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They're some of our favorites. Phineas Taylor Barnum was to the show business what Andrew Jackson had been to politics. And like Andrew Jackson, he became one of the representative Americans of his time, an expansive entrepreneur in the great age of entrepreneurs. In a big and memorable way, he changed how we all lived. He gave us something to talk about, something to dream about. Our movies, television, our entire entertainment-saturated culture is what it is today because of what P.T. Barnum started.
He seems almost a fable now, but then he did in his own day too. Here to tell this story is an expert among P.T. Barnum experts.
Let's take a listen. Tonight, we welcome America's fabulous showman, Phineas Taylor Barnum. My name is Kathleen Maher. I'm the director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It's about barely an hour outside of New York City, and it was the home of P.T. Barnum. And the museum that I worked for was actually incepted by P.T. Barnum before he passed away.
But sadly, it took two years to build, and he did not survive to see it completed. But what I typically love doing on a regular basis is talking about Barnum and how he's impacted. Our lives today, how he has completely designed popular culture, the way we move through the world, through theater, through gaming. Everything that you could possibly think of actually has some form or some fingerprint of Barnum on it because he was a brilliant and genius promoter. Most people go back and they think today because of the success of the greatest showman movie that Hugh Jackman did a couple of years ago. So people immediately think of Barnum in that context.
The fascinating thing is the movie absolutely captured his spirit, but Barnum himself actually is born in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, a farming community. When you think about 1810 in the context of American history, Napoleon is still a current event. King George is still alive. Founding fathers are still alive.
So America is really a very new nation and struggling with what the Constitution means in their lives. This is something very, very new, and Barnum is born into that. Now, when we all think about Barnum, we think of the circus. Fact of the matter is the greatest show on earth was Barnum's retirement project. He was 61 years old before he really embarked on what we think of the circus today. He had decades of struggles and triumphs to really come to this pinnacle of his life, which lingered as the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus until a few years ago. So his legacy really began, Barnum's brand began long before his circus endeavor. So like I said, he was born in a small town in Connecticut called Bethel on July 5th.
We did not celebrate 4th of July the way we do today, but he was born on July 5th. But the truth of the matter is that Barnum's maternal grandfather was actually well-to-do. The family owned much of the town, the shops in the town, and Barnum's mother and father owned a shop. So they were working class people most certainly, but they were not destitute.
And interestingly, Barnum was one of ten children, so he had siblings and half-siblings. So it was quite a robust family that worked the farms. He did not like farm work, he liked head work. He was always calculating, even as a very, very young boy, so they realized he was not the kind of kid that was going to help in the fields with his family. He was going to work in a general store, and that's where he learns the art of barter and trade.
It was Yankee ingenuity at that moment in time, and everything was a negotiation in New England. So it was really the moment where he learns the art of the deal. He learns ingenuity, he's witty, and he's humor, and he was charming as young as he was to people in the community. His schooling only went until he was about eight years old when he had to go and work in his family's general store. He did grow up in a very religious community, Protestant beliefs.
Barnum didn't push against that necessarily. He was a staunch Christian believer. He believed that all of the challenging things that happened to him through the course of his life was divine providence, that he learned and he could be better. When he lost all of his money in the 1850s, he felt that that was the lesson he needed to have to learn humility. Now what he wound up doing in Bethel, he realized shopkeeping was not going to make him the amount of money that he wanted, and he embarked on the lotteries. They were sanctioned by the church at that time, they were sanctioned by the state, and he was making quite a bit of money for his family conducting lottery operations. It's not until the very Calvinistic ideologies of the church wanted to really ban through legislation lotteries in Connecticut that Barnum recognized he was not going to make enough money living in Bethel anymore, and that's really when he brings his family to New York City to start a whole new life. But what he does do in Bethel, which is remarkable, he's a young man, he's in his early 20s, and he recognizes that the idea of a democratic community, if you had a voice, you had an opinion, you had an obligation, and most certainly a right to speak your voice. And he started writing letters to the Danbury newspapers, and nobody would print any editorials, nothing that he would write. So he decided to embark on his own newspaper at 21 years old, and he produces a paper called The Herald of Freedom and Gospel Witness, and newspapers at that time were huge, just loaded with words.
