A couple years ago, we covered The Greatest Showman as a pre-release episode. In other words, the podcast episode came out before the movie did. In that episode, we learned about the life of P.T. Barnum. In this episode, we’re going back to Barnum’s life as this time we give The Greatest Showman the typical Based on a True Story treatment — comparing it to history.
Learn the true story behind The Greatest Showman
The movie opens with a great shot of Hugh Jackman’s character, Phineas Taylor Barnum — or just P.T. Barnum for short. With legs crossed, a cane in his right hand and a top hat, there’s light streaming down on Barnum from above. In the background, there are people sitting in the stands with the light beyond.
As the music swells, Barnum dances to it and the people in the stands stomp their feet, creating a beat.
Hugh Jackman’s character starts the lyrics and races out to the circus floor where he’s joined by the whole troupe. They’re singing and dancing along with the epic title track to the movie, “The Greatest Show.”
So, I think this is a great opportunity to set the expectations for our story today: We won’t really be covering any of the music in the movie. Sorry! If you’re like my wife, that’s probably your favorite part about the film. And that’s perfectly fine. But, we’re here to chat about the historical accuracy of the movie, and obviously, the music isn’t very historically accurate. The real P.T. Barnum didn’t sing at his shows, and his story wasn’t a feel-good musical like the movie shows.
Oh, and while we’re setting the expectations, there’s one more thing to mention. P.T. Barnum was a great showman — but he wasn’t so great at being completely honest. By that, what I mean is that he often tended to stretch the truth a bit to tell a better story. That included the story of his own life in his autobiographies.
So, just remember to take everything with a grain of salt…even the historical facts we think we know.
With that said, as the opening song fades out, we see a younger Phineas — actually, as a side note here, for the purpose of this episode let’s call the younger P.T. Barnum “Taylor.” The movie just calls the character “Young Barnum”, and while Phineas was his first name, calling him Taylor is a little more authentic, because that’s what Phineas Taylor Barnum’s mother usually called him.
So, where were we? Oh yeah! In the movie, Taylor is looking longingly through the window of a shop. Looking down, we can see his toe wiggling through his boot. It’s clear that owning the bright red suit in the shop is just a dream.
Then we see Barnum’s father, Philo. He’s played by Will Swenson in the movie, and we can see young Taylor carrying a case while his dad carrys a few rolls of fabrics. Together, they walk up to a grand home. Inside, Philo is taking measurements of someone who we must assume is the homeowner.
Young Taylor gets distracted by the pretty girl his age who is in the other room. She’s learning the proper way to drink tea from someone who we must assume is her mother — pinkie in the air, arm extended. In the other room, Taylor mimics her movements causing both children to burst out laughing.
That’s when we hear the young girl’s name from her father, Charity. He calls her over and scolds her for laughing.
“Is this how we’ve taught you to behave?”
Taylor steps up, taking the blame. After thanking him for being honest, Charity’s father slaps Taylor across the face.
“Stay away from my daughter,” he tells Taylor as he takes Charity away.
Oh, and young Charity played by Skylar Dunn while young Taylor is played by Ellis Rubin.
This scene is a fictional one, but the purpose in the movie is really to introduce us to a few new characters who were real.
Let’s start with his father, who the movie correctly shows as being a tailor. But he was more than that. He was an innkeeper, ran a country store, a livery stable, and, well, whatever he could be to help keep putting food on the table for his family. Like the movie implies from the hole in young Taylor’s boot, they didn’t have a lot of money growing up.
That brings us to the family they’re visiting. Even though the movie doesn’t really state who they are, we can assume from the young girl being Charity that the family is the Hallett family.
Mr. and Mrs. Hallett, who are played by Frederic Lehne and Kathryn Meisle, respectively, aren’t named in this part of the movie but again we can pull from history to learn their names are Benjamin and Hannah Hallett. Or, I guess I should say Private Hallett, because Benjamin served in the Connecticut militia during the War of 1812.
As for our story today, though, I couldn’t find anything in my research that indicated Benjamin Hallett was so opposed to the interest between Taylor and Charity. That doesn’t mean that’s not true — after all, a father disliking who his daughter takes an interest in isn’t exactly something that gets documented every time — but, if he did disapprove then it didn’t seem to be a big enough deal to warrant a mention in Taylor’s autobiography.
