The Self-Made Man: P.T. Barnum
Man, how have we been talking about entrepreneurs for this long without bringing up their patron saint? P.T. Barnum was like entrepreneurism concentrate, starting numerous businesses throughout his lifetime (including the circus that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus), and was among the most famous American showmen in the world by the time he died in 1891. He was also an unrepentant scam artist who used his traveling and stationary museums to promote hoaxes and counterfeit freakshows alongside more legitimate attractions. Barnum may not have coined the term “there’s a sucker born every minute,” but he did live by it.
Barnum was born in Connecticut in 1810, and had a hand in quite a few business ventures by his early twenties, the most profitable of which was a state-wide lottery network. But when Connecticut banned the lottery in 1835, Barnum moved to New York City and, like any other bombastic young man in his situation would have done, began promoting a blind, crippled slave woman as George Washington’s 160-year-old former nurse.
After her death (she was probably 80 at the time), Barnum formed his Grand Scientific and Musical Theatre, which did okay, but it wasn’t until after the Panic of 1837 ended that he really took off. He bought Scudder’s American Museum in New York, renamed it after himself (a practice kept alive today by fellow conman Donald Trump), and began filling it with every exorbitant gimmick he could imagine. Barnum’s American Museum, as it was known, offered hot air balloon rides, numerous public viewings of human oddities (giants, midgets, the morbidly obese, etc.) and entertainers (jugglers, dancers, “exotic” women), and a menagerie of animals that, unlike the zoo, did more than sleep and have sex while on display.
Barnum’s Museum was also home to the “Feejee Mermaid,” a fake mermaid corpse made by attaching the front half of a juvenile monkey to the back half of a fish, then wrapping the whole thing in paper mache. Not his finest hour by any means, but I guess it’s no worse than the Bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster crap we see today.
The success of his museum, a tour of Europe, and a series of concerts by Swedish soprano Jenny Lind allowed Barnum to get involved in other industries, namely the circus and the theatre. In fact, he turned theatre into respectable middle-class entertainment in New York (theatre was to his society what non-WWE pro wrestling is to ours) by promoting morally acceptable plays, or watered-down bawdier ones, as something one could see with one’s family in a safe part of town.
His involvement with the circus came later, when he was 61 and broke after a brief political career and a series of failed investments that almost ruined his good name. With the whole country laughing at him, Barnum was forced to hoof it as a temperance speaker – he’d given up drinking after what I only assume was a particularly drunken tour of Europe – to get out of debt. Once he’d accomplished that (and found some new acts to promote along the way), he partnered with businessman William Cameron Coup to found a traveling circus and sideshow that would later be merged with circus impresario James Bailey’s operation. Known then as the Barnum & Bailey Circus, it was a mammoth affair that was the biggest of its kind in the world. Barnum also turned himself into a character for his own show, which made sense since he was almost a dead ringer for Grandpa Munster by that point. His circus lives on to this day, and some of the original cotton candy from Barnum’s tenure is probably still in circulation.
I realize that this column is a little scattered, but Barnum’s life is hard to pin down in less than a thousand words, as his dense autobiography would suggest. He packed at least 200 years’ worth of business dealings into 81 years, and his beliefs in relentless self-promotion and the idea that all press was good press are still, in a way, held by entrepreneurs today. He had no shame in using outrageous hype to capture public interest, but he was smart enough to not write checks that his ass couldn’t cash (figuratively speaking, anyway). The people might not have always gotten the show they were expecting, but they always got a show from P.T. Barnum.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.