P. T. Barnum
1810 - 1891
P. T. Barnum Phineas Taylor Barnum (July 5, 1810-April 7, 1891),
known as P. T. Barnum, a prominent Universalist, the most
influential American showman of the nineteenth century, was the
founder of the first important public museum and creator of the
modern three-ring circus.
Phineas was born on July 5, 1810 in the small Connecticut
community of Bethel to Irena Taylor and Philo F. Barnum. As a
child he attended the only church in Bethel, the Congregational.
As he attended prayer meetings and discovered Calvinistic ideas,
indeed almost feeling "the burning waves," smelling "the
sulphurous fumes," and hearing "the shrieks and groans" of those
in hell, he realized it was not the faith for him. Fortunately
for him his Universalist grandfather acquainted him with belief
in a loving Deity and the universal salvation of humanity. Young
Barnum addressed Universalist gatherings and for some years
served as clerk of the Universalist Church in Danbury,
Barnum's first job was clerking in his father's country store.
As a young man in the 1820s and the 1830s he worked as a clerk
in Brooklyn, ran a fruit and confectionary store back home, and
was a lottery agent in Pennsylvania. In 1829 he married Charity
Hallett. In time they had four children.
Between 1831 and 1834 Barnum edited his own newspaper in
Danbury, the Herald of Freedom. He started the paper to combat
what he perceived to be sectarian attempts to bring about a
union of church and state. Three times charged with libel for
statements he made about opponents, he was once convicted and
was incarcerated for 60 days. He spent his time in jail
comfortably. "I had my room papered and carpeted previously to
taking possession," he wrote. He had a constant stream of
visitors including a pastoral visit from a local Universalist
minister. His release was a public relations event.
Barnum MuseumIn 1835 Barnum was once again in New York City,
running a grocery store and a boarding house. There he first got
into show business with his exhibit of Joice Heth, who claimed
to be the 161-year-old nurse to George Washington. Next, during
1836-37, he took a small circus on a tour throughout the South.
These ventures prepared him in 1842 to open the American Museum
in New York City, through which he made his first fortune. Its
many exhibits and spectaculars, and its lecture hall and
3,000-seat theater, provided entertainment and learning over the
years to 37 million people.
During the early 1840s when Barnum lived in New York City he
attended the Fourth Universalist Society. Its minister, the
well-known and popular preacher Edwin H. Chapin became his close
friend. While not a member of the society, Barnum was on its
Sunday school committee and when the congregation built its
present edifice he was a generous contributor. He was also a
life member of its Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm.
In 1848 Barnum moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut where he was to
live until his death. Almost immediately he became connected
with its Universalist society. As A. H. Saxon points out in his
biography of the showman he soon was "on intimate terms with the
several ministers who served the society during this period,
'talking Universalism' with them at every opportunity;
entertaining them, and occasionally the entire congregation, at
the clambakes he loved to throw at the beach on Long Island
Sound; running into the parsonage whenever he happened to be
passing to speak a few words of greeting and drop off a
thanksgiving turkey or some other gift." He also had the habit
of sending flowers from the greenhouse of his mansion Iranistan
for Sunday worship services. During the last ten years of his
life he was a church trustee and from time to time occupied the
Barnum faithfully supported the society's financial needs. Not
only did he give money on a monthly basis, he also gave handsome
gifts toward the rebuilding of the church after a fire and to
constructing a parsonage. He helped to make possible a new
furnace, stained glass windows, and an organ. Charlotte Coté
relates that during Olympia Brown's ministry at Bridgeport: "It
was said of her that when the church was in need of additional
money, she was not above asking that the rich be more generous
in their contributions, and she would say, 'Mr. Barnum, I mean
you.' According to the report, Mr. Barnum never failed to oblige
Barnum had among his friends many Universalist and Unitarian
ministers and laypersons. These included not only those who
ministered at his home church in Bridgeport but such figures as
Quillen Hamilton Shinn, the denomination's popular itinerant
missionary to the southern American states, who Barnum jokingly
called his only rival as a showman. Others he was especially
fond of were Abel C. Thomas, George H. Emerson, Mary A.