Speaking of the interest between Taylor and Charity, the movie is correct in showing a connection between the two. In fact, not to get too far ahead of our story, but Charity Hallett would end up being Taylor’s wife one day. And while the movie never really mentions how old they are in this scene, we know from history that they met as teenagers. In his autobiography, P.T. Barnum recalled the time he first met Charity. Here’s how he described it:
As my mother continued to keep the village tavern at Bethel, I usually went home on Saturday night and stayed till Monday morning, going to church with my mother on Sunday. This habit was the occasion of an experience of momentous consequence to me. One Saturday evening, during a violent thunder shower, Miss Mary Wheeler, a milliner, sent me word that there was a girl from Bethel at her house, who had come up on horseback to get a new bonnet; that she was afraid to go back alone; and if I was going to Bethel that evening she wished me to escort her customer. I assented, and went over to “Aunt Rushia’s” where I was introduced to “Chairy” (Charity) Hallett, a fair, rosy-cheeked, buxom girl, with beautiful white teeth. I assisted her to her saddle, and mounting my own horse, we trotted towards Bethel.
My first impressions of this girl as I saw her at the house were exceedingly favorable. As soon as we started I began a conversation with her and finding her very affable I regretted that the distance to Bethel was not five miles instead of one. A flash of lightning gave me a distinct view of the face of my fair companion and then I wished the distance was twenty miles. During our ride I learned that she was a tailoress, working with Mr. Zerah Benedict, of Bethel. We soon arrived at our destination and I bid her good night and went home. The next day I saw her at church, and, indeed, many Sundays afterwards, but I had no opportunity to renew the acquaintance that season.
This was toward the end of 1825. And since P.T. Barnum was born in 1810 and Charity Hallett was born in 1808, that means he would’ve been 14 or 15 while she would’ve been 16 or 17.
Probably the most inaccurate part of this scene, though, is the purpose for the visit. As we just learned from his autobiography, Taylor wasn’t there to help his father in his duties as a tailor. But there’s a good reason for that. And it has to do with the timeline of the movie is a bit off when it shows Philo getting sick and passing away after Taylor and Charity meet.
You see, Philo Barnum died on September 7th, 1825 at only 48-years old.
That was before Taylor met Charity later in the same year.
And the death of his father at such a young age left Taylor’s mother with five children to look after without an income. If they didn’t have money before his father’s passing, they had even less after it.
Going back to the movie, we see these hard times hit Taylor as he’s stealing bread and selling discarded newspapers all as he’s writing to Charity while she’s at finishing school. Then there’s a moment there where we see young Taylor hear someone advertising getting jobs at the railroad. All we see is him walking toward the man making the announcement.
The movie never mentions how much time has passed, but we’re left to assume he’s working there for a quite some time because in the next scene a grown P.T. Barnum is now played by Hugh Jackman, we see him back at the Hallett’s home to pick up Charity, who’s now played by Michelle Williams.
In the next scene, we see a CG version of a period New York City that indicates they’re no longer in Connecticut.
While that’s obviously skipping over quite a bit of time, it’s also not very accurate.
You see, P.T. Barnum hated physical labor. And if there’s one thing building a railroad … well, it’s a lot of physical labor. He hated physical labor so much that he would do whatever he could to avoid it.
But, as we learned earlier, his family also didn’t have a lot of money. So, at a young age, Barnum found himself in a bit of a predicament. He needed to make money, but he didn’t want to do physical labor to get it.
Fortunately, he was smart.
Mathematics was something he latched onto very quickly at school and it came in handy as he tried to get out of doing physical labor to make money. If it wasn’t one scheme, he’d come up with another. All the time, he learned what sort of things would attract people’s attention and got them to part with the coins in their pocket. As you can probably guess, that would come in handy later in life.
We learned more details about the sort of things he did in the pre-release episode for The Greatest Showman — episode #84 of Based on a True Story — but he came up with some clever ideas. For example, he auctioned books, did real estate speculation and even started a lottery network across the entire state of Connecticut.
Speaking of the lottery network, that’s actually the real reason why Phineas moved to New York City. It wasn’t something they did right after he and Charity were married like the movie shows. It also didn’t happen nearly as fast as the movie shows.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because moving to New York City wasn’t the only part of the timeline the movie gets wrong.
In the summer of 1829, P.T. Barnum and Charity Hallett were formerly engaged. If you remember, the two met in 1825 — so they were engaged just four years after meeting each other. So that’d mean all that time passing where the movie makes it seem like young Taylor is off working on the railroad would’ve been only four years.
And maybe it’s just me, but the actors playing young P.T. Barnum and young Charity look quite a bit beyond just four years younger than Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams.
They were only engaged for a few months because it was on November 3rd, 1829 when the two were married.
But it wasn’t like Phineas and Charity got married with the idea they’d run away to New York City like the movie implies. The movie never shows this, but he also had his own general store — something he was familiar with running thanks to his time in his father’s shop as a child.
He also started his own newspaper in Connecticut. It was called The Herald of Freedom, a name inspired by the paper’s content. With the first issue published on October 19th, 1831, The Herald of Freedom was heavily inspired by Phineas’s upbringing in the strict world of Calvinism, and the paper spoke out boldly against the religious oppression Phineas felt.
