American showman, born in Bethel, Conn. His career in the amusement field began in 1835 in New York City, where he purchased Joyce Heth (b. 1674?), a black slave, reputedly 161 years old, and alleged to have been George Washington's nurse. Barnum exhibited her profitably throughout the country until her death in 1836. In 1841 he purchased Scudder's American Museum, in New York City, where in 1842 he placed on exhibition the midget Gen. Tom Thumb. Also in his show were the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng (1811-74).
In 1850 he arranged an American concert tour for Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish soprano, which was a great financial success. After several terms as a Connecticut state legislator, he launched, in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1871, his greatest undertaking as a showman, a mobile circus. The circus included a menagerie, which exhibited Jumbo the elephant, and a museum containing many freaks; it was publicized as "The Greatest Show on Earth." The organization merged in 1881 with the circus of another American showman, James Anthony Bailey (1847-1906); as Barnum and Bailey's Circus it became internationally famous.
Barnum and his wonders were never taken particularly seriously by the academics - his involvment in hoaxes such as the Cardiff Giant undermined whatever little credibility he may have possessed. The public, though, lapped them up.
Barnum wrote several books, notably his Autobiography (1855), The Humbugs of the World (1865), and Money-getting (1883).
Source : Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia