After economic reversals due to bad investments in the 1850s, Barnum began four years of litigation and public humiliation. He recovered, starting a lecture tour, mostly as a temperance speaker, and by 1860, he emerged from debt and built a mansion, "Lindencroft." His museum added America's first aquarium and expanded the wax figure department.
While he claimed "politics were always distasteful to me," Barnum was elected to the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a Republican for Fairfield, and served two terms. He ran twice unsuccessfully for the United States Congress. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution over slavery and African-American suffrage, Barnum spoke before the legislature and said, "A human soul is not to be trifled with. It may inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hotentot - it is still an immortal spirit!" In 1875, Barnum was mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut for a year and worked to improve the water supply, bring gaslighting to streets, and enforcing liquor and prostitution laws. Barnum was instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and was its first president.
Barnum entered the circus business, the source of much of his enduring fame, at age 61, establishing "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome", a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of "freaks", which by 1872 was billing itself as "The Greatest Show On Earth". Barnum was the first circus owner to move his circus by train, and the first to purchase his own train. Given the lack of paved highways in America, this turned out to be a shrewd business move that enlarged Barnum's market.
Barnum died in his sleep at home on April 7, 1891 and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut, a cemetery he designed himself.
Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of inn keeper, tailor and store-keeper Philo Barnum (1778-1826) and second wife Irene Taylor, who had ten children. He was the third great grandson of Thomas Barnum (1625-1695), the immigrant ancestor of the Barnum family in North America. His maternal grandfather Phineas Taylor was a whig, legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and lottery schemer, and he had a great influence on his favorite grandson. Barnum was adept at arithmetic but hated physical work. Barnum started as a store-keeper, and he learned haggling, striking a bargain, and using deception to make a sale. He was involved with the lottery mania in the United States. He married Charity Hallett when he was 19; she'd be his companion for the next 44 years.
The young husband had several businesses: a general store, a book auctioning trade, real estate speculation, and a state-wide lottery network. He became active in local politics and advocated against blue laws promulgated by Calvinists who sought to restrict gambling and travel. Barnum started a weekly paper in 1829, The Herald Of Freedom, in Danbury, Connecticut. His editorials against church elders led to libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in imprisonment for two months, but he became a champion of the liberal movement upon his release. In 1834, when lotteries were banned in Connecticut, cutting off his main income, Barnum sold his store and moved to New York City. In 1835 he began as a showman with his purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, claimed by Barnum to have been the nurse of George Washington, and to be over 160.
Joice Heth died in 1836, no more than 80. After a year of mixed success with his first variety troupe called "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater", followed by the Panic of 1837 and three years of difficult circumstances, he purchased Scudder's American Museum, at Broadway and Ann Street, New York City, in 1841. Renamed "Barnum's American Museum" with addition of exhibits and improvements in the building, it became a popular showplace. Barnum added a lighthouse lamp which attracted attention up and down Broadway and flags along the roof's edge that attracted attention in daytime. From between the upper windows, giant paintings of animals drew stares from pedestrians. The roof was transformed to a strolling garden with a view of the city, where hot-air balloon rides were launched daily. To the static exhibits of stuffed animals were added a changing series of live acts and "curiosities", including albinos, giants, midgets, "fat boys", jugglers, magicians, "exotic women", detailed models of cities and famous battles, and eventually a menagerie of animals. (Pictured left: Barnum with Commodore Nutt, Tom Thumb).
In 1842, Barnum introduced his first major hoax, the "Feejee" mermaid, which he leased from fellow museum owner Moses Kimball of Boston, who became his friend, confidant, and collaborator. it was a tail of a fish and the head of a monkey. He justified his hoaxes or "humbugs" as "advertisements to draw attention...to the Museum. I don't believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them." Later, he crusaded against fraudsters. Barnum followed that with the exhibition of Charles Stratton, the dwarf "General Tom Thumb" ("the Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone") who was then four years of age but was stated to be 11. With heavy coaching and natural talent, the boy was taught to imitate people from Hercules to Napoleon. By five, he was drinking wine and by seven smoking cigars for the public's amusement. Though exploited, Tom Thumb enjoyed his job and had a good relationship with Barnum free of bitterness.
1856 newspaper advertisement for Barnum's American Museum located on Ann Street in Manhattan.
Barnum did not enter the circus business until late in his career (he was 61). In Delavan, Wisconsin in 1871 with William Cameron Coup, he established "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome", a traveling circus, menagerie and museum of "freaks", which by 1872 was billing itself as "The Greatest Show On Earth". It went through various names: "P.T. Barnum's Travelling World's Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show On Earth", and after an 1881 merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United", soon shortened to "Barnum & London Circus". Despite more fires, train disasters, and other setbacks, Barnum plowed ahead, aided by circus professionals who ran the daily operations. He and Bailey split up again in 1885, but came back together in 1888 with the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth", later "Barnum & Bailey Circus", which toured the world. The show's primary attraction was Jumbo, an African elephant he purchased in 1882 from the London Zoo and who died in a train wreck. Jumbo eventually became the mascot of Tufts University, in honor of a donation from Barnum in 1882.
Barnum was the first circus owner to move his circus by train, and the first to purchase his own train. Given the lack of paved highways in America, this turned out to be a shrewd business move that enlarged Barnum's market. Many circus historians credit Bailey with this innovation. In this new field, Barnum leaned more on the advice of Bailey and other business partners, most of whom were young enough to be his sons.
Barnum built four mansions in Bridgeport, Connecticut: Iranistan, Lindencroft, Waldemere and Marina. Iranistan was the most notable: a fanciful and opulent Moorish Revival splendor designed by Leopold Eidlitz with domes, spires and lacy fretwork, inspired by the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England. This mansion was built 1848 but burned down in 1857.
Barnum died in his sleep at home on April 7, 1891 and was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, Connecticut, a cemetery he designed. A statue in his honor was placed in 1893 at Seaside Park, by the water in Bridgeport. Barnum had donated the land for this park in 1865. His circus was sold to Ringlington Brothers on July 8, 1907 for $400,000 (about $8.5 million in 2008 dollars). At his death, most critics had forgiven him and he was praised for good works. Barnum was hailed as an icon of American spirit and ingenuity, and was perhaps the most famous American in the world. Just before his death, he gave permission to the Evening Sun to print his obituary, so that he might read it. On April 7 he asked about the box office receipts for the day; a few hours later, he was dead.