It winds up that, and he even refers to it as his arrogant youth, he's sued three times for libel, and the last time it landed him in jail. And you're listening to Kathy Mayer, executive director of the P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. More of this remarkable story, a guy who grows up in a small farm community and ends up in the big city, New York City. His life story continues.
P.T. Barnum's here on Our American Stories. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns.
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Let's continue and pick up where we last left off. He's sued three times for libel. And the last time it landed him in jail, he made a comment about usury by a reverend in town. And he was thrown in jail for libel for two months. People were outraged. They felt it was the freedom of the press. He had the right to say what he said. So they had his jail cell decorated. There was a parade for him when he got out of jail.
He continued to print the newspaper while he was jailed. So if you have to talk about a shift in a moment in time, there it is. And he really finds that's the moment in time where there's power in understanding what's happening in the political world. And later on in life, it shows out that he feels that if you have a voice and you're living with the freedoms that we have today, that it is your obligation to have a voice.
And that's really how he conducted the rest of his life. So back to New York City. It's the late 1830s, early 1840s, and New York doesn't develop like a colonial city the way we think of Boston and Philadelphia. It's really an industrial city.
And the harbors are, you know, extremely active with commerce. Barnum finds this to be an extraordinary moment in time. He doesn't quite fit into the, he never works in an office. He's always working in some type of retail or trade.
He tries at hands at promoting different kind of technologies. It just doesn't work until he discovers Scudder's American Museum, lower Broadway in New York. And late 1830s in New York, remember, there is a financial crash. You know, businesses were just going under left and right. And the Scudder's Museum, which had been around since 1810, was dramatically failing. You know, the idea of it being an institute of science and scientific advancement was falling out of favor. People didn't have the money.
It was old, it was tired. Barnum saw opportunity in it. And because the price had been dropped to $15,000, he devised a way to actually acquire it. He, as a child, he was told he owned property in Bethel, Connecticut. It was called Ivy Island.
He was all excited about it. When he realizes that it was nothing but swampland and virtually useless, he feels duped by his own community and family. However, going back to his ingenious ability to think of how you can negotiate this during the negotiation for Scudder's Museum, didn't have enough money. And he literally told the bankers, I have property in Connecticut, Ivy Island. And this is December in New England, in 1841.
Nobody was going to take the day's long journey up to Bethel, Connecticut to evaluate the property. So they accepted the collateral. So he was able to seal the deal for the American Museum using his charm, using his wit, and using his ingenuity.
Extraordinary by today's standards. But when he purchases the American Museum, he opens it on New Year's Day in 1842. And again, it was a tired institution. There was nothing alive, nothing charming, nothing innovative that would attract people in. So he realized he needed three things. It needed a major renovation.
It needed a massive publicity campaign and literally an injection of sheer personality, Barnum's personality. So he did everything that you could possibly think of to clean it up and make it something that you couldn't walk by. They put huge banners of different types of animals outside.
Literally, they put a calcite drum on the roof. It becomes the first, what are they called, those big spotlights in the sky that would attract people. It opened early in the morning. It didn't close till 10 o'clock at night. And it was available to everyone. The institution was not for just the wealthy and the educated and the traveled.
It was open to anybody and everybody who could pay their 25 cents. Because when you think about New York City in the 1840s, it's a tough place. There's intense immigration coming into the city. It's the Irish immigration, where Irish were not allowed into many establishments. That was not the case with the American Museum.
So it was, it became, quickly became a vibrant part of the developing metropolis. It was an enormous attraction where people could go and feel safe and have entertainment. Another thing that's interesting to think about at this time, any kind of theater going was not really deemed as moral and wholesome ways of spending your time. Predominantly, theaters were attended by male audiences, there was drinking, there was prostitution, even violence.