But, as we learned, it was the lottery network that ended up being the reason for their move. That happened in 1834 when the state of Connecticut banned lotteries. Losing such a source of income, Phineas published his last issue of the Herald on November 5th, 1834. That was his 160th issue of the paper. He technically owned it for a little while longer with his brother-in-law published it for him, but he ended up selling it the next year.
Meanwhile, Phineas moved his family to New York City in the winter of 1834 and early 1835.
And by family, I mean family. The movie never shows this, of course, because their timeline is rushed but by the time the Barnum family moved to New York City, it wasn’t just Phineas and Charity because little Caroline was born in 1833.
In the movie, Caroline is played by Austyn Johnson.
So that means the next part in the movie is a little backward because it shows Charity getting pregnant after they arrive in New York City. Well, sort of. By that, I mean even though Caroline was born in 1833 before they moved to New York City, she also wasn’t the last of their children. They ended up having four, but in the next scene of the movie, we see two girls. That can give us a bit of the timeline for where we’re at in history because their second child, Helen, was born in 1840.
When we see Helen, she’s obviously not a baby. She’s closer to nine, which is the age of Cameron Seely, the actor who played Helen. The movie never mentions her age here, but I’m estimating that based on Cameron being born in 2007 and the movie being released in 2017 — so when that scene was shot, I’m estimating it would be a year before.
While none of that is a very scientific of figuring out the year, of course, all of that is to point out that the movie’s timeline here must be not only after 1840 when Helen was born but many years after.
But even if we’re off by a year here or there, the movie’s timeline would still be off by quite a bit because Phineas’s first venture into the shows that would end up turning into the circus was a traveling company that started in 1837. The movie never shows any of that, though. And not to get too far ahead of our story, but it was in 1841 when the traveling company ended and “Barnum’s American Museum” opened in New York City.
Since we’re on the topic of Barnum’s museum, that’s the topic for the next major plot point in the movie. After the trading company he works for loses their fleet of ships in a tycoon in the South China Sea, Phineas and everyone working for the company lose their jobs. As he’s packing up his desk, one of the documents he grabs is a deed for the contents of one of the ships.
Of course, the contents of that ship are at the bottom of the sea, but news didn’t travel as quickly then as it does today. Phineas uses the deed as collateral to get a $10,000 loan from the bank. Then he uses that to open the museum. Inside, he’s stocked the museum with a bunch of wax figures and stuffed animals.
We already learned the timeline for when the museum started was off, but that seems fitting because the rest of that is a bit off, too.
As we learned earlier, Phineas had already had his taste of running businesses by the time he moved to New York City.
But, as we also learned, Barnum’s American Museum was real. He just didn’t buy it with a $10,000 bank loan with collateral from a deed to a sunken ship. Far from it, actually.
What really happened was that Phineas started a touring company of performers in 1837. They had some limited amounts of success, but it wasn’t something that could be sustained. One tour would go well, but the next not so much.
And it wasn’t very stable at all. It wasn’t like Phineas had a tour of shows planned every year — it was one tour at a time, one show at a time. It was a rollercoaster that Phineas was tiring of quickly.
After one of the tours ended, Phineas was back home in New York City when he happened to hear about a massive collection of, as he called it, “curiosities.”
This collection had cost its owner, John Scudder, over $50,000 to amass. He showed the collection in a museum he called Scudder’s American Museum, which he opened in 1810 — the same year Phineas was born.
In 1841, though, Scudder was gone. He passed away in 1821, and the collection belonged to his daughters while the building itself belonged to a man named Francis Olmsted.
For a while, they’d tried to keep the museum open, but it was failing. As a result, its owners were eager to get rid of it. The asking price was $15,000, and even though he was interested, Phineas didn’t have that kind of money.
For a bit of context, $15,000 in 1841 is about the same as $362,000 today, or about €317,000.
Phineas tried to work out a deal with Francis Olmsted’s administrator, a man named John Heath. He proposed that he pay annual installments over the next seven years totaling $10,000. They went back and forth over a few days, and finally Heath and Phineas agreed on $12,000, using Phineas’s terms of annual payments over the next seven years.
It’d seem Olmsted agreed to this deal, too, and they decided on a day to draw up the official paperwork and sign the contracts.
When Phineas showed up … well, let’s defer to Phineas’s own words to find out what happened, and how he dealt with the situation:
Mr. Heath appeared, but said he must decline proceeding any farther in my case, as he had sold the collection to the directors of Peale’s Museum (an incorporated institution), for $15,000, and had received $1,000 in advance.
