P.T. Barnum Isn’t the Hero the “Greatest Showman” Wants You to Think

His path to fame and notoriety began by exploiting an enslaved woman, in life and in death, as entertainment for the masses

Hugh Jackman in "The Greatest Showman." (20th Century Fox)
smithsonian.com

Some five decades into his life, Phineas Taylor Barnum from Bethel, Connecticut, had remade himself from his humble beginnings as an impoverished country boy into a showman—indeed the “greatest showman,” as the new musical about his life would say—of his generation.

Thanks to a combination of brilliant marketing tactics and less-than-upstanding business practices, Barnum had truly arrived, and with his book Humbugs of the World, in 1865, Barnum wanted to inform you, his audience, that he hadn’t achieved his rags-to-riches success story by scamming the public.

Barnum's career trafficked in curiosities, which he served up to a public hungry for such entertainment, regardless of how factual or ethical such displays were. His legacy in show business stretched from the American Museum to "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome" (the predecessor of “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey” circus) near the end of his life. Each were full of bigger-than-life ideas marketed to an audience interested in mass, and often crass, entertainment.

As it was “generally understood,” Barnum wrote in the book, the term humbug “consists in putting on glittering appearances—outside show—novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.” And Barnum wanted to make it clear such a practice was justified. “[T]here are various trades and occupations which need only notoriety to insure success,” he claimed, concluding no harm, no foul, so long as at the end of the day customers felt like they got their money’s worth.

Growing up in the antebellum North, Barnum took his first real dip into showmanship at age 25 when he purchased the right to “rent” an aged black woman by the name of Joice Heth, whom an acquaintance was trumpeting around Philadelphia as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington.

By this time, Barnum had tried working as a lottery manager, a shopkeeper and newspaper editor. He was living in New York City, employed at a boarding home and in a grocery store, and was hungry for a money-making gimmick.

"I had long fancied that I could succeed if I could only get hold of a public exhibition,” he reflected about his life at the time in his 1855 autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself.

With Heth, he saw an opportunity to strike it rich. Though slavery was outlawed in Pennsylvania and New York at the time, a loophole allowed him to lease her for a year for $1,000, borrowing $500 to complete the sale.

In a research paper on Barnum and his legacy misrepresenting African peoples, Bernth Lindfors, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, aptly sums up significance of that dark transaction as the launching point of Barnum the showman— someone who “began his career in show business by going into debt to buy a superannuated female slave, who turned out to be a fraud."

It’s a story that The Greatest Showman, which presents Barnum as a smooth-talking Harold Hill-type lovable con, doesn’t address. Hugh Jackman’s Barnum would never be a person comfortable purchasing an enslaved woman to turn a tidy profit. “Rewrite the Stars,” indeed, to quote a song from the new movie.

As Benjamin Reiss, professor and chair of English at Emory University, and author of The Showman and The Slave, of Barnum, explains in an interview with Smithsonian.com, Barnum’s legacy has become a sort of cultural touchstone. “The story of his life that we choose to tell is in part the story that we choose to tell about American culture,” he says. “We can choose to erase things or dance around touchy subjects and present a kind of feel good story, or we can use it as an opportunity to look at very complex and troubling histories that our culture has been grappling with for centuries.”

That begins with Heth, Barnum’s first big break. It was while on tour with her when he observed a public hungry for spectacle. “Human curiosities, or lusus naturae—freaks of nature—were among the most popular traveling entertainments of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,” Reiss explains in his book, but by the time Barnum went on tour with Heth, there was a shift. “[B]y the 1830s the display of grotesquely embodied human forms was for some populist carnivalesque entertainment and for others an offense to genteel sensibilities,” Reiss writes. So while the Jacksonian press in New York, “the vanguard of mass culture,” covered Heth’s shows breathlessly, he found while following Barnum’s paper trail that the more old-fashioned New England press bristled at the display. As the newspaper the Courier wrote cuttingly:

“Those who imagine they can contemplate with delight a breathing skeleton, subjected to the same sort of discipline that is sometimes exercised in a menagerie to induce the inferior animals to play unnatural pranks for the amusement of barren spectators, will find food to their taste by visiting Joice Heth.”

Still, with Heth, Barnum proved himself capable of being nimble enough to dip and swerve, playing up different stories of her to appeal to different audiences across the northeast. Heth, of course, was not alive in George Washington’s time. Whether Barnum believed the fable frankly doesn’t really matter. While he later claimed he did, he wasn’t above making up his own myths about Heth to attract people to see her; he once planted a story that claimed the enslaved woman wasn’t even a person at all. “What purports to be a remarkably old woman is simply a curiously constructed automaton,” he wrote.