Barnum would have none of that in the American Museum. It was a place for family entertainment and any kind of music. He had security guards surveying all of the floors.
And if there was any questionable activity or language, you were escorted out. Now, Barnum actually was vying up the New York Peels Museum. He operated the Baltimore Peel Museum, later integrating the scientific specimens and objects into the American Museum.
So it really became our first science, major public science institution. Interestingly, there was everything from whale tanks in the basement, they were pumping water in from the East River. That's America's first aquarium. Barnum knew about the National Aquarium in London and wanted to bring one back to his homeland. And also there were living animals inside the museum as well.
So it's the first in suit. Now, some of the things he exhibited were truly curiosities and wonders. And again, in a democratic America, you had your freedom of your voice. You could decide if it was real, if it wasn't real. It almost didn't matter at the American Museum if there was truth in anything.
The opportunity was you could make up your own mind. So Barnum actually has a friend and colleague. And at one point, Barnum borrowed Moses Kimball's Fiji mermaid, you know, exotic mermaid. But he didn't bring it to the American Museum right away. He actually devised a method to get people excited about it, sent letters to newspapers, publishing a story about a naturalist from London coming over with this extraordinary specimen. After weeks of Barnum peppering cities across the East Coast, he ultimately brings the Fiji mermaid to the American Museum, hypes it all up. People pay, they don't pay extra to see it.
People pay to come into the museum. And they've come to find out that it's just this hideous tale of a fish body of an orangutan. And it's just detestable.
It's it's horrible. And people were like, Oh, really, you know, and believe it or not, the Fiji mermaid is Barnum's line in the sand. He felt that that's the place throughout the course of his life. That's the place where he went too far. People were expecting something from him at this point.
And the Fiji mermaid took advantage. So he said never again. And that is literally where Barnum sees the line can be drawn, and absolutely would not embark on something that he felt would betray the trust of his public. Now, people use the word humbug today probably differently. And Barnum's definition of the word humbug is, in my opinion, the true meaning of humbug is management, tact, to take an old truth and put it into an attractive form. So we don't really think about humbug in modern context that way. But Barnum didn't see it as necessarily duping the people. It was about bringing people in on a story on an object to take the journey of what this is together, but making it understandable by today, by that moment's, you know, list of expectations.
Now, interestingly, when you think about The Greatest Showman movie that came out, that is precisely what they did. They took Barnum's old story, and they put it into a form that would be relatable by modern standards. So it's a brilliant humbug. And you've been listening to Kathy Mayer, executive director of the P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when we come back. More of this remarkable story, the story of P.T. Barnum, and so much more here on Our American Stories. And we continue with Our American Stories and more of the remarkable life story of P.T. Barnum, the rest of the story, in case you've seen the movie, as we like to say, and as the great Paul Harvey used to say, each and every day.
Let's return to Kathy Mayer, executive director of the P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. So a lot of people often ask if Tom Thumb was a humbug. And interestingly, Tom Thumb was most certainly not a humbug at all.
He was a real, a real person born by the name Charles Sherwood Stratton here in Bridgeport. Now Barnum kind of discovered him. A lot of things that Barnum actually showcased throughout his life was not discovered by him.
He didn't invent it, but he found it and he was brilliant at promoting it. So what they did working together by the 1850s, Americans were in pursuit of refinement and cultural engagement. We did not have, Americans did not have any kind of definable, you know, fashionable culture at that time.
We were looking back to England and France to create our own perceived sophistication. And Barnum knew he needed something that was going to sort of elevate his standing. When he was in Europe with Tom Thumb, he attended classical performances and opera, and he liked that. He felt that he did himself prefer a higher grade of entertainment than what the American Museum was offering to the masses.
