked like, but they all
passionately hated this man. Of course, people believed Turner’s claim,
and they began chasing after Barnum, who started running away. The angry mob got bigger and
bigger, and they were ready to take justice into their own hands by lynching the “murderer”.
At the last moment, Aaron Turner shouted that they were circus performers, and he did it
as a practical joke. Even though this could have been seen as “bad publicity”, it
worked. Everyone in the town was talking about the angry mob, and wanted to know what kind
of crazy men would pull such dangerous jokes on each other. They bought tickets to the
show the next day. After six months with the circus, Barnum started
his own small troupe of traveling performers called, “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical
Theater”. He even bought a steam boat to give tours and musical performances along
the rivers in the south. But after about a year of living on the road, he became very
homesick. He missed his wife and kids, and he wanted stability. He returned to New York,
hoping to find a way to display curiosities and performances without traveling from place
to place. The American Museum
In 1841, Barnum purchased the Scudder’s American Museum and transformed it to be a
much more appealing place to visit. He added flags to the outside, and created an elaborate
rooftop garden, where a hot air balloon gave people rides on a daily basis. Inside, he
had a menagerie of exotic animals, magicians, and miniaturized recreations of famous battles. PT Barnum was a genius when it came to getting
more people to come to his attractions. When the American Museum first opened, he wasn’t
selling as many tickets as he had hoped. So, he found an unemployed man, and paid him to
run through a cycle of various movements. He would pick up a brick on the street, carry
it to the door, show his ticket to the museum, and walk inside. Then, he would walk back
out again, place the brick down, and pick up another. He continued to do this every
single day, to the point where people noticed this ritual on their way to and from work.
Some would even stop to watch this man, and they asked what he was doing. It was enough
to get people curious enough to buy a ticket for themselves, so they could see inside. As time went on, Barnum used the money he
made from ticket sales to improve the quality of his displays. He added one of his most
famous hoaxes, The Fiji Mermaid. He claimed that it was the body of a mermaid that had
been caught off the coast of Fiji, but it was really the skeleton of a monkey sewn onto
a fishtail. One of his most popular live exhibits was known as the “Freak Show”. While some
people disapprove of the fact that he exploited people with physical abnormalities like bearded
ladies and people with extra limbs, he was giving many of these people work when they
would have otherwise never found a job out in the real world. He also paid his employees
very well, and they were all treated like members of the family. Every single one of
the members of the so-called Freak Shows became incredibly rich, and all they had to do was
stand on display. Some of them chose to retire after just a few years of working, and they
went on to get married and have normal lives. When Barnum was 33 years old, he had been
running his American Museum for a few years, and had found some success. But he was always
looking out for the next big thing. He met Charles Stratton, who was one of his distant
cousins. Charles was only 4 years old when they met. He was a proportionate dwarf, standing
only 25 inches tall. He would stay the size of a baby for the rest of his life. Charles’
father was a carpenter, so their family did not have a lot of money. They were afraid
for their son’s future. Not many dwarves could find work outside of the entertainment
industry, and they were never the star of the show. They were always on the sidelines,
used as the butt of a joke. PT Barnum agreed to be his cousin’s manager, and he spent
months teaching him how to sing, dance, and act. He was not sure how well the audiences
would enjoy the show, so at first, he paid the boy’s parents $3 a week, which is the
modern-day equivalent of $70. His parents agreed, and they were happy that their young
son could earn any money at all. PT Barnum’s strategy with Charles’ performance
was to make him the polar opposite of what people expected from a dwarf. He gave the
boy the stage name of “Tom Thumb”, after the well-loved English fairy tale. He also
claimed that he was already 10 years old instead of 5, which made his small stature even more
incredible. Thankfully, Charles was very smart child, and he picked up on how to talk with
the a bigger vocabulary. Barnum advertised Tom Thumb as a “tiny gentleman”, dressing
him in tailor-made suits. He was able to memorize complicated lines, and performed roles of
dignified figures in history, like Napoleon Bonaparte. It worked. He traveled all over the United States and
Europe, becoming one of the world’s first international celebrities. Even Queen Victoria
was a fan of little Tom Thumb. As time went on, PT Barnum hired other proportionate dwarves
to join his American Museum. This is where Charles Stratton met his future wife, Lavinia
Warren. Barnum threw them a wedding ceremony that became front-page news. President Abraham
Lincoln was also a huge fan, and threw them a honeymoon party at the White House. Stratton
made so much money through performing, he could have retired at a very young age. But
he genuinely enjoyed it so much, he continued until he died at 45 years old. The museum became so popular, that people
would buy one ticket and stay there all day, even if they got to the end of the tour. It
would get so crowded, that Barnum had to figure out a way to trick people into leaving. He
put up a sign that said, “This way to the Egress”. People assumed that it was another
attraction, but really, “egress” is just a fancy word for “exit”. Once they left
the building, they could no longer open the door, and if they wanted to come back inside,
they needed to stand in line and buy another ticket.
Iranistan, and The Music Business After having so much success with his American
Museum, Barnum was able to build a massive palace in Connecticut for his family to live.
He called the home Iranistan, because of its middle-eastern inspiration. He modeled the
building after the Brighton Royal Pavilion in England, which was the summer home of George,
