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P.T. Barnum

On This Day: P.T. Barnum’s First Show Opens

June 02, 2011 06:00 AM
by Josh Katz
On June 2, 1835, legendary huckster and showman Phineas Taylor Barnum opened his first exhibit in Manhattan.

Barnum’s Debut on Broadway

Barnum’s first circus exhibition opened on Broadway in Niblo’s Garden, a theater and saloon. It featured Joice Heth, an elderly black woman posing as the 160-year-old former nanny of George Washington; she had performed on her own with limited success, but Barnum’s flair for promotion drew thousands of spectators to the show.

The Niblo’s Garden show was the first of many exhibits of oddities that were to become Barnum’s trademark. He built his career around such hoaxes, and even though audiences knew he was a trickster, he was such an artful showman that the public still came.

Hoaxes and pranks like the Niblo’s Garden show were popular entertainments in Barnum’s day, with Edgar Allen Poe spinning yarns about cross-Atlantic balloon flights, and astronomers claiming to see bison herds and winged humans on the moon.

Barnum’s “loose relationship with facts and his knack for puffing up unknown or mediocre attractions into giant, must-see spectacles came to be known as ‘Barnumizing,’” writes The New York Times.

Biography: P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum was born Phineas Taylor on July 5, 1810, in Bethel, Conn. His family was not wealthy, but the young Phineas still went to school at age 6. He was a talented student and used ingenuity to get out of his chores.

He also proved adept at earning money; at age 12, he made his first trip to New York and helped lead a cattle drive to Brooklyn. The trip would be a red-letter moment for P.T., as he would realize that he wanted to return to the big city.

In 1842, Barnum created the American Museum in New York, filling it with exhibits he called “peculiarities.” His promotional genius turned it into one of the city’s foremost attractions from 1842 until 1865, featuring such acts as Lilliputian Tom Thumb, opera sensation Jenny Lind, monkey-fish Feejee Mermaid and Siamese twins Chang and Eng.

His “method of exhibiting freaks ‘endowed the freak with status enhancing characteristics’ that ‘emphasized how the freak was an upstanding high-status person with talents of a conventional and socially prestigious nature,’” writes the University of Virginia.

In 1871 he began “The Greatest Show on Earth,” joining his “freaks” with animals, clowns and acrobats, a spectacle that evolved into today’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Barnum called himself the “Prince of Humbugs,” but historians do not believe he actually said the most famous line attributed to him: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Kathleen Maher, the executive director/curator of the Barnum Museum, writes that the “Barnum name has forced associations of humbug and merriment; the hyperbolic alongside the austere; provoked thought and invited controversy; welcomed the cynical and engaged and challenged the skeptic.”

Reference: Barnum’s Shows and Oddities


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