I was shocked, and appealed to Mr. Heath’s honor. He said that he had signed no writing with me; was in no way legally bound, and that it was his duty to do the best he could for the heirs. Mr. Olmsted was sorry, but could not help me; the new tenants would not require him to incur any risk, and my matter was at an end.
Of course, I immediately informed myself as to the character of Peale’s Museum company. It proved to be a band of speculators who had bought Peale’s collection for a few thousand dollars, expecting to join the American Museum with it, issue and sell stock to the amount of $50,000, pocket $30,000 profits, and permit the stockholders to look out for themselves.
I went immediately to several of the editors, including Major M. M. Noah, M. Y. Beach, my good friends West, Herrick and Ropes, of the Atlas, and others, and stated my grievances. “Now,” said I, “if you will grant me the use of your columns, I’ll blow that speculation sky-high.” They all consented, and I wrote a large number of squibs, cautioning the public against buying the Museum stock, ridiculing the idea of a board of broken-down bank directors engaging in the exhibition of stuffed monkey and gander skins; appealing to the case of the Zoölogical Institute, which had failed by adopting such a plan as the one now proposed; and finally I told the public that such a speculation would be infinitely more ridiculous than Dickens’s “Grand United Metropolitan Hot Muffin and Crumpet-baking and Punctual Delivery Company.”
The stock was as “dead as a herring!” I then went to Mr. Heath and asked him when the directors were to pay the other $14,000. “On the 26th day of December, or forfeit the $1,000 already paid,” was the reply. I assured him that they would never pay it, that they could not raise it, and that he would ultimately find himself with the Museum collection on his hands, and if once I started off with an exhibition for the South, I would not touch the Museum at any price. “Now,” said I, “if you will agree with me confidentially, that in case these gentlemen do not pay you on the 26th of December, I may have it on the 27th for $12,000, I will run the risk, and wait in this city until that date.” He readily agreed to the proposition, but said he was sure they would not forfeit their $1,000.
“Very well,” said I; “all I ask of you is, that this arrangement shall not be mentioned.” He assented. “On the 27th day of December, at ten o’clock A. M., I wish you to meet me in Mr. Olmsted’s apartments, prepared to sign the writings, provided this incorporated company do not pay you $14,000 on the 26th.” He agreed to this, and by my request put it in writing.
From that moment I felt that the Museum was mine. I saw Mr. Olmsted, and told him so. He promised secrecy, and agreed to sign the documents if the other parties did not meet their engagement.
Well, I think you can guess whether or not they paid the other $14,000.
So, you can get an idea of the sort of wheeling and dealing style business deals that Phineas made to get the museum toward the end of 1841. Soon after the museum was his, Phineas continued to add to the collection of curiosities inside by purchasing items. Just the following year, 1842, he bought the entire collection from Peale’s Museum and merged it into his own. He kept buying whatever he could to keep adding to the collection — all in the hopes of keeping visitors coming back.
Going back to the movie, after buying the museum, things aren’t going so well. We see shots of Phineas and his kids handing out fliers. But then, looking in the street, we can see the potential patrons simply tossed the fliers to the ground. They’re littering the street.
Checking the sales at the box office, Phineas learns there’s a grand total of three tickets sold — Charity and their two daughters.
This is when, according to the movie, Phineas has another idea for how to increase ticket sales. The inspiration comes from his daughters, who suggest he find something sensational … something that’s not stuffed, like a mermaid or a unicorn.
Later that night, Hugh Jackman’s version of Phineas notices an apple sitting on his desk. He’s reminded of the girl who handed him an apple when he was poor. A girl whose genetic makeup would’ve made her someone others teased and mocked.
In the very next scene, we see Phineas walking up to a house. He knocks on the door. When the door opens, Phineas is the first to speak, “Gertrude Stratton? I’m trying to find your son.”
The woman doesn’t hesitate, “I don’t have a son.”
Phineas holds up a piece of paper. “Odd. The hospital records say you do.”
If you pause the movie right here, you can get a lot more information about what’s happening here than the dialog in the movie indicates.
The paper has the name Charles Stratton on it, and gives an address of Huntington Road in Bridgeport, Connecticut. So, Phineas has traveled back to Connecticut to find Charles. Circled on the paper is the height, which says 25 inches.
And interestingly, for some reason Hugh Jackman’s version of P.T. Barnum tells Gertrude that Charles is, “22, right?” even though on the paper it says his age is 10 years old.
Of course, we don’t have any sort of indication for time at this point, so maybe the movie is implying that Phineas is holding a 12-year-old record from the hospital.
Then the movie continues as Phineas meets Charles, who is played by Sam Humphrey in the film, and tells him that he’s building a show — and he needs a star. Charles says he just wants people to laugh at him, to which Phineas replies, “They’re laughing anyway, might as well get paid.”
