Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known simply as P.T. Barnum, was a legendary American showman. His crowning achievement that brought him everlasting fame was the Greatest Show on Earth, Barnum’s circus spectacle that entertained millions of people over the years.
Nowadays, he is also known for his successful, ethically questionable promotion of sideshow acts (freaks), as well as quite a few hoaxes. But there is much more to the man himself.
1. He was also a politician. Barnum is regarded as a great American showman (perhaps even the greatest of all time). However, in the latter half of his life, he became interested in politics. Barnum, a Republican, was a member of the House of Representatives for Connecticut between 1865 and 1869 and later became the Mayor of Bridgeport.
2. He was a master hoaxer. Many of Barnum’s most popular acts were nothing but hoaxes, but he still managed to make boatloads of money off them, even after they were exposed as frauds. So great was his showmanship that people even clamored to see the famous fakes. His most notorious creation was the Feejee Mermaid.
Barnum presented the creature as if it were a flesh and blood Hans Christian Anderson mermaid, but in reality it was half a monkey sewn to half a fish. Other hoaxes included Barnum’s version of the Cardiff Giant, supposedly a petrified giant, and Joyce Heth, an old woman who Barnum claimed was the 161-year old former nanny of George Washington.
3. Barnum helped found Tufts University. The university was founded by the Universalist Church and, as a Christian Universalist, Barnum was one of the school’s earliest benefactors.
Later on he donated his collection of animal specimens to the school. This included the stuffed elephant named Jumbo who, in life, was part of one of Barnum’s most successful acts. Jumbo would go on to become the university’s mascot for almost 100 years until he was destroyed in a fire in 1975.
4. That’s not the only institution he supported. The Seaside Park in Bridgeport, Connecticut was partially built on land donated by Barnum and a statue in his honor still stands there today. Furthermore, when he was mayor, Barnum oversaw the building of Bridgeport Hospital and became the hospital’s first president when it opened.
5. Barnum really didn’t like alcohol. Throughout most of his career, Barnum was a staunch supporter of the temperance movement. While he was mayor, he instituted and enforced strict liquor laws. Other notable—and perhaps surprising—acts of his while in office included cracking down on prostitution, cleaning the water supply and illuminating the streets using gaslight.