So with that, he had heard of the Collatora soprano, Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, while he was traveling with Tom and never heard her sing. And he decided that her kind of entertainment would not just be a wonderful type of performance for just the higher classes in America, because we have always had different levels of classes, but she would actually be a blessing to America. But the trick was he had to prepare the public mind. So what Barnum had to do is flood, saturate American newspapers with wonderful stories about Jenny Lind, not about what a brilliant musician she is, but about what her, you know, extraordinary character is like. She was so kind, benevolent. She was enormously generous. She too struggled with the fact that she had such a remarkable God-given talent that it was her obligation to share that with people. So she would give thousands of dollars away to everything from orphanages to establishment of fire departments all over Europe. And Barnum knew that Americans would love that more so than, ah, she sings.
So, I mean, that s real. Again, it was really the traveled who had experienced her type of entertainment. But there were over 30,000 people waiting for Jenny Lind to get off the Atlantic when it sailed into New York Harbor. It was a frenzy of people, and that s based on what Barnum did with his ingenious marketing abilities.
He got people excited. Barnum actually sailed out to the ship so he could disembark with her. The first concert was actually on September 11th in 1850, and probably some listeners might have even been there. She performed at Castle Garden.
It s the building where you would get, under normal circumstances, a boat to Ellis Island. So that s literally where the concert was. It really made Barnum the first American opera sorry-o.
They actually opened. Jenny Lind Hall was later renamed New York Metropolitan Opera House. So, I mean, he even brings the operatic artistry to, you know, to all people. But it absolutely transformed entertainment in this country. Now, Barnum, during all of this, he remains, you know, very in tune with politics. He was a Democrat at that time, and he refused candidacy for the governor of Connecticut in 1852 because he was completely opposed to the expansion of slavery west.
But it s not until the later part of that decade where Barnum does become one of the first Republicans with Horace Greeley and Lincoln. But Barnum also, at this moment in time, decides that he cannot perform the way he wants to run his businesses, keep things moving, keep things growing, if alcohol was involved. He was horrified to see prominent New York businessmen out of sorts from drinking at an event they were at. And he goes, My God, if I look like that, I cannot, you know, accomplish what I want to in my life. He signs the T. Totler s Pledge. He comes back home to Bridgeport. He literally cuts the heads off of all of his wine and champagne bottles and never again allows any kind of drinking in any of his establishments. So, again, my favorite scene in the movie is that fantastic bar scene where they re banging down shots, Barnum just rolling over in his grave because at his American Museum, he enforced if you wanted to drink or if you wanted to smoke, you had to leave, go outside, do your own business, and then pay full price to get back in.
So, he walked the walk. What Barnum actually uses as a mission statement for the American Museum is instructive entertainment. Today, we came up with the terms edutainment, whatever it might be, but the Barnum Museum today, my Barnum Museum, readopted that mission statement because it is so relevant to his time and so relevant to us as a society now.
We want to be enthralled and educated at the same time, and Barnum was doing that 150 years ago. The American Museum was a place for family entertainment. There were all types of wonderful exhibits and dioramas that you could walk through, including the last summer. There were wax figures and a wax figure department that would create these vignettes that you could look at. I mean, think about it. This is a lot what Disney is doing today when you see these animatronics. Now, there absolutely were human performers. It wasn t just the idea of freaks. The idea of freaks actually happens much later in the century.
Barnum does not refer to the people in his American Museum as freaks. They re natural wonders. They re marvels of nature.
So the language and the words that we use have to reflect the moment in time or else they fall out of context for that, the marvels of nature. There were bearded ladies, Mrs. Meyers, and there was more than one. There was the Irish giant, the Chinese giant. There were people associating them to the country they were from made it even more exotic because not many people could travel beyond American shores at that time. But even the Civil War spy, Miss Major Pauline Cushman, would come. She was captured by the Southern Army and was saved right before she was going to be hanged.
Union troops swooped in and saved her life, so she would tell that story at the American Museum. But Barnum would bring families from all over the world, whether it s China or Germany or Japan, to wear their traditional clothing and their costumes, their music, their sounds. That s Epcot.