Not surprisingly, that doesn’t make Charles want to do it. Phineas then tells him that he needs a general — someone to ride across stage, wearing the most beautiful uniform ever made carrying his trusty sword and gun. When people see the general, Phineas says, they won’t laugh. They’ll salute you.
This catches Charles’ attention, and he agrees to join Barnum’s museum.
The basic gist of this is something that happened, but not in any way how the movie shows it happening.
Let’s start with the very brief mention of the mermaids and unicorns that Phineas’s daughters, Caroline and Helen, suggest to their dad. The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but Phineas did bring a mermaid to his museum. Well, it was a straight-up hoax, but he claimed it to be something called the Fejee Mermaid.
It was the mummified remains of a very strange-looking creature. A lot of people believed it was a fake — something Phineas made himself, but he insisted it wasn’t.
And for what it’s worth, he was probably right about not making it himself. Phineas’s story was that he bought it from a sailor who had bought it in India from some Japanese sailors some twenty years earlier, in 1822.
Of course, even though he may not have lied about where he got it from, it didn’t help that Phineas made up the story of the mermaid coming from the island of Fiji — hence the name.
Why would Phineas lie about something like that? Well, this wasn’t about the mermaid specifically but more an overall quote, but many years later, in 1860, Phineas wrote this to a newpaper:
“I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, to attract attention to a show. I don’t believe in ‘duping the public,’ but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.”
So, it wasn’t so much about the hoax of it for Phineas, but rather that making outrageous claims seemed to be what made the people visiting his museum happy. In other words, people wanted to believe that truth was stranger than fiction so Phineas obliged by just making up some truth.
As for where the Fejee Mermaid really came from, it was a mummy made by sewing together the head of a young monkey to the back half of a fish. Some historians have suggested that perhaps sewing together two different animals were part of religious rituals in Japan. So, that’s probably where it came from.
As you can probably guess, the result looked unlike anything that exists in nature. I’ll add a link in the show notes for this episode over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com where you can see photos of the Fejee Mermaid.
Although the movie skips over the mermaid, it is true that P.T. Barnum hired a man named Charles Stratton. And Charles did live in Bridgeport. But, well, “man” wouldn’t be right term — he was a boy. He wasn’t 22 years old when Phineas hired him. He wasn’t 10 years old. He was four years old.
However, he was 25 inches, or about 64 centimeters, tall like the movie suggests with the writing on the paper. That was a height he’d reached at six months old and since then, he simply stopped growing.
As a quick little side note, Charles’ real mother wasn’t named Gertrude like the movie shows, either. His dad’s name was Sherwood and his mom was Sherwood’s first cousin, a woman named Cynthia. Speaking of which, Phineas himself was related to Charles Stratton. Not very closely though, he was Charles’ half fifth cousin, twice removed.
Again, let’s use Phineas’s own words to learn more about how he really met Charles Stratton — the boy who used the stage name General Tom Thumb.
In November, 1842, I was in Albany on business, and as the Hudson River was frozen over, I returned to New York by the Housatonic Railroad, stopping one night at Bridgeport, Connecticut, with my brother, Philo F. Barnum, who at that time kept the Franklin Hotel. I had heard of a remarkably small child in Bridgeport, and, at my request, my brother brought him to the hotel. He was not two feet high; he weighed less than sixteen pounds, and was the smallest child I ever saw that could walk alone; but he was a perfectly formed, bright-eyed little fellow, with light hair and ruddy cheeks and he enjoyed the best of health. He was exceedingly bashful, but after some coaxing he was induced to talk with me, and he told me that he was the son of Sherwood E. Stratton, and that his own name was Charles S. Stratton. After seeing him and talking with him, I at once determined to secure his services from his parents and to exhibit him in public.
But as he was only five years of age, to exhibit him as a “dwarf” might provoke the inquiry “How do you know he is a dwarf?” Some liberty might be taken with the facts, but even with this license, I felt that the venture was only an experiment, and I engaged him for four weeks at three dollars a week, with all travelling and boarding charges for himself and his mother at my expense. They came to New York, Thanksgiving day, December 8, 1842, and Mrs. Stratton was greatly surprised to see her son announced on my Museum bills as “General Tom Thumb.”
So, as we can tell, the way Phineas met Charles was quite different than the movie shows. Oh, and I should point out that even though Phineas said Charles was five years old, that’s not quite right. Charles Stratton was born on January 4th, 1838, which would mean by the time November and December of 1842 came around he would’ve been four.
Maybe closer to five than four, but not quite there yet.
Although, he was five when he went on his first tour of America with Phineas’s traveling show. He sang, danced and did impersonations of characters like Napolean Bonaparte and Cupid. To help push the illusion that Charles was even shorter than he should be for his age, Phineas went an extra step and claimed he was 11 years old.
