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Phineas T Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum is remembered for two famous sayings: "The noblest art is that of making others happy," and "There's a sucker born every minute."

Phineas T Barnum
Phineas Taylor Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), "The Greatest Showman" and founder of "The Greatest Show on Earth," began his career by exhibiting Joice Heth, "George Washington's nurse, 161 years old" (she was about 80, and had never laid eyes on George).

He went on to found the American Museum in New York, a exhibit of oddities and curiosities.

A famous innovation was his sign "To the Egress," which many patrons thought pointed the way to an exotic bird. When they went through the door indicated they found themselves outside, and had to pay another admission fee to return to the museum.

Barnum later took to the road with traveling shows which included General Tom Thumb, the midget; Swedish singer Jenny Lind; and Jumbo, the 6-1/2-ton African elephant.

Founder of "The Greatest Show on Earth" (later the Barnum & Bailey Circus), Barnum traveled widely in the USA and Europe, but always looked upon his native Connecticut as home (he was born in Bethel and lived most of his life in Bridgeport).

A staunch Universalist churchman and crusader for teetotalism (ie, abstinence from alcoholic beverages), his philosophy was one of "benevolent capitalism." He paid his staff well, gave away much of his wealth to good causes, and was loyal to his family and friends.

His innovations in marketing and publicity might be said to have founded (for good or ill) those modern-day industries by demonstrating their effectiveness in an age of rapid transportation and mass communications.

The musical comedy Barnum (1980), starring Jim Dale, with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Michael Stuart, relies on a much-modified book by Mark Bramble. Bramble's version of Barnum magnifies the showman's popular image of charlatan and bends facts freely, but skimps a bit on the worthier traits in his personality and behavior.

Phineas Taylor Barnum, who became accustomed to such misinterpretation during his lifetime, might just have approved, believing the publicity dictum "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

Barnum's circus tradition is carried on today in New England—in the best possible manner—by Circus Smirkus, Vermont's internationally-acclaimed traveling youth circus. If you have the opportunity to see one of its splendid, fun-filled shows during the summer in New England, you must do it.

Novels by Tom Brosnahan
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