Prince of Wales. He was able to host events and bring in famous guest from around the
world, like the author Mark Twain. He used the large halls for musical performances.
He believed that by building such a huge castle, famous musicians would be more likely to perform
at his venues. It worked. In 1850, PT Barnum tried his luck at finding
musical talent from overseas. He convinced a Swedish opera singer named Jenny Lind to
come to New York to perform. According to his autobiography, Jenny Lind only agreed
to travel to the United States because she saw the engraving of Iranistan on the invitation
letter, and she wanted to visit this intriguing palace. He had never heard her sing, but he
learned of her reputation when visiting Europe. Barnum was taking a huge risk by hiring Jenny
Lind, especially since he had no experience in the music industry. He even paid her in
advance to travel to The United States. But Barnum used his marketing genius to hype up
her arrival so much, Americans believed she was one of the greatest singers in the world,
and that they would be foolish to miss her limited-time performance. He created posters
that dubbed her “The Swedish Nightingale”. Her first performance was held in the Castle
Garden, and tickets were sold out. The shows were so popular, Jenny Lind performed
with Barnum 93 times over the course of five months. This new-found fame gave her enough
momentum to hire a new manager and go on a world tour. Barnum was taking a cut of the
ticket sales, of course. Jenny Lind earned $350,000 while she was working with Barnum
for those few months, and she went on to make more during her tour. Barnum received $500,000,
which is the modern-day equivalent of nearly $15 million. Tragically, in 1857, men who were hired to
do repairs on Iranistan while Barnum was away in New York left a pipe burning when they
left for the day, and it caused a fire that destroyed everything. His insurance policy
only paid out $28,000, even though it cost over $150,000 to build the mansion. And then,
in 1865, The American Museum burned down, as well. He rebuilt the museum, but after
only being open a couple years, it burned down a second time. Barnum said that the fires
“burned to the ground all of his life’s accomplishments”. The Barnum and Bailey Circus
At 60 years old, PT Barnum’s life was a roller coaster of success and failure. He
was at an age where most men would decide to cut their losses and retire. But one of
the many things that made PT Barnum such a success was that he didn’t let his failures
stop him from moving forward. His children were all grown up, and his wife Charity had
passed away. He decided that it was the right time in his life to start a traveling circus.
He was the very first circus owner to buy his own train to move the performers and equipment
from place to place. He paid his workers well, and he made sure to use bright, colorful,
elaborate tents and equipment to attract crowds. His first traveling show was called “P.
T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome.” This had many of
the same attractions he once had in his American Museum, only on a grander scale. People outside
of New York City were able to see his freak show, animal menageries, and impressive acrobatic
talent that he had collected over the years of networking and making friends in show business. In 1881, when he was 71 years old, he joined
up with another circus owned by James Bailey, and their combined acts became the famous
Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth. They were the first “three ring circus”- meaning
that they would have three different acts going on at the same time. One of his biggest
attractions at the Barnum & Bailey Circus was Jumbo the Elephant. He was one of the
most popular animals for children in London, and kids in America felt the same way. Everyone
was mesmerized by the massive scale of this circus, and they only continued to improve
upon the show as time went on. The Barnum and Bailey Circus continued to tour long after
his death, only ending in 2017. It went on for 146 years.
Later Life, and Legacy As he grew older, fewer and fewer people criticized
PT Barnum for the tricks he played on audiences, and more people recognized the impact he made
on the entertainment industry. He was well-respect by just about everyone. He wrote four best-selling
books in his later years, including one called The Art of Money-Getting. In another book,
Humbugs of the World, he was very candid about psychics and magicians’ tricks, and he even
called out Harry Houdini. He knew all the tricks of the trade, and wrote that he would
pay $500 to any medium who could truly convince him that they were actually talking to the
dead. His point was that even though we know magic and ghosts are not real, that doesn’t
mean we can’t enjoy the spectacle. Very few people know that PT Barnum took politics
very seriously, especially in his later years. In his autobiography, he wrote that “a man
who takes no interest in politics is unfit to live in a land where the government rests
in the hands of the people.” In 1865, US Congress would be voting on the amendment
of the constitution to outlaw slavery. Technically, he had once been a slave-owner himself, with
Joice Heth. But he worked with and loved so many African American performers over the
years. He felt so passionately about fighting for their freedom, that he used his money
and connections to join the Republican party as part of the Connecticut legislature. He
wanted to do everything within his power to help end slavery in the United States, and
they succeeded. The time he spent on the Connecticut legislature wasn’t the end of his political
career. In 1875, he became the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and served for one year. When he was getting older, PT Barnum paid
a reporter from the local newspaper to write a very flattering eulogy so that he could
hear and enjoy it while he was still alive. He died in 1891 of a stroke, at 79 years old.
He loved his job so much, he was working up until the day he died, and his last words
were a request to look over some receipts. Two years after his death, a statue was built
in Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on land he had donated to the city.
Today, his legacy still lives on in the minds and hearts of everyone who remembers the circus,
and his work has influenced entertainment as we know it throughout
the world.

