The Barnum Museum, One of the Great New England Museums

Phineas Taylor Barnum was arguably the greatest showman of all time. He had a knack for finding and exhibiting unusual people, animals and a range of oddities, some of them hoaxes, such as the Feejee Mermaid.

While the Barnum & Bailey Circus continues as a living testament to his talent for promotion, he was also a politician and journalist and enormously influential both here in the U.S. and in Europe during the 19th century. He could tomanipulate the press in ways that render today’s spin doctors inept hacks.

P.T. Barnum, as he was best known, was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810. After his father’s death in 1826, rural life faded as his ideal, and he was drawn to the city lights of Brooklyn, New York, where he worked for a short time as a store clerk.

His own fascination with curiosities, strange and bizarre, convinced him that his contemporaries of the era would be likewise captivated, so he set out to make collecting and displaying peculiarities his career. His reading of the sentiments of the times was right on, and people gathered in large numbers at the various venues he built, in particular, the American Museum in New York.

The first of his endeavors involved Joice Heth, whom he billed as “The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World.”

Telling those interested that the story-telling, African American woman was 161 years old, he convinced his audiences that, as a slave, she had tended to a young George Washington.

When a prominent physician pared back her true age to 80 after her autopsy, Barnum insisted that her body was a fake and that she was still performing elsewhere.

In 1841, Barnum founded and built the American Museum in the heart of “Old New York City.” It comprised an eclectic blend of sensational and gaudy attractions, including Tom Thumb and the Feejee Mermaid, natural history with exhibits displaying taxidermy and menageries, and art, wax figures and a Lecture Room and theatre in which Shakespeare was performed.

To many historians and social scientists, the American Museum was the bedrock of New York’s urban evolution.

Remarkably perceptive of the changing demographics of the city and the confluence of different cultures, Barnum adjusted the exhibits, shows and educational materials to accommodate different cultures and tastes as well as each strata of the social classes of the times. There was literally something for everyone.

The public response was almost as varied as the museum’s diversity. Some loved the museum/theatre and some were appalled by it.

The flames of that outrage were fanned by Barnum’s support of temperance, and on July 13, 1865, the American Museum was burned to the ground. It has never been determined who set the fire. He subsequently built a new museum further uptown, which also burned down.

He is perhaps best known, however, for two special finds: Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind.

It was in 1842 that he discovered Charles Sherwood Stratton, whom he dubbed Tom Thumb, a man who stood only 25 inches tall and weighed a mere 15 pounds at age 11.

Barnum invested two years in training Tom to sing, dance and mime, then embarked on a world tour with his tiny friend who performed for fascinated domestic and European audiences, including royalty and Abraham Lincoln. Tom Thumb became a “must see” in the American Museum.

Jenny Lind, whom Barnum called “The Swedish Nightingale” was a musical prodigy. She could play the piano at age four and developed an extraordinary singing voice, which she amply demonstrated to the influential and political, including President Millard Fillmore, General Winfield Scott, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Washington Irving and others.

The Barnum & Bailey Circus, which he dubbed “The greatest show on earth” is his most enduring legacy.

Mixing politics with his passion for the bizarre enabled Barnum to serve a one-year term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he served two terms in the Connecticut legislature.

The Barnum Museum is an excellent chronicle of the life and times of Phineas Taylor Barnum and very much worth a visit.