Not to get too far ahead of our story, but in the years to come, another way Phineas would make it seem like Charles was older than he actually was happened through him drinking of alcohol and puffing on cigars during his impersonations — things he did as young as seven.
His stage name of General Tom Thumb wasn’t something unique to Phineas. In fact, it’d been used before by performers, including another one in New York City at the time. But it was Charles’ version of Tom Thumb that became more popular, and soon the name became synonymous with him.
Why were there multiple Tom Thumbs? Well, the name originally came from an old English folktale that tells the story of one of King Arthur’s knights who was small enough to ride a mouse into battle.
If you want to hear that tale, I’ve recorded that as a separate bonus episode for Based on a True Story Producers. You can grab that by supporting the show over at basedonatruestorypodcast.com/support.
For our story today, though, let’s hop back into the movie’s timeline.
After attending a ballet with his daughters, Phineas runs into a playwright named Phillip Carlyle, who is played by Zac Efron. Initially, Phineas mocks Phillip’s profession. Then, Phineas sees some of the other little girls teasing Caroline because of her father’s profession.
As they leave, Caroline says something that would cut to the heart of any father — she says she’s quitting the ballet because she started too late. It takes years of hard work, you can’t just fake it like the circus.
Maybe it’s time to add some legitimacy to the museum.
Later, we see Phineas having drinks with Phillip and he agrees to come help him do that.
None of that is true.
In fact, Zac Efron’s character, Phillip Carlyle, is a fictional character made up for the film.
Although … maybe it’s a little harsh to say that none of that is true.
The one thread of truth there was that Phineas wanted to add some legitimacy to his show. But before we learn more about that, let’s hop back into the movie, because the next major plot point occurs when Phineas finds a way to bring some legitimacy to the cir—actually…real quick, it’s worth pointing out that the movie uses the term “circus” loosely throughout the entire film.
That’s not very accurate. Phineas didn’t run a circus at this point in his career. He ran Barnum’s American Museum. I know it may seem like splitting hairs, but most historians will point out that P.T. Barnum didn’t get into the circus business until he was in his 60s — way past the timeline of the movie.
At this point, it was a museum — a collection of artifacts and curiosities from around the world. As far as the performers, though, that part of it was considered a theater — in fact, before he bought the building in New York City and stuck to a single location more, in the late 1830s, P.T. Barnum’s first company of performers toured under the name, “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater.”
Okay, with that said, where were we again? That’s right! Adding some legitimacy to the show.
In the movie, after agreeing to join the show, we see a song by Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman. At the end of that song, we’re taken to the museum where we see a show being performed.
It’s clear that Zac Efron’s character is smitten with the trapeze artist. She’s played by Zendaya in the movie.
And that’s not true.
Just like Zac Efron’s fictional character of Phillip Carlyle, Zendaya’s character, Anne Wheeler, is also a fictional character. So, it’s natural to assume the love interest between the two made-up characters is also fictional.
Speaking of characters named Anne, there was a real Annie working for P.T. Barnum. We actually see her in this scene, even though she’s more of a background character at this point in the movie.
I’m referring to, of course, Annie Jones. The real Annie was the basis for the movie’s character of Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady. She’s played by Keala Settle in the film.
Although, the movie would be incorrect in showing her performing at this point because even though the movie doesn’t give any indication of what year it is, we’re assuming not a lot of time has passed from when Phineas hired Charles Stratton.
If you recall, that was at the end of 1842, and the real Annie Jones was born over two decades later in 1865. Sadly, Annie was exhibited at Barnum’s museum since she was just 1-year old. As a child, Phineas paid Annie’s parents $150 a week to exhibit their child. That’s about $24,500 per week today, or about €21,500.
Back in the movie, Barnum’s troupe heads to England where they meet Queen Victoria. She’s played by Gayle Rankin.
After an awkward comment where Charles mentions that the Queen isn’t very tall turns to a sigh of relief when she bursts in to laughter, a new character is introduced. It’s Miss Jenny Lind.
She’s played by Rebecca Ferguson in the movie.
Phillip explains to Phineas, and us as viewers, who Jenny is. According to the movie, she’s an opera singer. Not just any singer, though. She’s one of the most famous performers in all of Europe.
Introducing themselves, Phineas tells Jenny that he’d like to bring her to New York. He wants her to perform for his show. He claims he can make her the most famous singer in the entire world — not just Europe.
She asks if he’s heard her sing. He says he hasn’t, but her reputation proceeds her. He offers her 20% of the admission at the door.
“Just once,” Phineas tells Jenny, “I’d like to give the people something real.”
In the next scene, we see Jenny performing in New York City. She must’ve agreed.
The basic gist here is true, but that’s not really how it happened.
