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25 Dark Facts About Circus Creator P.T. Barnum

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If you’ve ever been to the circus, then you’ve probably heard the name of P.T. Barnum of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. That said, how much do you really know about the man behind one of America’s greatest traditions?

In his time, P.T. Barnum earned millions of dollars and changed the way America and the world perceived entertainment. However, that’s not all he managed to accomplish.

From politics to cemeteries, there wasn’t anything P.T. Barnum was afraid to try at least once—and you won’t believe the crazy life he led under and outside of the big top!

1. P.T. Barnum’s most famous quote is “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The only problem with this is that he never actually said it. If anything, Barnum was known for being almost overly respectful of his audience, referring to them as willing participants, not suckers.

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2. P.T. Barnum had really bad luck when it came to fires. His mansion burned down; the wing at Tufts University where his animal specimens were stored burned down; and his famous museum burned down not once, but twice!

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3. P.T. Barnum was known for his love of animals. Unfortunately, during the second fire at his museum, two of his favorite animals suffered a ghastly fate. Two giant whales were actually boiled alive in their tanks inside the museum.

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4. The fires didn’t stop there, either. P.T. Barnum loved buying real estate, and after his first mansion burned to the ground, he brought a second palace that he named Iranistan. Tragically, this also burned to the ground in the year 1857.

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5. P.T. Barnum was such a masterful showman that even once his biggest attractions were revealed as being frauds and shams, people still poured in to see them, which ultimately earned him millions of dollars. People didn’t care about the truth as long as they were entertained.

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6. One of P.T. Barnum’s most famous hoaxes was the Fiji (also know as FeeJee) Mermaid. People came from all over the world to get a peek at what they believed was a real mermaid. In fact, the object was created combining monkey and fish body parts.

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7. P.T. Barnum also claimed that “former Nanny of George Washington” was an attraction at his side show. He claimed that the woman (Joyce Heth) was over 120 years old. When she died, he sold tickets for people to view the body. Doctors believe this woman was no more than 80.

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8. P.T. Barnum was active in politics later in his life. Barnum was a Republican was served in the Connecticut House of Representatives from 1865 to 1869. After serving his term, he went on to become the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

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9. P.T. Barnum was also passionate about religion and education. Barnum was one of the founders of Tufts University. When the place was founded by the Universality Church, they approached Barnum (a member of that church) for funds, which he gladly provided.

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10. P.T. Barnum donated his legendary collection of animal specimens to the school, including the remains of Jumbo the elephant, the most successful act in P.T. Barnum’s circus. Jumbo served as the school’s mascot for  more than 100 years.

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11. P.T. Barnum definitely had a puritanical streak. He didn’t approve of alcohol consumption and was a leader of the Temperance movement. As mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, he made drinking illegal. He also cleaned up the streets and tried to put a stop to prostitution.

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12. Although known for his collection of oddities, P.T. Barnum’s most successful act of all time was actually an opera singer. Jenny Lind, a soprano known as the “Swedish Nightingale,” gave 94 concerts for Barnum earning him $500,000 and herself $250,000, which she donated to charity.

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13. Although people remember P.T. Barnum as being exceptionally wealthy, the truth is that there was a period when bad investing in the mid 1850s almost left the showman bankrupt. When a clock company he was heavily invested in crashed, he almost lost his whole fortune.

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14. While people think of P.T. Barnum as making his name in the circus, he didn’t really get involved in that world until he was 60 years old. Prior to the circus, Barnum was known for his museum and his amazing and strange attractions.

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15. It is estimated that Barnum’s museum saw upwards of 15,000 people in a single day of business. And during its lifetime, the museum welcomed more than 38 million guests, which was more than the population of the entire United States at the time!

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16. In 1849, Barnum got into a new and slightly macabre trade: he opened his own cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Barnum himself was buried there, along with General Tom Thumb, one of the most memorable performers ever hired by Barnum.

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17. P.T. Barnum sold more than 80 million tickets in his lifetime, 20 million of which were paid by folks eager to see General Tom Thumb. At just 25 inches tall and weighing in at 15 pounds, Thumb (born Charles Stratton) was a key Barnum performer.

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18. Barnum only thought stretching the truth was okay if the customer felt they had gotten their money’s worth. That said, he would go to great lengths to expose people he believed to be frauds and swindlers. To confirm how easy it was for a person to make a fake spirit photograph, he had this photo of himself taken with the “ghost” of Lincoln.

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19. P.T. Barnum was a born businessman. By the age of 12, he had sold enough snacks around town to own livestock! By the time Barnum turned 21, he owned a lottery, a store, and his very own newspaper. It was as if he was born to succeed.

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20. P.T. Barnum was also a very successful writer, which should come as no surprise, given how successful he was at just about everything. His memoirs, entitled “The Life Of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself,” sold more than one million copies.

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21. When the Brooklyn Bridge was first constructed, people were so scared of using it that 12 people were crushed in a stampede crossing it. To demonstrate its strength and restore faith in the bridge, Barnum walked 21 elephants and 13 camels across it.

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22. The circus wasn’t the most extreme thing Barnum was ever involved with: he once tried to buy William Shakespeare’s childhood home. He also tried to hire a Zulu chief who had recently attacked the British army, as well as attempted to haul an iceberg from the Arctic to New York Harbor.

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23. When P.T. Barnum’s wife died, he went ahead and married a woman who was 40 years younger than he was at the time. Barnum was already 64 years old when he wed the 24-year-old Nancy Fish in a private ceremony.

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24. When the Barnum circus opened in New York in 1939, it boasted the only existing professional female clown. She was a 35-year-old Englishwoman named Lulu and people paid top dollar to see how well she could make them all laugh.

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25. Ever the perfectionist, P.T. Barnum requested that the Evening Sun newspaper print his obituary a couple of weeks before his death so that he would have a chance to read it before he actually died. Barnum approved of the writeup.

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Wow, who knew that P.T. Barnum’s life was so jam-packed? He was a truly legendary man who made such a major difference to the way we see the world.

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