When she died in February 1836, rather than let her go in peace, Barnum had one more act up his sleeve: he drummed up a final public spectacle, hosting a live autopsy in a New York Saloon. There, 1500 spectators paid 50 cents to see the dead woman cut up, “revealing” that she was likely half her purported age.

After Heth, Barnum found several other acts to tour—notably the coup of getting the world-famous Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale,” to travel across the Atlantic to make her critically and popularly acclaimed American debut with him—until he became the proprietor of the American Museum in December 1841 in New York.

At the American Museum, more than 4,000 visitors poured per day to browse some 850,000 “interesting curiosities” at the price of 25 cents a trip. The fake and the real commingled in the space, with imported, exotic live animals mixing alongside hoaxes like the so-called Feejee mermaid, a preserved monkey’s head sewn onto the preserved tail of a fish.

Most uncomfortably, in the museum, Barnum continued to present “freakishness” in the form of “living curiosities.” One of the most popular displays featured a man billed as “a creature, found in the wilds of Africa...supposed to be a mixture of the wild native African and the orang outang, a kind of man-monkey.” The offensive poster concluded: “For want of a positive name, the creature was called ‘WHAT IS IT?’”

In truth, WHAT IS IT? was an African-American man named William Henry Johnson. Before coming to the show, he served as a cook for another showman in Barnum’s Connecticut hometown. Similar racial othering permeated the rest of Barnum’s “living curiosities,” from the “Aztec” children who were actually from El Salvador, to the real, but exoticized, “Siamese Twins,” Chang and Eng.

As James W. Cook, professor of history and American studies at the University of Michigan, argues in The Art of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum, it was because of the “bipartisan mass audience” he built through such displays, which preyed on ideas of African inferiority and racial othering, that Barnum then decided to throw his hat into the political ring.

During his successful run for the Connecticut General Assembly in 1865 something changed, however. Suddenly, Cook writes, Barnum “began to express a novel sympathy and regret about the subjugation of African-Americans—or at least to approach civil rights matters at the end of the Civil War with a new, somewhat softer vision of racial paternalism.” During a failed run for Congress, he even “confessed” during a campaign speech that while living in the South he had owned slaves himself, actions he since regretted. “I did more,” he said. “I whipped my slaves. I ought to have been whipped a thousand times for this myself. But by then I was a Democrat—one of those nondescript Democrats, who are Northern men with Southern principles.”

It’s a powerful speech, but how much of his remorse was spin is hard to say. “With Barnum you never know if that’s part of the act or the contrition was genuine,” says Reiss. “People change and it’s possible he really did feel this, although throughout his career as a showman there were many episodes of exhibiting non-white people in degrading ways.”

With Heth at least, as Reiss says, he clearly viewed her as an opportunity and a piece of property at the beginning, something he bragged about constantly early in his career. But after he gained growing respectability following the Civil War, the story he so proudly boasted about changed.

That's because, when you break it down, as Reiss says, “he owned this woman, worked her for 10 to 12 hours a day near the end of her life, worked her to death and then, exploited her after death.” This history becomes, suddenly, an unsavory chapter for Barnum and so, Reiss says, there’s a shift in how he relays the story. He observes that his “narration gets shorter and shorter, more and more apologetic to the end.” Barnum’s later retelling rewrites history, as Reiss says, it “makes it seem like he didn’t quite know what he was doing and this was just a little blip on his road to greatness. In fact, this was the thing that started his career.”

Today, Barnum and his career arguably serve as a Rorschach test for where we are, and what kind of humbug tale we are willing to be sold. But if you’re looking clear eyed at Barnum, an undeniable fact of his biography is his role marketing racism to the masses. “He had these new ways of making racism seem fun and for people to engage in activities that degraded a racially subjected person in ways that were intimate and funny and surprising and novel,” says Reiss. “That’s part of his legacy, that’s part of what he left us, just as he also left us some really great jokes and circus acts and this kind of charming, wise-cracking ‘America’s uncle’ reputation. This is equally a part of his legacy.”

Rather than explore such dark notes, The Greatest Showman is more interested in spinning a pretty tale, a humbug, if you will, of a magnitude, that Barnum himself would likely tip his hat to.

But as the late historian Daniel Boorstin put it in his critical text, The Image, perhaps this revisionary storytelling shouldn’t be a surprise to those paying attention.

“Contrary to popular belief,” as Boorstin wrote, “Barnum's great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.”

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