100 thoughts on “P.T. Barnum: Exploiter or Uplifter?

  1. Love the video love PT Barnum I mean what an icon I always thought that he was a bit of a scoundrel and a bit of an a hole but after watching this I just was in awe of the benevolence of his just helping everybody wow

  2. How about an episode on Otto Von Bismarck? I think that could be very interesting

  3. No mention of him kidnapping people’s children? Come on Simon 🤷🏽‍♂️

  4. That was amazing, thanks for the information. Can't wait to see your next one. I love watching these because it really let's you see pass the myth that surrounds most of the people you choose to do. And my mouth has dropped more then once when hearing what some of them really did to do the things they have.

  5. The ppl that disliked the freak show because of "so called exploitation" needs to remember no one that wants to take away your income is your friend!

  6. When I was little my parents bought me a set of books, kind of like an encyclopedia but each book was the biography of a person. I loved those books. This channel reminds me of them 🙂 Do Louis Braille and Toulousse Lautrec please!

  7. My family is from Bethel CT moved to Newtown I'm the 80's. And oddly enough we had family who.worked for the circus during the depression to make ends meet. It worked my great great grand parents became wealthy. I'll have to look into.this more now.
    I can't stand the circus though the treatment of.the animals and ppl I can't handle. My mom took me to one thinking it would be fun but I cried so much we left. I've never gone back again.

  8. I know that a lot of people are bashing on Barnum and for what he did but he did a lot more good. I watched Simon's other video of the elephant man (it's really sad, btw) and one of the facts was that he had the rest of his days in the hospital with good money in taking care of him. Plus, slavery was a thing back then. He gave Joyce the greatest times to the end and he respected a lot of African-Americans. He didn't look down on them but saw them as his friends, family.

    This is just me but a man that is willing to give jobs of the outcast says a lot. As Simon said, Barnum looked at them as family. If someone in history does more good than harm then that's all that matters. A lot of people in history have had faults. They did amazing things but they are human in the end.

  9. Do a video on Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who was the first socialist prime minister of Pakistan. An Oxford graduate who was hung to death by a dictator. But his legacy still lives.

  10. Simon, I've found, in my old age, that history and factual videos and movies are just as fascinating as good fiction. Thanks for this, I Subbed and Liked, and clicked the Notification Bell. Looking forward to more good stuff. (Have to add Biographics to my nightly visiting list!) Oh, and I'm so glad you included the "Egress" thing; the man was brilliant, as well as fair.

  11. And then he was to be reincarnated in the form of Hugh Jackman to take over the world with the power of friendship! ^^

  12. Suggestions: Otto Van Bismarck and Sun Tzu: The art of war. Manstein, Montgomery, Petain WW2 and WW1 career. Douglas McCarthy: controversial leader.
    You have huge opportunity in this channel, you basically struck gold.

  13. Efrem Avery sounds like an early 19th century O.J. Simpson. Maybe a BIO or a "Today I Found Out" story should be made about him.

  14. They way you pronounce "menagerie" actually makes me angry.
    There's only one "n" in there, and it doesn't rhyme with "lingerie".

  15. 17:00 The purpose and use of the 3 Rings; it enabled them to have a continuous show without waiting for acts to set up and break down between… This meant the show can be going on in Ring 1 while Ring 2 is setting up to go on next while those in Ring 3 break down their props/sets as they had just completed their set. Then Ring 2 would be on while Ring 3 set up to be next and Ring 1 broke down it's sets/props, etc… Rarely, except for the finale, did you have something happening in all 3 Rings simultaneously. Audiences of the era were used to slower paces, waiting between live acts, as vaudeville and "more legitimate" theater were burdened by the need to have set/personnel changes. Having 3 Rings was almost a non-stop sensory overload to those whose ideas of electric light or a non-animal propelled cart were still a novelty.

  16. They tried to ban the freak shows several times for exploitation and it was always the performers themselves who stood up to it. Because of Barnum they had lives far better than anything else they could have had back then.