Remember how we learned earlier that Charles Stratton toured the U.S. as Tom Thumb?
Well, what really happened was a lot slower than the movie makes it seem.
It was in 1844 and 1845 when Phineas took Charles on a tour of England. They did actually meet Queen Victoria while they were there. Although I couldn’t find anything in my research to indicate he made that joke the movie shows.
But it was while he was there, that Phineas heard tell of Jenny Lind. The movie is correct in showing that Phineas had never heard her sing — he actually left London weeks before she arrived there.
Phineas knew he wasn’t much of a musician anyway. He knew Jenny could pull a crowd. Here’s where the timeline in the movie is sped up a lot. It wasn’t until years after the European tour, in October of 1849, that Phineas decided to try to bring Jenny Lind to America.
The details were worked out through one of Phineas’s agents, a man named John Wilton. Here’s how Phineas remembered the moment Jenny signed the contract:
I was at my Museum in Philadelphia when Wilton arrived in New York, February 19, 1850. He immediately telegraphed to me, in the cipher we had agreed upon, that he had signed an engagement with Jenny Lind, by which she was to commence her concerts in America in the following September. I was somewhat startled by this sudden announcement; and feeling that the time to elapse before her arrival was so long that it would be policy to keep the engagement private for a few months, I immediately telegraphed him not to mention it to any person, and that I would meet him the next day in New York.
So, that’s a little different than what the movie shows. And he didn’t offer her 20% of the door like the movie shows. Instead, he offered her a contract to do 150 performances, one a night at $1,000 per night.
Today, that $150,000 is about the same as $4.5 million or about €4 million.
Oh, and the “Swedish Nightingale” was really a nickname for Jenny Lind.
Back in the movie, we see some controversy next as Jenny’s tour across America takes place. With Phineas by her side, Jenny is basking in the success. There are rave reviews in the papers, the crowds love her and the stage after her performance is littered with roses from the adoring audience.
Meanwhile, back home we see Michelle Williams’ version of Charity taking care of the kids. As Jenny and Phineas are sitting on a couch of their room in Cincinnati. Pouring them a couple glasses of Champagne, Jenny hands one to Phineas. Then, sitting down next to him, Phineas thanks her for helping to make his dream come true.
As moviegoers, we can all see where this is going.
Looking into each other’s eyes, Phineas surprises us by doing the right thing. He says he should go.
“You should finish the tour without me,” he tells her.
That’s not what she wanted to hear. She gets up from the couch.
“You have to finish the tour!” Phineas says, getting up after her.
“Do I?” she replies, the tears building up in her eyes.
“I’ve risked everything. If you don’t, it’ll ruin me!” Phineas tells her.
“Yeah, well, so have I,” she blurts back. Then, a little more slowly, “I guess we both lost.”
The next scene we see is a tear-filled performance on stage from Jenny where she’s singing about how she’ll “never be enough.” Then, as the song ends, she invites Phineas on stage with her. He’s done this time and time again, as the roses are thrown on stage, they take a bow together.
This time, though, on what seems to be an impulse, Jenny pulls Phineas in for a kiss. The camera flashes go off, capturing the moment.
“What was that?” Phineas asks, startled.
“That was goodbye,” Jenny says, and she leaves the stage.
All of that … is made up. But it’s not necessarily made up for The Greatest Showman. For example, in 1980 there was another musical about P.T. Barnum simply called Barnum that also included a love story between Phineas and Jenny.
Historically, though, there’s never been anything to prove they had any sort of a romantic relationship.
But it is true that P.T. Barnum hired Jenny Lind to tour around America and that tour was cut short.
If you remember from earlier, Phineas finalized the contract with Jenny in February of 1850.
By the time September rolled around, Jenny had arrived in America via a steam ship. The hype around Jenny’s arrival in America, along with Phineas’s marketing skills no doubt, helped make it an enormous success. The first day tickets were available, there was such a demand that Phineas decided to sell them at an auction to help drive up the price.
He ended up selling 1,000 tickets for a total of $10,141.
That’s about $303,000 today, or a little over €265,000.
The sales were so successful that Phineas immediately contacted Jenny to alter their contract.
On the Tuesday after her arrival I informed Miss Lind that I wished to make a slight alteration in our agreement. “What is it?” she asked in surprise.
“I am convinced,” I replied, “that our enterprise will be much more successful than either of us anticipated. I wish, therefore, to stipulate that you shall receive not only $1,000 for each concert, besides all the expenses, as heretofore agreed on, but after taking $5,500 per night for expenses and my services, the balance shall be equally divided between us.”
Jenny looked at me with astonishment. She could not comprehend my proposition. After I had repeated it, and she fully understood its import, she cordially grasped me by the hand, and exclaimed, “Mr. Barnum, you are a gentleman of honor: you are generous; it is just as Mr. Bates told me; I will sing for you as long as you please; I will sing for you in America—in Europe—anywhere!”
