America’s greatest showman, Phineas T. Barnum, was born on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Conn. This son of a shopkeeper began his career as an entertainer when, at the age of 25, he charged admission to see a blind and paralyzed former slave, Joice Heth. Barnum claimed the woman was 160 years old and the one-time nurse of George Washington. Of course she was neither.
Barnum became famous for his hoaxes (or, as he preferred to call them, his “humbugs”) at “Barnum’s American Museum” in New York City. In addition to the traditional stuffed animals, Barnum added a series of live acts and “curiosities,” including albinos, giants, midgets, “exotic women” and Fejee the mermaid.
His most famous exhibit was Charles Stratton, better known as “General Tom Thumb,” who began with Barnum when he was just 5 years old (but was passed off as 11). The midget was an excellent showman and imitator. On a tour of Europe he performed for Queen Victoria in London and the Czar of Russia. The success of that tour made Barnum rich and famous.
In 1871 Barnum launched “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome.” It was a traveling amalgamation of circus, menagerie and freak show that he described as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He later merged with James Bailey to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Barnum was a genius at promotion who made his arrival in each area an event, with Jumbo the elephant leading the parade through town to the circus grounds.
After Barnum’s death in 1891 the Barnum and Bailey Circus was acquired by Ringling Brothers, who preserved their name on it to this day.