Livermore, Robert Collyer, Horace Greeley, and Charles A.
In 1850 Barnum brought the "Swedish Nightingale," Jenny Lind, to
America. She gave over 90 concerts under his management. Four
years later he published the first edition of his popular
autobiography, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself. In
1855, because some of his investments failed, he was forced to
sell his American Museum to pay off debts. Five years later,
however, he brought it back. The museum burned down in 1865. He
had it rebuilt on a nearby site.
By 1870 Barnum was preparing a traveling show that featured a
menagerie, caravan, hippodrome, and circus. Its first
performance was in Brooklyn before 10,000 people. This evolved
into his first two-ring circus, the "Great Traveling World's
Fair." A decade later this had become the Barnum and Bailey
Circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth," with its remarkable star
the great elephant Jumbo.
In 1864 in an interview with a New York Sun reporter Barnum said
this of his religious faith: "I believe there is a great
Creator, infinite in his attributes of wisdom, power, and mercy:
that His name is Love. I believe He is a God of all justice, and
that He will chasten every person whom He ever created
sufficiently to reform him, in this world, or some other."
About twelve months before his death Barnum wrote out his
religious beliefs. Entitled "Why I Am a Universalist" it was
first published in London in the Christian World of May 8, 1890.
Several Universalist journals soon printed it and many
Universalist ministers shared it with their congregations. It
was issued as a pamphlet by the Universalist Publishing House
and within the year 60,000 copies had been circulated. It was
the first Universalist tract that the denomination's
missionaries in Japan translated into that language.
Charity had died in 1873 and Barnum had married Nancy Fish the
following year. He died at the height of his popularity as a
showman in 1891.
At his death Barnum left the Bridgeport Universalist society a
legacy of $15,000. He was just as generous a supporter of causes
endorsed by the national Universalist movement. He gave its
newly founded institution of higher education, Tufts College,
$50,000 to establish a Museum of Natural History; and later he
gave Tufts another $100,000 to build two wings to the museum. In
addition he sent the museum mounted skins, skeletons and other
animal remains, and the great elephant Jumbo's hide. He did not
neglect other Universalist educational projects either such as
St. Lawrence University and Lombard College. When he died his
will stipulated $7,000 for the Universalist Publishing House,
$5,000 for the Connecticut Universalist Convention, $1,000 for
the Chapin Home, and $500 for the Woman's Centenary Association.
In his business ethics Barnum was more honest then most people
have been in the entertainment and public relations fields. He
offered his customers good value, which is why they returned
again and again to his various productions. Indeed, he
considered himself a public benefactor. Most Americans, he
thought, worked too much and as a consequence did not know how
to spend their leisure time. "[Americans'] inclination to
intemperance and kindred vices," he wrote, "has repeatedly and
most conclusively been shown to be a natural result of the
lamentable deficiency among us of innocent and rational
In providing the philosophical basis for his entertainment
business, Barnum cited Unitarian minister William Ellery
Channing's essay, "On the Elevation of the Laboring Portion of
the Community." As for the cynical quotation associated with his
name, "There's a sucker born every minute," he never uttered it.
Indeed, he respected the public and kept his many attractions
for them, as he said, "clean, moral, instructive, elevating."
And while he frankly admitted that "my prime object has been to
put money in my purse," he also proudly asserted that "No one .
. . can say that he ever paid for admission to one of my
exhibitions more than his admission was worth to him."
In 1889 Barnum summarized in a notebook his principles of life:
"The noblest art is that of making others happy, honesty,
sobriety, industry, economy, education, good habits,
perseverance, cheerfulness, love to God and good will toward
men. These are the preeminent requisites for securing Health,
Independence, or a Happy Life, the respect of Mankind and the
special favor of our Father in Heaven."
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This web page was last updated on:
08 December, 2008