When you look at the World s Showcase, you have to be from one of those countries to work in that pavilion. And we love going and experiencing different cultures even today when the world is so much smaller. And you re listening to Kathy Mayer tell the story, the life story, of P.T. Barnum. Well, we do a little bit of what Barnum was trying to do, and that is inform and entertain at the same time. And if we can enthrall you, oh, my goodness, we re even happier.
And when we come back, more of this remarkable story. And what a promoter. In the end, the world s at least America s first impresario. And not just to Schulman himself, but a promoter in the end. And to get 30,000 people to come to a ship coming into port in New York. 30,000 people. That s a feat still today.
It s like the Beatles had just arrived. So what an entrepreneur. And in the end, no small talent to be able to get people together and rally around something and understanding the technology of his day. And at the time, particularly communications of the day, the newspaper was central to American life.
It was the social media of its time. When we come back, more of Phineas Taylor Barnum s life story here on Our American Stories. We continue with Our American Stories and with Kathy Mayer, Executive Director of the P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Now let s pick up where Kathy last left off. At any one given time, there were over 800,000 exhibits at the American Museum. It s staggering from relics to animals. It s estimated in the American Museum s 23-year lifespan, over 38 million people visited the American Museum.
And this isn t a time when the population of America was about 32 million at that time. So what Barnum did with the American Museum, he stretched people s ideas and imaginations to the furthest limits he could possibly do. You know, he pushed the boundaries of curiosity.
And in doing so, he discovered the curious. And people loved it. It was that successful at the time. Now, when the American Museum burns down, because it does in 1865, the New York Herald reported that it was burned by Southern sympathizers. And that s a strong possibility because Barnum was so vocal and such a proponent of the Union cause during the Civil War. He quickly regroups and creates a second American Museum just up the road.
And sadly, only three years of boiler failure happens and that Museum burns down too. And as sad as it is, you know, Barnum always seemed to rebound back. But his friend Horace Greeley basically said, you know, take this as a sign my friend and go efficient. It s time. Take a trip west.
Greeley was a huge proponent of westward expansion. And Barnum does. He decides, Okay, I m not going to open it.
I ll take a little time. He leases his name to another museum proprietor in New York City. He goes west and he meets a couple of Midwestern circus promoters, Dan Costello and W. C. Coop.
And that s in Delavan, Wisconsin. And they really approach him because they want to use his name. They have a circus, a menagerie, and they knew at this time before, you know, the idea of the circus even comes, Barnum is already an established brand and his name could sell anything. And Barnum said, You know what?
That would revive my love of my museums and my attractions. So he signs with Costello and Coop and they open the greatest show on earth. Now they don t open it back in Manhattan where Barnum had been performing all the time. They open in Brooklyn because Barnum had leased his name to a museum proprietor in Manhattan and there was a no compete clause.
So he couldn t compete with his own name. But it opens with 10,000 seats, multiple tents. There was everything from a museum tent to eating saloons, dressing rooms, hippodromes, and then the big top. Now it was enormously successful under the tents, but Barnum wanted a permanent home and creating certainly a winter quarters for all the props and the costumes and animals. So the Hippotheron was being established right on 14th Street because New York City is moving up. And sadly, barely before it s even opened, the Hippotheron burns as well. So Barnum has really seen a lot of fires and a lot of devastation in his life.
It s another loss. But again, the show was successful enough that he goes back to his idea of finding a permanent home for the shows and he leases a plot of land right at the corner of Madison and 26th Street. And they reopen it so it is the Roman Hippodrome, Barnum s Roman Hippodrome. Later it s renamed Madison Square Garden.
So that s where Madison Square Garden comes from, originally Barnum s Hippodrome. He does meet James Bailey and James Hutchinson, also incredible circus promoters that had the Great London Show. But Barnum finally sees two enterprising management promoters that had steel of his own.
He called this the Great Alliance. And they combined forces by the time the 1880s come around and they start traveling, the greatest show on earth and great London circus combined, to enormous success. Beautiful carriages pull these shows into many towns. Now the idea of the shows getting on the rails starts happening too where they could just traverse the entire country with hundreds of carriages and hundreds of train cars.
