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The Old Showman’s Last Triumph

July 2024
4min read

Near the close of a gaudy career, P. T. Earnum took the “greatest show on earth” to London. His scrapbook reveals the master of hokum at the top of his form

No one ever accused Phineas Taylor Barnum of being modest. For more than fifty years this self-acknowledged “prince of humbugs” so thoroughly fooled, fleeced, and entertained the American public that the name Barnum itself became as famous as the artists and oddities he put on display. Jenny Lind, General Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Siamese Twins, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, Jumbo the Elephant, human and animal rarities of every description—from them he had fashioned an endlessly diverting drama, with himself never far from the center of the stage.

By 1889 Barnum could offer his own life as proof that virtue survives adversity. After middle age a nondrinker and nonsmoker, he preached abstinence and never failed to emphasize the wholesomeness and moral uplift of his shows, even as he genially confessed to his mercenary intentions. “Every crowd has a silver lining,” said Barnum. Twice his prodigious American Museum in New York burned to the ground, but Barnum always bounced back—secure in his self-esteem, his grip on the popular imagination—and at his death in 1891 he was worth four million dollars.

But two years before had come the capstone of his career. Urged on by his partner, James Anthony Bailey, despite his own doubts that it would pay, Barnum look a combined circus and pageant to London for a hundred-day engagement at the Olympia Amphitheater. His fears that English audiences might not welcome him were groundless: he was a stupendous success. Fifteen thousand people attended the opening; the newspapers praised him extravagantly; royalty came; a banquet for two hundred prominent persons was held in his honor; the talk of London was nothing but Barnum, Barnum, Barnum.

On his return, the aging impresario made a scrapbook for his favorite daughter, Caroline, filled with programs, press clippings, cartoons, and other mementos of the glorious event. From this album, now in the collection of Jack Winsten of Bridgeport, Connecticut, AMERICAN HERITAGE has assembled the portfolio on the pages that follow, an echo from the circus world of clowns and curiosities, of tents and tanbark, to which Barnum's name is still indissolubly bound.

—Eric Larrabee


Barnum was always proud that his shows appealed to children, and went out of his way to emphasize that fact. “In America I am on famously friendly terms with all the Little Folks …” he wrote in a specially prepared album of the show; “I would rather be called the children’s friend than the world’s king.” His album contains many of these gaily colored booklets for his young customers, like the Jumbo alphabet (above) with its A for Barnum’s own Arrival in England (below). The scene itself must have been somewhat less sumptuous, but certainly no less exotic, when the steamship Furnessia disgorged on the London docks its load of performers, elephants, camels, zebras, horses, band wagons, Roman chariots, and innumerable trunks and chests--”as strange a cargo,” noted Harper’s Weekly, “as ever was loaded on a ship.” To transport the circus across the ocean was costing Barnum and Bailey $350,000, and they had contracted to pay the Olympia $12,000 a day for a hundred days. It was thus a somewhat apprehensive Barnum who had finally set sail aboard the Etruria with his British-born wife, Nancy. One reason for Barnum’s uneasiness was his fear that the British public would still resent his purchase of the elephant Jumbo, seven years before, from the London Zoological Gardens. Jumbo was one of the largest pachyderms in captivity; his daily intake of food included two hundred pounds of hay, fifteen loaves of bread, five pails of water, and a quart of whiskey. He was the Gardens’ major attraction, and when the news of his sale became public, there had been a storm of indignation.

Patriotic Britons (and their children) flooded the newspapers with letters protesting Jumbo’s departure. It was as though someone had tried to sell a national monument. Jumbo became the major issue of the day. There were Jumbo hats, Jumbo cigars, Jumbo neckties. A magazine suggested that the motto on the British coat of arms be changed to “Dieu et mon Jumbo.” The American envoy, James Russell Lowell, said in a speech that “the only burning question between England and America is Jumbo.”

When the time came for Jumbo to leave, he himself intensified the orgy of public sentiment by lying down in the street and refusing to move. When Barnum’s agent cabled, asking “What shall we do?” Barnum replied: “Let him lie there a week if he wants to. It is the best advertisement in the world.” Eventually Jumbo—enclosed in a cage, placated with beer, and lifted aboard ship by steam crane—made his way to the United States, where he justified Barnum’s sagacity by earning $1,750,000 in his first season.

But tragedy followed. On the night of September 15, 1885, in St. Thomas, Ontario, Jumbo was struck by a freight train. Though the locomotive and two cars were demolished, poor Jumbo, alas, did not survive. The world was saddened, but Barnum was not exactly inconsolable. He proceeded to have Jumbo’s skeleton mounted and his hide stuffed, with the result (right) that he could now exhibit two Jumbos at once.

Long before Hollywood discovered Ben Hur, Barnum (and his collaborator the Hungarian impresario Imre Kiralfy) had realized the advantage of a pageant based upon imperial Rome--namely, that it combines the theme of Christian heroism with scenes of lip-smacking decadence. “Nero; or the Destruction of Rome” was no exception. “A grand show,” the London Mirror called it. “It surpasses anything of the kind ever attempted in this or any other country.” There was something in it for everybody, from a triumphal procession (above) and bacchanalian orgies through to gladiatorial contests and chariot races (right). To judge by his press notices, Barnum’s audiences had never before been exposed to anything at once so educational and so stupefying. “It is no mere artificial show,” rhapsodized the London Chronicle, “but a vivid and vast realization of life.”

Early in his career Barnum learned a lesson he never forgot: get the upper classes on your side and the masses will follow. When he had brought Tom Thumb to London in 1844, he had secured an audience for the midget with Queen Victoria; after that he had only to sit back and collect the receipts. Now in 1889 royalty came to his circus. The Prince of Wales came (the Princess came four times), bringing his young son who would one day be George V. (When Barnum asked the boy if he was going to stay until the end of the performance, he looked around cautiously and said, “Mr. Barnum, I shall remain here until they sing God Save Grandmother.”) Barnum seems to have appealed to aristocrats partly because he was a curiosity, but partly also because in his simple way he could be familiar without being insolent. For him the high point must have been the banquet in his honor with a guest list (below) filled with names from Burke’s Peerage and Who’s Who, among them Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Robert Peel, Henry Irving, and Oscar Wilde. His health was proposed by the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, who compared Barnum favorably with Napoleon Bonaparte, Julius Caesar, and Alexander the Great, since they were showmen too, but made their shows out of human misery instead, as Barnum did, out of innocent pleasure. Also included in the toasts was another group whose good will P. T. Barnum never allowed to go unremembered: the ever-helpful Press.


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