Barnum, Phineas T.

Born: 1810-07-05 Bethel, Connecticut

Died: 1891-04-07 Bridgeport, Connecticut

Phineas T. Barnum was a clerk, businessman, newspaper publisher, abolitionist, entertainer, banker, and state legislator. Barnum began selling and hustling at a very early age. His father died in 1825 and Barnum took a job in a general store near Bethel. He moved to Brooklyn in 1826 and clerked at a store before returning to Bethel in 1828 and opening a grocery. Barnum worked as a lottery agent in Pennsylvania but again returned to Bethel. In 1829, he married Charity Hallett, with whom he had four children. Barnum began publishing an abolitionist newspaper, Herald of Freedom, in 1831 from Danbury but moved to New York City, when the paper failed in 1834. By the following year, he was managing another grocery and a boardinghouse.

While in New York, Barnum began getting involved in the entertainment industry--staging spectacle shows and charging admittance to witness “natural wonders,” feats of physical skill, and other attractions. He began touring with a small circus in the 1830s while remaining involved in other businesses. In 1841, Barnum purchased a museum in New York City and renamed it Barnum’s American Museum. The museum became a major New York landmark and soon began running plays as well as admitting people to see Barnum’s collections. One of his most popular attractions was Charles S. Stratton, popularly known as Tom Thumb, who toured the western world and attracted large audiences due to his extremely small size. Barnum also successfully toured with the famous European singer and “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind in 1850. He built a large mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1848 and had become a bank president there by 1852. Due to poor investments, he was forced to sell the American Museum in 1855 and his Bridgeport home was lost to fire in 1857. He continued to tour with Tom Thumb during these years and gave public lectures, which gradually restored his financial status. He once again purchased the American Museum in 1860. Following the secession crisis, Barnum joined the Republican Party and supported Abraham Lincoln. In April 1865, he won election to the Connecticut General Assembly, where he urged support for the Thirteenth Amendment and an amendment of the Connecticut Constitution to give the right to vote to African Americans.

James Ross Moore. “Barnum, P. T.,” American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 2:211-14; A. H. Saxon, P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 218, 220; Gravestone, Mountain Grove Cemetery and Mausoleum, Bridgeport, CT.