The Macabre And Obscure Story Of P.T. Barnum, "The Greatest Showman"

The Macabre And Obscure Story Of P.T. Barnum, "The Greatest Showman"

Hugh Jackman is the best, but is his portrayal of P.T. Barnum so accurate? I think not!

It’s no surprise that most Hollywood films inspired or based on the lives of real people are so romanticized they aren't as historically accurate as they promise to be. Of course, the story of the recently released The Greatest Showman is no different; actually, it’s quite far from being accurate at all. Most people are familiar with P.T. Barnum, the man who basically changed the entertainment industry. In the movie, naturally, he’s portrayed as this ambitious but kind man who works exhaustively to provide his family a comfortable life. One day he gets the idea of opening a museum of “curiosities,” but seeing that it isn’t as profitable as he expected, he decides to follow his daughters’ idea of displaying something alive, and thus begins his quest for eccentric characters, which became a massive success. His speech when contacting them is that they’re special people and that every person in his company is unique and important. But how much of this was actually true? Let’s find out.

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Phineas Taylor Barnum was born into a humble family in 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut. Since he was a little boy he aspired to become a wealthy man and live a comfortable life. To achieve that he started working since a very early age. According to the story, when he was only 12 he started a snacks and rum business in his town, which he saved almost entirely. When he was 21 he already owned a store, a lottery, and his own newspaper. Of course, none of these were as successful as he expected, and as it happens in life, these businesses eventually ended up costing him more than what he got from them. He needed a great and profitable business to have the life he had always wanted, and that idea was called Joice Heth, an old slave woman he presented as the 161-year-old nanny of George Washington. Barnum made her work for 10 to 12 hours a day and exhibited her in near towns and cities as a rare oddity. Not a story fit for a musical, right?


At that time, in some of the northern states of the country, slavery was already outlawed, so he studied the law untiringly until he found a loophole that allowed him to “rent” her, although he actually bought her. This old woman became his little gold mine, but he didn’t want to exploit it, and I’m not actually talking about the poor woman. No, I’m talking about the story he built around her. So, each time he presented her, he would add something far more interesting, even suggesting that she wasn’t a human being, which explained why she had lived for so long. The truth was that she was just a woman in her late seventies being displayed worse than an animal for this guy’s convenience. At the time freak shows were in vogue, so if you happened to meet someone that could be considered a “curiosity” or “freak,” you could earn thousands of dollars without having to invest that much. 

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We have to give this guy the credit for being extremely creative and a good businessman great in marketing. When his gold mine died just one year after he “rented” her, he wouldn't allow her to get buried under the ground. No, he knew he could make the most of her one last time. So, he started publicizing his latest show all over New York. It would be a live autopsy on the slave woman who had nursed one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. According to Jackie Mansky’s article for the Smithsonian Magazine, about 1500 spectators paid and attended the autopsy where it was actually revealed that she was only half the age Barnum claimed she was.

After Heth’s death, he continued scouting and performing in New York, but he didn’t have the success Heth had given him. After some years he managed to get, or better said, tricked the bank to get a loan, which he used to open his “Barnum’s American Museum.” Just as it happens in the movie (one of the few parts they actually got right), it wasn’t that much of a hit at first, until he started displaying “interesting curiosities,” but it wasn’t as nice and respectful as it was on the film. He would show from conjoined twins to Salvadorean kids he advertised as surviving Aztecs. He also got an African-American man named William Henry Johnson, whom he promoted as a wild African orangutan man, half-monkey half-man he named “What is it?” As you can see, his museum lived out of exploiting, displaying, and creating horrible racial stereotypes. His success depended on highlighting the idea of white superiority, and this proved to be quite profitable at the time.

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This turned him into a respectable man in New York’s society. This respectability gave him another ambitious project: entering the political circle. By 1865, when he was running for the Connecticut General Assembly, he realized he had to make another image of himself. The Civil War had just ended, and race became an important subject he needed to deal with in order to create his political profile. In one of his speeches, he told people how sorry he was for his behavior towards black people. He got all emotional and accepted he had been a slave owner; moreover, he said he had actually tortured them, but it was something he wasn’t proud of. Now, historians are divided at this point of Barnum’s history. Some believe he actually regretted his actions and wanted to redeem himself by becoming an abolitionist, while others are sure this was just another of his acts to get attention and drag a new audience.

He wanted people to remember him as the “greatest showman” as the movie dictates, and for that reason, during his last years of life, he devoted an important amount of time to tell his story. In 1865 he published Humbugs of the World, a book in which he swears to his readers he had never resorted to any kind of scam or gimmick in any of his shows (but what about Joice Heth?). Moreover, he claimed he had always been a respectable and truthful man who only recurred to marketing and merchandising strategies to give people the best entertainment possible. At the end of the day, P.T. Barnum was, as Benjamin Reiss (from the Emory University) states, a living parallel to American history and culture. He isn’t just the embodiment of the so-famous American Dream, the humble boy that works hard to become a successful and respectable man. Just as people romanticize the history of the country, people just select some parts of his story to extoll the good and inspiring things, while concealing the horrors of his past. If you ask me, that way of presenting an image of himself and still being successful does make him the Greatest Showman. Not due to his shows and businesses, but for his ability to sell his own image. And I don't say it as a positive compliment.

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