P.T. Barnum never really said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He was one heck of a salesman, though, and enough of a showman that his name is still on one of the most popular performing circuses of the day. But how did he end up as the co-proprietor of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus? Barnum certainly didn’t start out in the circus biz. He started out as a small businessman and newspaper owner. Then he left his home state of Connecticut for New York City, where Barnum quickly established himself in the entertainment busienss. He purchased a popular tourist attraction called Scudder’s American Museum. After turning it into Barnum’s American Museum, he brought in a cavalcade of attractions that included the beloved little person General Tom Thumb.
In 1850, Barnum displayed his savvy by booking singer Jenny Lind to play for $1,000 a night for 150 appearances. It didn’t matter if Jenny Lind was a great singer. People were mostly drawn to see the woman who could demand that kind of payday. (Lind was already past the best years of her career as a singer, but she donated nearly all of Barnum’s big paycheck to charities.) Barnum had some hard times as a businessman, but he only used that as an opportunity to package himself as an early inspirational speaker. He also began to add aquariums and wax figures to his empire of curiosities. He also became a politician back in Connecticut. Then finally got around to going into the circus businessin 1871– at the age of 68!
That’s when he set out with P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome. That would lead to a merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson for what became P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United. Eventually, that just got shortened to “Barnum & Bailey’s.”
Barnum’s big show required some big innovations. He purchased an African elephant from the London Zoo, and added circus acrobats performing as part of a three-ring circus. That’s the only way he could cram in all the big acts–along with General Tom Thumb, who always stayed with Barnum over the years. Barnum often broke up with Bailey, but the two got back together in 1888 to create the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Barnum may been prone to some exaggeration, but his fame grew from always overwhelming his audiences. He doesn’t deserve his reputation a con man. In fact, Barnum was often very outspoken about people who cheated the gullible out of their money. That helped P.T. Barnum become a popular public figure, who wrote plenty of books about his colorful profession. His love for the circus life kept him going until he was 80 years old, which was very old back then. He passed away in his sleep on April 7, 1891–in a cemetery that Barnum had designed himself. It wasn’t until 1907 that the Ringling Brothers organization bought the P.T. Barnum circus for $400,000. That’s over $8 million in today’s currency. Ringling Brothers, of course, kept P.T. Barnum’s name in the show–and he remains a big draw.