The Freaks of P.T. Barnum

 

One of the first freaks in Barnum's collection was Joice Heth, a black woman whom he claimed was 161 years old and a nurse to the young GeorgeWashington. Although Barnum claimed not to know that this was really a hoax, his promotionof her formed the basis for his future displays. In his autobiography, Barnum discusses his new vocation of showman and the fact that he would make everyeffort to be successful. The influence that Barnum continues to have onour culture today shows that he was very successful at the creation anddisplay of freaks. Barnum used the advancements of the day to bring attentiontohis displays, "I was aware of the great power of the public press,and I used it to the extent of my ability" (Barnum 153). Beginning with his display of Joice Heth, Barnum found a fitting career for himself andhis showman abilities, he was able to create a freak, display it, and makea huge profit on almost anything that was presented to him as unique.

 

The one freak that became synonymous with Barnum, the freak that brought him his initial riches, and who is an appropriate demonstration of his abilityto create, promote, and display a freak, Charles Stratton, or as Barnum renamed him, General Tom Thumb. Tom Thumb was a dwarf who Barnum discoveredattheage of five and made the centerpiece of his traveling displays. In theinitial promotion of Tom Thumb, Barnum again utilized the tools of the eraand his penchant for stretching the truth and, rather than saying that Master Stratton was a five year old from Bridgeport, he created the characterofTom Thumb.In his autobiography, Barnum admits that the announcement of TomThumb'sdisplay it "contained two deceptions," five-year-old CharlesStrattonof Connecticut became a dwarf eleven years of age just arrived from England named Tom Thumb (Barnum 243). This display became one of the most popular in Barnum's career and is the most revealing of the democratizing nature of the display of freaks. Not only did the poor as well as the richin America pay to see this dwarf on display and hear talesof his history,the Queenof England as well as the Prince of Wales requestedspecial audienceswiththe General. After these appearances Barnum describes that "TheBritish public were now fairly excited. Not to have seen General Tom Thumb was voted to be decidedly unfashionable" (261). TomThumb is the epitome of Barnum's use of the different to create a freak. An unusually small child is somethingwhich may be casually observed in the street, but withBarnum's efforts he became someone necessary to have in the Queen's drawing room. Tom Thumb performed according to the role created for him by Barnum and was no longer Charles Stratton. He spent most of his life in Barnum's employ and the significantevents of that life were ondisplay for the worldto see.

These two examples of the freaks at the beginning of Barnum's careeras the showman of the 19th century show how the creation of freakery aswell as its display are often more important than the freak itself. Barnum used the culture of exhibition and challenged the American public to accept thepliant and adorned nature of self (Thomson 98). Barnum validated theatricalselfhood in the 19th century, he made it acceptable not only to be a freakinone of these shows, but to be a member of the audience paying simply to look at these human exhibits. The role of Barnum in the development of the freak culture of this era can be summarized in Eric Fretz' characterization of Barnum, "a man of varying social selves who stylizes his life, as well as the public lives of others, to become the quintessential publicmanof the age" (Thomson 106).

 

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