COVID-19 and DCA
Collection on P. T. Barnum
Scope and Contents
- Majority of material found within 1837 -- 1985
- 1818 -- 2009
- Barnum, P. T. (Phineas Taylor) (Person)
Language of Materials
Conditions Governing Access
Biographical / Historical
Phineas Taylor (P. T.) Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810, to Philo F. Barnum, a farmer and shopkeeper, and Irena Taylor. He held many jobs as a youth, including herding cattle, selling theater tickets, and publishing the abolitionist newspaper The Herald of Freedom (1831-1834). Barnum married seamstress Charity Hallett in 1829, and they had four daughters.
In 1835 Barnum purchased the right to exhibit the elderly enslaved woman Joice Heth, as the supposed 161-year-old nurse of George Washington, at Niblo's Gardens in New York City. He then led a small traveling circus through the South and West, and engaged in a number of unsuccessful business ventures. In 1841 Barnum bought and re-opened the American Museum in New York City. Exhibits included the Feegee [sic] mermaid, the bearded lady, and the "Egress," along with fossils and natural history specimens.
Barnum’s half-brother Philo introduced him to the dwarf Charles Sherwood Stratton in 1842, and Barnum hired Stratton as an exhibit under the name General Tom Thumb. Barnum and Stratton made several tours to England and Europe (1844, 1858). Barnum modeled his Connecticut mansion Iranistan (destroyed by fire in 1857), in part, on the Brighton Pavilion. In 1850 Barnum brought Jenny Lind to America for a concert tour.
From 1851 to 1857 he was one of the founding trustees of the new Universalist institution, Tufts College (founded in 1852 and opened to students in 1854). After being elected to the Trustees in 1851, Barnum resigned in 1857, because his busy schedule of tours precluded his attendance at board meetings. In fact, the only record that exists of Barnum actually visiting the campus was in 1886 for the commencement ceremony. On the occasion of that visit the Tufts Glee Club greeted him with "The Barnum Song" composed by then-student Leo Rich Lewis, who was later to become professor of music and composer of numerous Tufts songs.
In the 1870s Barnum organized the "Greatest Show on Earth,” which traveled by train through the United States and Canada. In 1881 he joined his business rivals to form the Barnum and Bailey Circus. His correspondence of this period explains that he is too busy to attend Tufts functions, such as commencements. In 1882, Barnum bought Jumbo, then the largest known African elephant, for $10,000 from the Royal Zoological Society in London. After great protest in England, he brought the animal to America. Between 1882 and 1884, Barnum anonymously gave over $50,000 to Tufts College to build the Barnum Museum of Natural History. He also left over $30,000 in his will to build two subsequent wings. Barnum had the bodies of dead circus animals preserved and mounted by Ward's Natural Science Establishment (taxidermists) for exhibit in the museum. In 1885, Jumbo was killed by a train in Ontario, Canada. The elephant, stuffed by Carl Akeley and William Critchley, was taken on more circus tours. In 1889, Barnum donated the mounted skin to the Barnum Museum at Tufts, and Jumbo’s skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Barnum hoped that the publicity might be useful to the college, and Jumbo became the school mascot.
In 1889 Barnum made his last tour to England and compiled the scrapbook of his trip, which is now in this collection. Barnum died in Bridgeport, Connecticut on April 7, 1891. In April 1975, an electrical fire in Barnum Hall destroyed Jumbo and much other Barnumiana, including Barnum’s desk, his bust, many circus posters, and some letters.
10.55 Linear Feet
63 Digital Object(s)
- Language of description
- Script of description