A Glimpse into P.T. Barnum's Mind Through His Own Words

P.T. Barnum is shown circa 1885. Getty Images

This article, along with others celebrating 110 years of the Greatest Show on Earth, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: The Circus.

It would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions to say P.T. Barnum enjoyed publicity. The entertainer reveled in the attention his ambitious antics drew to his person and shamelessly reached out to every author and newspaperman he felt could promote his image to the wider public. In 1855, Barnum decided to cut out the middleman of the press and published his own autobiography titled The Life of P.T. Barnum.

"I have been repeatedly urged within the last few years to write my life, being assured by publishers that such a work would have an extensive circulation, and by personal friends that it would be a readable book," Barnum writes in the preface to his autobiography. "In these pages I have given the true history of my many adventures, and the numerous enterprises in which I have been engaged."

Contemporary reviews did not look kindly on Barnum's self-aggrandizing stories that made little-to-no attempt at obscuring his ability to pull the wool over the eyes of many Americans. But for many readers, both in Barnum's time and our own, the book offers a fascinating view of how the showman wanted the world to perceive him, revealing truths about the man that weren't necessarily apparent at the time.


"My aversion to hand-work, on the farm or otherwise, continued to be manifested in various ways, all of which was generally set down to the score of laziness. I believe, indeed, I had the reputation of being the laziest boy in town, probably because I was always busy at headwork to evade the sentence of gaining bread by the sweat of my brow."

Born in the small Connecticut town of Bethel on July 5, 1810, Barnum grew up an enterprising young man, despite protestations of laziness. At the age of 18, he already owned and operated a small store in Bethel selling confections, treats and trinkets (many of which he purchased in New York City). He also tried his hand at selling books and lottery tickets, as well as running newspapers.

The First Exhibit

"I had hoped to find an opening with some mercantile firm in New York, where for my services I could receive a portion of the profits, for I had a disposition whichever revolted at laboring for a fixed salary. I wanted an opportunity where my faculties and energies could have full play, and where the amount of profits should depend entirely upon the amount of tact, perseverance and energy which I contributed to the business."

Having seemingly exhausted his employment opportunities in New England, the 24-year-old Barnum moved with his wife and child to the Big Apple. After spending some time running a grocery store, the young man dipped his toe into show business when in July 1835 one of his customers informed him of the existence of a supposed 161-year-old nurse to George Washington, Joice Heth. Heth, an enslaved African-American, was already on display at the Masonic Hall in Philadelphia, and Barnum soon tracked down her owner to purchase the aged woman as an attraction in New York. Barnum's experiences with Heth provided him with his first foray into advertising and marketing, an arena where he displayed natural talent, and soon the showman was making $1,500 a week. He eventually took Heth on tours of Boston and elsewhere in New England, concocting a story that the proceeds would be used to buy Heth's descendants their freedom.

Touring With Jenny Lind

"I usually jump at conclusions, and almost invariably find that my first impressions are the most correct…. As it was a great undertaking, I considered the matter seriously for several days, and all my "cipherings" and calculations gave but one result—immense success."

Having amassed a considerable fortune with his American Museum in New York, Barnum did anything but rest on his laurels. One of his riskiest ventures was to bring Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano who was widely celebrated in Europe while remaining virtually unknown in the United States, to North America. It was a bet that paid off. For Barnum, Lind presented not only the opportunity to make money hand over fist but also to help support his argument that popular entertainment could be more enlightening than presentations of mermaid skeletons. The American was able to lure the European singer (who was officially retired at the ripe old age of 29) to the new world by allowing her to select her own music program and accompanists, in addition to a $150,000 advance for a 150-show tour. In preparation of Lind's arrival to America, Barnum launched a massive promotional campaign involving a poetry competition (with the winning poem to be incorporated into the lyrics of one of Lind's songs), a raffle for tickets at her debut show in New York and all sorts of branded merchandise, from Jenny Lind gloves to riding hats. The fervor concocted by Barnum resulted in more than 30,000 New Yorkers waiting to greet Lind when she arrived in September 1850, and her performance earned her accolades from esteemed personages such as writer Washington Irving ("As a singer, she appears to me of the very first order; as a specimen of womankind, a little more," he wrote in his letters). It was a complete success for Barnum.

This article written by Senior Editor, James Ellis, was excerpted from Newsweek Special Edition: The Circus. For more on the Showman P.T. Barnum and the evolution of the Greatest Show on Earth pick up a copy today.

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