Businessman. He was a legendary 19th Century American showman and circus promoter who is best remembered for founding the first modern three-ring circus, which also would eventually became the biggest and most important circus in the world, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. He was born Phineas Taylor Barnum on July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, the oldest of five children of an inn and store-keeper. After his father’s death when he was 15, Barnum went to work as a store-keeper, and was also active in the lottery mania then prevailing in the U.S. After failing in business, he started a religious-oriented weekly newspaper, “The Herald of Freedom,” in Danbury in 1829. He started the paper to combat what he perceived to be sectarian attempts to bring about a union of church and state. After several libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in 60 days imprisonment, he moved to New York City in 1834, where he began his career as a showman. In 1835, he started this new venture with the purchase and exploitation of a blind and elderly black slave woman, Joice Heth, reputed to have been the nurse of George Washington, and to be over a hundred and sixty years old. With this woman and a small company he made well-advertised and successful tours in America till 1839, though Joice Heth died in 1836, when an autopsy proved her age to be not much over eighty. After his success with Heth Barnum joined up with the Aaron Turner Traveling Circus, bringing with him a Negro juggler and singer. Upon their arrival to North Carolina his juggler escaped from slavery. Not wishing to lose a profit, Barnum darkened his face and did the act himself. Following the failure of his touring show, he purchased Scudder's American Museum, New York, in 1841. He added considerably to the museum’s attractions, and it became one of the most popular shows in the United States. He made a special hit by the exhibition, in 1842, of the famous midget Charles Stratton, the celebrated “General Tom Thumb.” In 1844 Barnum toured with Stratton in England, where they were presented to Queen Victoria’s court. A remarkable instance of his enterprise was the engagement of the renowned “Swedish Nightingale,” soprano Jenny Lind, for a singing tour of the U.S. for the then-unheard-of salary of $1,000 a night for one hundred and fifty nights, all expenses being paid by Barnum. The tour began in 1850. Another major Barnum attraction of the period was Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese (conjoined) twins. Barnum retired from the show business in 1855, but had to settle with his creditors in 1857, and resumed his old career again as showman and museum proprietor. In Brooklyn, New York in 1871, he established the "Greatest Show on Earth," a traveling amalgamation of circus, menagerie and museum of "freaks” which became the first modern three-ring circus. In 1881 he merged with James Bailey to create the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which toured around the world. The show's primary attraction was Jumbo, an African elephant he purchased from the London Zoo. Years after his death on April 7, 1891, his circus was sold to Ringling Brothers to form what would become the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum wrote several books, including “The Humbugs of the World” (1865), “Struggles and Triumphs” (1869), and two autobiographies.
Bio by: Edward Parsons