  17. When I was a young girl more than fifty years ago, my aunt took me to the Barnum and Bailey Circus. I was overwhelmed (I'd never even been to a movie before this) and it was pretty amazing…until they shot a chimpanzee out of a cannon. The sound of the cannon firing was bad enough, but I freaked out so badly about the poor chimpanzee that we had to leave the circus early. I still feel embarrassed thinking about it. I have read enough about PT Barnum to know that he wasn't being cruel to the "freaks" in his circus. This was a time when these people would have been hidden away and shunned. Their own families were often ashamed of them. With the circus they could earn a very good living, gain respect and socialize with other performers. I have no problem with PT Barnum, assuming of course that the performers had freely chosen to work for him.

  18. You should really do a bio of Kurt Cobain. Def one of the most influential cultural icons of all time. I know sooo much about him, but I also knew a lot about others you did bios on and still found your way of telling the story a very refreshing view that brought new facts to life and a fresh perspective to light. Great job duder, but I’m sure you know that from your thousands of subscribers. Do a bio on me next. I’ve lived the most boring life of all time, but you’d tell the story so well, that even I would find it interesting.

  19. Gabaldon single-handedly captured more than ten times the number of prisoners taken by legendary Medal of Honor recipient, Sgt. Alvin C. York, in World War I. Despite this recommendation, Gabaldon was awarded a Silver Star Medal. Please do a boigraphics of him

  20. You know I once thought ghost weren’t real too but if you go to certain places and disrespect the land you will find out the hard way

  21. Looking at him through the lens of the time period he lived in he was a business man with more morals than we have today. He believed in fair wages. He also hired people who would have likely died or been unable to otherwise work. I like to study the world through lens rather than using my modern morals. While modern morals are helpful they can't help us understand everything.

  22. Still pissed off liberals made them end the show, I wanted to take my kids some day

  23. I really enjoyed this one. I was lucky enough to see the circus on its last tour under the Bigfoot. I remember the 3 Stooges were were guest ringmaster and it is them and the animal smells I remember most.

  24. Phineas Taylor Barnum, and elected mayor in 1875 in Bridgeport. His fingerprints are all over the city of Bridgeport Connecticut. Barnum donated 300 acres of what is now known as Seaside Park at the south end of Bridgeport. Seaside Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux who also designed Central Park in New York City. Barnum wintered his circus in Went Field. He build many homes for his staff along the area of Iranistan Avenue and Park Avenue in Bridgeport. Several of my music videos here show Seaside Park as well as the statue of P.T. Barnum.

  25. Hahaha!!! I knew you'd do this one! I myself was born in Waterbury Connecticut; my two elder brothers were born in…you guessed it: Bridgeport BOTH in New Haven County!

  26. P.T. Barnum was my Grandfathers great uncle. So I'm glad you have this video

  27. Barnum grandfather was not poor he was actually a legislator member of the Whig party, land owner, and lottery schemer. I don’t know where this notion of him being poor is from, he comes from people of position as did his wife. P T Barnum was a slave owner. There seems to be an effort to white wash history. They say he’s Protestant but if u dig through his lineage this is not entirely true

  28. I saw this circus in the 1970's and to the wee lad I was then, it truly was "The Greatest Show on Earth".

  29. Small people used to get sent flying onto a wall they would stick to however this was banned same with freak shows. The people being sent flying onto walls did sue the Govt saying you ban what you think to be a wrong but never did care to ask the group you think is being hurt. You guys think freak shows and such should be the persons choice vs ppl?

  30. This has to be one of the best Bios. I was enthralled listening to everything about P.T. Barnum and getting to the part about his mansion and museum burning down hurt me a little, just seeing everything he worked for go up in flames but I'm glad he was able to bounce back from that.

  31. That wasn’t the prince of Wales that had the Brighton pavilion as his summer home !

  32. Wow, that was so different from what I was expecting. Excellent.

  33. This is such a great channel. Kudos to all you who produce this wonderful historical Youtube!

  34. Uplifter. Defintely. He did far more good than bad. He embodies what once was so great about and made us admire the USA. I wished a circus as his would have come through my German city when I was a child. I would have joined in a heartbeat. His magic grabs me more than ever. This is at 57 years of age.

  35. So… PT Barnum didn't work as a tailor with his father and got slapped by Charity's father in his early life? 🙄

  36. I don't care what anyone says I've been to a few and loved every show.

  37. Awesome! I’m from Connecticut and this makes me proud to have been raised here. So much history, I wish we were taught this in school!

  38. As a kid I was babysat by the Barnum Family in Michigan. He was supposedly a direct descendant of PT. I have always been drawn to stories of him as well as loving history. Thank you!!

  39. Amazing. Thanks again for your show. The bio was a good time- like a kid at the circus.😂👍

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