So it was an extraordinary enterprise that needed meticulous management and that s truly where Bailey and Hutchinson come in. At this time, in the 1870s, Barnum is elected the mayor of the city of Bridgeport. There were only one-year terms. In 1887, he was re-elected to the General Assembly and it was all about temperance and civil obedience and making sure all communities had accessibility to the amenities that were coming in, gas lines, water.
Everybody had clean water, not just the well thing. So it s right around this time too where the first time you hear the idea of Jumbo. Jumbo was an enormous attraction in London and Barnum tried to purchase Jumbo, to bring Jumbo to America many times and they refused. And there was a huge public outcry when the deal was finally established that Barnum would bring Jumbo to America.
The elephant was 11 and a half feet tall, six and a half tons. So truly, the word Jumbo comes into our modern vernacular based on this extraordinary animal coming in Barnum s remarkable genius at promoting him. Jumbo was really probably the single most impactful economic venture for Barnum and his partners at that time.
In six weeks, Jumbo s appearances grossed $336,000. And Jumbo would travel with the shows as well on the train and sadly, sadly, on September 15th, 1885, the show was up in St. Thomas, Ontario, traveling back to the trains and Jumbo was hit by a train and dies. Now common to late 19th century, the idea of having this incredible animal become a specimen was very typical and Barnum actually had Jumbo s hide stuffed and had the skeleton assembled into it and then literally traveled Jumbo in two different directions.
So they were actually doubling the gate because people still had the opportunity to see Jumbo. Now ultimately Barnum donated the skeletal assembly to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and that s where Jumbo still is. But Barnum was also a founder of Tufts University in Massachusetts in 1852 and Barnum literally donates Barnum Hall, the natural science museum, to Tufts and if anybody is an alum or a student of Tufts University, this is why you are the Jumbos. Barnum donated the Jumbo hide to Tufts University and there Jumbo was as a heralded mascot until 1978 when sadly that building burnt down to 1978.
So all that really remains of Jumbo is just ashes in a peanut butter jar that they have in their collection now. So he doesn t share a name. You don t see Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth until barely three years before he passes away. It s really in 1887 where he sees Bailey as his peer. He was the person that could carry this legacy forward and really in 1887 is the first time you see the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. It s not until 1919 that you see Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey and I ll tell you why. Bailey passes away in 1907 and the Ringling Brothers World s Greatest Show decided they wanted to buy the Barnum and Bailey show and they traveled them separately for years and it wasn t until 1919 where they decided to combine the shows and for economic reasons at the time it s World War I at the time remarkably it s the Spanish flu.
They combined the shows to create the bubble but that s why 28 years after Barnum is Dead is the first time you see Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. I contend if Barnum was alive he would not have taken second billing but the show his name lives on and he finally barely decided to retire by the time he was 80. He always had an office in Madison Square Garden until the end but literally on his dying bed here in Bridgeport he is intrigued it s like okay I ve done all of this I ve written my life I m going to be the one to sum it up and he convinced newspapers to print his obituary before he died. I don t think it was never done before and I don t think it s ever been done since but the newspapers did write Barnum s own words and it s reported that Nancy Fish read his obituary to him. He wanted to be a part of the very final chapter of his life and he was. So with that the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut continues.
It s his final legacy. It s the last museum that he creates for the Bridgeport community, the state of Connecticut and we are thrilled that we have so many of the objects that Barnum himself donated and we welcome people to either go online these days and explore the Barnum Museum. We re going to be putting up a virtual tour soon and when the day comes again please come.
We d love to have you. And we d love to visit and a special thanks to Kathy Mayer, Executive Director of the P.T. Barnum Museum in Bridgeport. Great job as always to Greg Hengler for the work he does putting these pieces together. America s first impresario. The story of P.T. Barnum here on Our American Stories. hcYcYcYcYcYc Microsoft Word 11.8.1 spacious gdAJ 1.1. historicw
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