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PT Barnum

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T here is no proof that Phineas Taylor Barnum ever said "there's a sucker born every minute." He did, however, say that "every crowd has a silver lining," and acknowledged that "the public is wiser than many imagine."

In his 80 years, Barnum gave the wise public of the 19th century shameless hucksterism, peerless spectacle, and everything in between -- enough entertainment to earn the title "master showman" a dozen times over. In choosing Barnum as one of the 100 most important people of the millenium, Life magazine recently dubbed him "the patron saint of promoters."

Barnum was born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Connecticut. The oldest of five children, he showed his flair for salesmanship at an early age, selling lottery tickets when he was just 12 years old.

When he was 25, Barnum paid $1,000 to obtain Joice Heth, a woman who claimed to be 161 years old and the nurse of George Washington. "Unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world!" read one of Barnum's handbills. Barnum exhibited her in New York and New England, raking in about $1,500 per week.

In 1841, Barnum purchased Scudder's American Museum on Broadway in New York City. He exhibited "500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe," and kept traffic moving through the museum with a sign that read, "This way to the egress" -- "egress" was another word for exit, and Barnum's patrons would have to pay another quarter to reenter the Museum!

A year later, he exhibited "The Feejee Mermaid," ostensibly an embalmed mermaid purchased near Calcutta by a Boston seaman. Belief in the mermaid's authenticity was mixed, but nobody doubted Barnum's ability to capture the imagination of the public.

Later in 1842, Barnum hired Charles Stratton, who became world-famous as General Tom Thumb. The two became close friends, and so successsful that, in 1844, they had an audience in England with Queen Victoria.




While Barnum's name will forever be connected with the great American circus, it is often said that his greatest success came in 1850, when he presented European opera star Jenny Lind to the American public. "The Swedish Nightingale" sang 95 concerts for Barnum.

In 1854, Barnum wrote and published his autobiography: The Life Of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. Sixteen years later, his association with the entertainment form that still bears his name would begin.