P. T. Barnum's Wives

P. T. Barnum's first wife, Charity Hallett, was born in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 1808. He met her in 1827 in his hometown of Bethel, where she was employed as a seamstress.

They married two years later in a secret ceremony conducted in New York City and attended only by the bride's family, because Barnum's mother, Irena, initially felt that Charity was not good enough for her son. However, within a month, she relented and welcomed her new daughter-in-law.

After a few years of marriage, Barnum viewed his wife as old-fashioned, a hypochondriac, nervous and proper, and she often was the object of her husband's criticism and practical jokes. Charity was content to remain at home with her children, while Barnum traveled the country and abroad on trips of business and pleasure.

By 1847, Barnum's heavy bouts of alcoholism threatened their marriage, but, through the intervention of a Universalist clergyman, he gave up drinking and became a staunch supporter of the Temperance Movement.

Charity Barnum's chronic illnesses and complaints lingered for several years until, in 1873, after 44 years of marriage, she died of heart disease.

At the time of his wife's death, the 63-year-old Barnum was in Europe, ostensibly on business, but also meeting with an old friend, John Fish, and Fish's 22-year-old daughter, Nancy, with whom Barnum had been corresponding for more than two years.

Rather than return home for Charity's funeral, Barnum remained in England to be consoled by Nancy.

P. T. Barnum and Nancy Fish were secretly married Feb. 14, 1874, in London, just 13 weeks and two days after Charity's death. He returned to the United States in April and soon sent for Nancy to join him. They were married at a public ceremony in New York City in September 1874.

No records of the Feb. 14 wedding were ever found among belongings of the Barnum or Fish families, and the marriage certificate of that ceremony was not discovered until 120 years later.

Nancy was intelligent, a talented musician, and a published writer. Many of her magazine articles advised women on how to keep their husbands content at home. She and Barnum had no children. Ironically, Nancy soon fell into the same pattern as Charity, staying home, spending time in sanitariums and ultimately finding a traveling companion for her husband. Thus it was that Barnum often spent considerable time with Sarah J. Fish, Nancy’s young, unmarried cousin.

After Barnum's death in 1891, Nancy Fish Barnum lived abroad and married two more times. She died in Paris in 1927.


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