P. T. Barnum

Murphy was loitering on a streetcorner on Broadway when one of the passers-by stopped to look at him: a middle-aged man with a halo of curly brown hair surrounding a balding head, a prosperous waistcoat and a broad, ruddy face. "Say, friend," the fellow said, "How would you like to earn some money?"

"Doing what?" Murphy asked suspiciously.

"Take a few bricks from that pile over there, five should be sufficient. Lay them end to end on the street. When you have them all in a row, pick up the first one and set it next to the last one. Just keep on picking up the bricks and laying them down until you get to the end of the block."

Murphy picked up one of the bricks. "And you'll pay me for this?"

The fellow handed him a dollar. "Let's just say I'm an eccentric philanthropist."

Murphy shrugged and did as the fellow wished. As he went about his pointless task, a group of curious onlookers began to gather. They followed him as he made his slow way down Broadway, growing bigger and bigger. By the time he reached the corner, there was a considerable crowd. The fellow met him at the door of the Museum which stood at the corner. "Good work," he said and handed Murphy a ticket. "Here; compliments of the house."

Now Murphy recognized him. The fellow's face adorned the gigantic banners which hung from the upper floors of the Museum. "You're Barnum!"

"That I am," the fellow confessed with a chuckle. By now the curious crowd, still mystified by the bricklaying stunt, was gawking at the many colorful banners promising exotic exhibits and wonders of nature. One man went up to the window to buy a ticket. Then another, and another. Barnum beamed. "Like I always say, every crowd has a silver lining!"

Basic Information

Known as “The Prince of Humbugs”, Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) was a legendary American showman and entrepreneur. He started out working in and eventually running a general store in a small Connecticut town, but his chief source of income were the private lotteries he ran on the side to drum up business for the store. He dabbled in a number of sidelines, including a newspaper which he used to oppose the state’s strict blue laws.

When Connecticut banned lotteries, Barnum moved to New York City and got involved in show business by buying and exhibiting an old blind slave woman named Joice Heth, who was supposedly over 160 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse. Heth would entertain audiences by singing hymns and telling tales of our First President’s childhood. When she died, an autopsy determined that she was only 80 years old. Barnum claimed that he had not deceived the public, but only said what Heth’s previous owners had told him.

By this time, Barnum had added other novelty acts to his show. A favorite trick of his was to fake controversy. His show featured “the greatest juggler in the world.” During a performance, a man in the audience claimed to be a better juggler and Barnum, far from being dismayed, proposed that the two men have a competition the following night. The contest drew even bigger crowds and Barnum sold more tickets. Both men, of course were on his payroll. While Joice Heth was still alive, he once wrote a letter under an assumed name to the newspaper condemning Heth as a fake, a puppet made of India rubber and controlled by wires. More people bought tickets to see and judge for themselves.

In 1841 Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway and used it’s archive of curiosities as the core of a new form of entertainment. Barnum’s American Museum became a combination zoo, museum, lecture hall, wax museum, theater and freak show; a glorious mash-up of the educational and the sensational; the uplifting and the odd; the gory and the glamorous. Huge banners hung from the five-story museum enticing customers to see the wonders therein.

Some of the exhibits were dubious, like the “Fejee Mermaid”, a wonder not of nature but the taxidermist’s art; but most, like Chang and Eng, the celebrated Siamese Twins, were certainly authentic, (if occasionally over-hyped). There were so many marvels packed into Barnum’s museum that few customers felt cheated of their two bits admission.

According to legend, when the museum became too packed, Barnum would have one of his staff go through the house shouting “This way to the Egress!” Customers, expecting some exotic bird or something, would be directed to a door marked “Egress” and only when going through it would they realize that “egress” meant “exit” and that they’d need to buy another ticket to get back in!

One of Barnum’s greatest finds was a dwarf named Charles Stratton, whom he renamed “General Tom Thumb.” Under Barnum’s tutelage, Tom Thumb became quite a showman himself. In 1844, Barnum toured Europe with Tom Thumb where they performed before Queen Victoria and before the Crowned Heads, where they were enormously popular.

Barnum also brought Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale” to America. At the time, Lind was a popular performer in Europe and Barnum hoped that hiring her would add a bit of respectability to his museum. Her American tour was a resounding success and Barnum put the profits from it to build a theater devoted to morally-uplifting and family-friendly entertainment.

In the 1850s some of Barnum’s real estate deals in East Bridgeport, Connecticut went bad and a company he had substantial investments in went bankrupt. At about the same time, Iranistan, the palatial home he had built in Bridgeport, burned to the ground. He was saved from ruin by the help of friends, including Tom Thumb, who was by this time touring on his own and who offered to join Barnum on another European tour.

In 1865, Barnum’s museum burned to the ground. He rebuilt it in another location, but a few years later that one burned down as well. He left the museum business, but not showbiz.

In 1871 he established a traveling circus, “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome” as sort of a road show for his old museum. When he tried to buy an elephant from James Bailey, a rival circus owner, Bailey turned the tables on him by refusing the offer — and then using the offer as part of his advertising; (“See the elephant P.T. Barnum couldn’t buy!”). Barnum realized he’d met his match and entered into a partnership ultimately forming the “Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth”.

Barnum died in his sleep at home in 1891. Shortly before his death, he gave the Evening Sun permission to print his obituary early, because he wanted the chance to read it himself. On April 7, the asked about his box office receipts for the day; a couple hours later, he died.


P.T. Barnum Wikipedia article
Barnum's American Museum Wikipedia article
Ringling Bros. webpage article on P.T. Barnum

Game and Story Use

  • In a historical campaign set in the mid-1800s, Barnum would make a splendid Patron, hiring the party to acquire sensational artifacts, or perhaps as bodyguards during his tours.
  • Barnum’s American Museum was a treasure trove of artifacts and oddities from all over the world. Any sort of magical, alien, or just plain weird item very well might turn up there between the mummified baboon and the authentic Aaron Burr pistols.
  • The “Fejee Mermaid” was a fake, an artificial chimera produced by sewing the torso of a monkey to the tail of a fish. But what if it wasn’t? Could it be a primative form of one of the Deep Ones? Are there whole schools of savage mer-monkeys lurking in the depths off the Fiji islands?
  • You have received a tip that an attempt is going to be made on the life of Queen Victoria. The assassin is someone connected with that American fellow Barnum who is scheduled to perform before her. But who is it? Surely not Tom Thumb!!!
  • Barnum suffered an awful lot from fires during his career. The article above only mentions some of the bigger ones. Could he be suffering from a curse that causes everything he holds dear to be consumed in flames? How can you find out?
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