If you haven’t seen The Greatest Showman, then where have you been hiding? The all singing, all dancing Wolverine that is Hugh Jackman has returned with another absolute banger of a musical. Even Zac Efron uses his very own singing voice, which is more than can be said for his High School Musical days. The Greatest Showman tells the story of the birth of the Barnum & Bailey circus, with some Hollywood glitz and glamour thrown in for good measure. Whilst the story is technically true, it’s probably fair to say that P.T Barnum, the original ring master, did not burst into song at every given moment. Or, perhaps he did? Who knows. But what we do know is that behind the shine of the movie there is a real story and sometimes truth is stranger than fiction…
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut on 5th July 1810. He was a philanthropist and a politician, an author and a publisher. But in his own words “I am a showman by profession…and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me”. In 1835, when he was 25, he began his career as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, whom an acquaintance was trumpeting around Philadelphia as George Washington’s former nurse, and to be 161 years old. Though slavery was outlawed in New York at the time, he exploited a loophole that allowed him to lease her for a year for $1,000, borrowing $500 to complete the sale. Heth died in February 1836, at no more than 80 years old. Near the end of her life, Barnum had worked her for 10 to 12 hours a day, and after her death he hosted a live autopsy of her body in a New York Saloon. There spectators paid 50 cents to see the dead woman cut up, as he “revealed” that she was likely half her purported age.
In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway in New York. It was here that he began to showcase his “oddities” and exhibits, turning the building into a wonderland for the macabre and amazing. He changed the name to Barnum’s American Museum, and fitted a lighthouse lamp to the roof in order to attract attention during the night time hours. During the day, he erected flags along the roofs edge depicting paintings of giant animals. The roof was transformed to a strolling garden with a view of the city, where he launched hot-air balloon rides daily. A changing series of live acts and curiosities, including albinos, giants, little people, “fat boys, jugglers, magicians, exotic women, detailed models of cities and famous battles, and, eventually, a menagerie of animals were added to the exhibits of stuffed animals.
In 1842, Barnum introduced his first major hoax, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish, known as the “Feejee” mermaid. Barnum leased the “mermaid” from fellow museum owner Moses Kimball of Boston. Kimball became his friend, confidant, and collaborator. Barnum described his hoaxes and justified the act of perpetrating them by saying they were “advertisements to draw attention…to the Museum. I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”
Later, he crusaded against fraudsters. Barnum followed that with the exhibition of Charles Stratton, the dwarf “General Tom Thumb” (“the Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone”) who was then four years of age but was stated to be 11. With heavy coaching and natural talent, the boy was taught to imitate people from Hercules to Napoleon. By five, he was drinking wine and by seven smoking cigars for the public’s amusement.
The mermaid was not included in the movie. But General Tom Thumb was depicted, not as a chain-smoking alcoholic five-year old but as a misunderstood midget with a strangely tenor-esque voice.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the movie, is the story of Jenny Lind. Barnum approached her to sing in America whilst on a tour of the UK, offering her $1,000 per show for 150 shows. Lind demanded the fee in advance. And Barnum agreed, hiring her based solely on her reputation without having actually hearing her voice.
On the tour, Barnum’s publicity always preceded Lind’s arrival and whipped up enthusiasm (he had up to 26 journalists on his payroll). After New York, the company toured the east coast of America, with continued success, and later took in Cuba and the southern states of the U.S. By early 1851, Lind had become uncomfortable with Barnum’s relentless marketing of the tour, and she invoked a contractual right to sever her ties with him.
They parted amicably, and she continued the tour for nearly a year under her own management. The movie would have you believe that Lind was in love with Barnum and quit the tour when he did not respond her to romantic advances.
Barnum was 60 years old before he entered the circus business. In Delavan, Wisconsin in 1870 with William Cameron Coup, he established “P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a travelling circus, menagerie and museum of “freaks.” It went through various names: “P.T. Barnum’s Travelling World’s Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth,” and after an 1881 merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United,” soon shortened to “Barnum & Bailey’s”.
Movie Barnum had only one love, his childhood sweetheart and wife Charity Hallett, played by Michelle Williams. Their love is true to form movie love, with the rich girl falling for the poor boy and loving him for who he truly is. Real love is never quite so sparkle and shine.
When Charity died in 1873, Barnum re-married a year later to Nancy Fish in 1874. When he died in 1891 of a stroke, he left behind four children Caroline Cornelia Barnum (1833-1911), Helen Maria Barnum (1840-1920), Frances Irena Barnum (1842-1844), and Pauline Taylor Barnum (1846-1877) and a legacy of showmanship that is still revered and emulated the world over to this day.