P. T. Barnum Biography

P.T. Barnum, also known as the ‘Shakespeare of advertising’, was a celebrated showman who captivated millions with his bizarre yet entertaining performances. He revolutionized the circus industry with his invention of the modern three-ring circus, which became the largest in the world during the 19th century. Known for his clever pranks and hoaxes, Barnum’s tricks such as ‘The Feejee Mermaid’ and ‘Tom Thumb’s Baby’ became legendary. Not only was he a successful entrepreneur, but he also wrote several books, including his autobiography. Today, Barnum is remembered as the great American showman and his name continues to be synonymous with the history of the American circus.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Phineas Taylor Barnum
  • Died At Age: 80
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Charity Hallet, Nancy Fish
    • Father: Philo Barnum
    • Mother: Irena Taylor
    • Children: Caroline Cornelia Barnum, Frances Irena Barnum, Helen Maria Barnum, Pauline Taylor Barnum
  • Quotes By P. T. Barnum
  • Business People
  • Political ideology: Democratic, Republican
  • Died on: April 7, 1891
  • Place of death: Bridgeport, Connecticut, United States
  • Cause of Death: Stroke
  • U.S. State: Connecticut

Childhood & Early Life

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Connecticut, United States to Philo Barnum, a store keeper, and Irene Taylor. During his childhood, he would attend the congregational church in Bethel and attend prayer meetings. He served as a clerk for a brief period at the Universalist Church in Danbury, Connecticut and also gave speeches on Christian Universalism at Universalist gatherings. Before moving to New York, he worked as a clerk in his father’s country store and ran a fruit and confectionary store.


In 1829, he founded ‘The Herald of Freedom’, a weekly paper based in Danbury, Connecticut that reported the growing religious oppression and militant Calvinism. His publications in ‘The Herald of Freedom’ were against the church, due to which many libel suits were filed against him. As a result, he was prosecuted and imprisoned for two months. He moved to New York and began his career as a showman in 1835 and founded his first ‘variety group’, ‘Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater’. In 1841, he bought the Scudder’s American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street, New York City and renamed it to ‘Barnum’s American Museum’, where he made his first fortune. In 1842, he introduced the ‘Feejee mermaid’, a creature with the head of a monkey and a fish tail. He also exhibited Charles Stratton, a dwarf, who was known by the name of ‘General Tom Thumb’. In 1843, he became the first showman to hire traditional Native American dancers called ‘Fu-Hum-Me’. These dancers always managed to amuse and attract a large audience. From 1844 to 1845, he toured Europe along with ‘General Tom Thumb’. This tour acted as his vehicle of publicity and attracted attention from Queen Victoria and the Czar of Russia. In 1865, he was elected to the Connecticut legislature as a Republican candidate for Fairfield, where he served two terms. In 1871, he established ‘P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome’ along with William Cameron Coup. This was considered the largest circus in America at the time. In 1875, he became the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut and served this position for a period of one year, during which time he worked to improve water supply and prostitution laws. In 1881, he advertised for a show with the famous expression- ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. This was the first circus to install three rings, which made it the largest circus in the world and the first one to be called the ‘three-ring circus’.

Major Works

His ‘Barnum & Bailey Circus’ hosted a three-ring show called ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, which was considered the largest circus in the world. In 1952, an Academy Award-winning film, inspired by this circus, titled ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, was directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Personal Life & Legacy

At the age of 19, he married Charity Hallet and the couple had four children together. In 1878, he founded the Bridgeport Hospital and was elected as its first president. In 1883, he donated a sum of $50,000 for the building of a hall and museum at the Department of Natural History, Tufts University, Massachusetts. Published in 1854, his autobiography, ‘The Life of P.T. Barnum’, narrates the touching story of his early life and struggles. In 1890, he suffered from a stroke during one of his performances. He died in his sleep at the age of 80 and is interred at Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1893, a statue in his honor was erected at Seaside Park, Connecticut. In 1907, the ‘Ringling Brothers’ bought the ‘Barnum and Bailey circus’ for $400,000 and they merged it with their company in 1919, to form the ‘Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’.


This famous American showman gave permission to a newspaper to print his obituary just before his death, so that he could have a chance to read it or add to it if required.

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