There are several reasons for the circus losing its popularity and going out of business. One of the greatest draws is that people would be astonished by seeing things they’d never seen before, but now through various technologies, people already know what exotic animals look like. Many people have even seen exotic animals for themselves through trips to places like Africa. Travelling shows like Circus Olay, provide the death-defying entertainment that acrobats perform. Plus, people just aren’t that easily fooled anymore and “Freak Shows,” became politically incorrect.
Phineas was born in Connecticut and his family became destitute when he was 15 years-old because his father passed away. He didn’t like manual labor so fortunately for him, he was a born salesman and he sold all kinds of different products even going door to door selling Bibles. He was driven to achieve success.
Barnum had several businesses over the years, including a general store, a book auctioning trade, real estate speculation, and a statewide lottery network. He started a weekly newspaper in 1829 called: The Herald of Freedom in Danbury, Connecticut. All these things he accomplished by the age of 24. He ended up selling his businesses and moved to New York City as its large population meant the potential for more money, plus Connecticut was going to outlaw the lottery and this was a large revenue stream for Barnum.
While in New York City, he purchased a large building downtown and pretty much made an indoor circus filled with entertainers and exotic animals. He even created a monstrous aquarium and put in a whale. It was a huge success and Barnum was making millions. Then one night the museum caught on fire and everything was lost. Barnum was devastated and decided to retire. Just when he was thinking about doing something again because he was so bored, he received a letter from two gentlemen who had a circus and wanted to take it out of their state of Ohio and travel throughout the northeast. Because Barnum was so famous, especially for providing unique entertainment, they wanted to make him one of the owners and put his well-known name on the circus. It was a perfect fit, so Barnum agreed to work with them.
Barnum never let the truth get in the way of a good story and perpetuated several hoaxes over the years to bring people to the circus. It is said that he coined the phrase: "There's a sucker born every day." He would payoff journalists to write positive stories about the circus coming into town. He created his own newspaper which would write amazing stories about the circus. Ahead of his time, he even had over a dozen advertising and public relations people to help advertise in newspapers and plaster flyers all over the towns they were going to visit.
You’ve probably heard of Barnum’s famous “Fiji Mermaid,” which was a monkey’s head on a fish. These days it would be easy to spot as a fraud but back then it wasn’t. He said he had the smallest person in the world in his show who was known as “General Tom Thumb.” He was only four years-old, but they dressed him as a General and had him smoking and drinking in front of the crowds. They also taught him stories to tell so he’d sound like a worldly grown-up. Barnum had a very old African American woman who could barely sit up in a chair and couldn’t speak. He told everyone that she was around 165 years-old and helped raise General George Washington. When asked about his many ruses, he said he just wanted to get patrons in the door knowing that they’d be happy once they did. Lawsuits weren’t a popular thing back in his day, so he didn’t have too much to worry about when it came to people challenging his outrageous claims.
Besides his many businesses, Barnum served two terms in the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a Republican. He spoke before the legislature concerning the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. He was elected in 1875 as Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he worked to improve the water supply, bring gas lighting to streets, and enforce liquor and prostitution laws. He was also instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and was its first president.
P.T. Barnum accomplished some amazing things in his lifetime none more so than his circus. Travelling on railcars with all his employees and the exotic animals is mind-blowing. Just keeping up with the food for the animals is quite a feat. Keeping people from being trampled in the streets by their procession of elephants is extraordinary. In my opinion, the logistics necessary to move a circus from one town to the next is probably only second most challenging to that of providing logistical support for a military campaign.
Barnum got married to Charity Hallet in 1829 and they had four children together. They were married for 44 years when Charity passed away. Barnum got married to Nancy Fish, when he was 64 years-old and then passed away when he was 80 from a stroke.
He was an amazing man and the movie: “The Greatest Show on Earth,” was loosely based on Barnum. His advertising and public relations techniques were modeled by many companies. He also was one of the first businessmen to use consignment selling in his general store. Instead of spending money upfront for products, he paid his vendors after he sold their products. This dramatically improved his cashflow. He was one of the most driven men the world has ever seen and it’s amazing that his circus lasted around 125 years after his death.