That would change. Jenny ended up touring America for two years between 1850 and 1852, but the second year of her tour was something she did on her own.
By the time 1851 rolled around, she was so fed up with the way Phineas marketed her shows so relentlessly — which included hiring over 20 journalists to write what amounted to ads in newspapers to hype up her shows — that she decided to terminate their contract together. They agreed to end it on positive terms and each went their separate ways.
In all, Jenny Lind sang 93 concerts for P.T. Barnum in America. For those tours, she made about $350,000. That’s about $10.5 million today, or a little over €9 million.
Meanwhile, Phineas made about $500,000 off Jenny’s concerts. That’s just under $15 million today, or just over €13 million.
Back in the movie, right after we see Rebecca Ferguson’s version of Jenny Lind kiss Hugh Jackman’s P.T. Barnum goodbye in front of newspaper photographers on stage, the movie cuts back to New York City where protesting citizens start a fight with the performers.
This is where the movie could easily be rated worse than the PG it is, because we get the sense that the protesters would be using all matter of racist, derogatory and other horrible phrases that makes it clear they don’t want the performers there — just because they’re different.
In the fight, one of the people throws a lantern against the wall, catching the straw on the ground on fire. It flares up quickly, and before long the entire building burns to the ground.
That’s sort of true — but also not true.
What I mean by that is that Barnum’s American Museum did burn down. We just don’t know what the cause of the fire was.
Sure, there were plenty of people who didn’t like Barnum’s American Museum. Although, it’s hard to know how many of them didn’t like it because of the performers inside and how many didn’t like it because they felt they were being duped by P.T. Barnum.
It was probably some of both.
But it’s worth pointing out that the movie’s timeline is way off. If you recall, Jenny’s tour was in the early 1850s while the fire was 15 years later. And that timing might play into some of the cause for the fire.
You see, the American Civil War broke out in 1861. This only served to help P.T. Barnum’s museum, which saw people flocking to it as a way of escaping the reality of the war outside. Although, not entirely.
Phineas wasn’t very shy about his support of the Union. In fact, he even hired a woman named Pauline Cushman specifically because she was one of the most successful spies in the Civil War. Her performance at Barnum’s theater was to recount stories of adventures behind enemy lines — the Confederate lines.
Were they true stories? Maybe. Maybe not. That probably didn’t matter too much to Phineas.
Because he was a Union sympathizer, some historians have speculated that perhaps this could’ve been enough reason for the Confederacy to start the fire that burned down Barnum’s American Museum on July 13th, 1865. Granted, that was after the war officially ended in May of the same year, but it’s not like people magically forgot the bloody struggle that had been raging for years.
One of the primary reasons why people think it might’ve been arson is because there is some evidence to suggest that might not’ve been the first time — there might’ve been a Confederate arsonist who tried to damage the museum the year before.
Of course, none of that has been proven. To this day, we don’t really know how the fire started.
What we do know is that it was on July 13th, 1865 that Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground, taking an estimated $1,000,000 in damages along with it.
That’s $1,000,000 in 1865, or almost $30 million and €26 million today.
It was a massive blow, but as we learned from the income on Jenny Lind’s tour, P.T. Barnum wasn’t exactly hurting for money by this time. In fact, we can get a sense for how much Phineas cared about it from his own autobiography.
When the real fire took place, he wasn’t on tour with Jenny Lind, of course, but instead by this point Phineas had become involved in politics. And on the morning of July 13th, there was a vote in the Connecticut Legislature that Phineas was now a member. Partway through the debate on a railroad-related issue, he received a telegram letting him know about the fire. Here’s what he did in his own words:
It was at this point in my remarks when I received the telegram from my son-in-law in New York, announcing the burning of the American Museum. Reading the despatch, and laying it on my desk without further attention, I continued…
It’s probably worth pointing out the timeline again, and the reference of his son-in-law. In the movie, his two daughters are way too young to be married when we see the fire. In truth, by 1865, Phineas and Charity Barnum had four children.
We already learned about Caroline and Helen, but then there was Frances, born in 1842, and Pauline, born in 1846.
Going back to the movie, after seeing the fire, the movie comes to a dramatic end as we see the ramifications of the photograph taken during Jenny and Phineas’s kiss on stage. Understandably, Charity is upset. She leaves Phineas, going back to her father’s home — he’s more than happy to tell Phineas, “I told you so.”
Meanwhile, with the museum gone, Phineas and Phillip decide to restart their show in a tent. It works. The audiences love it. Phineas decides to let Phillip run the show while he decides to spend more time with his family. Charity takes him back, and things end up happily ever after with a musical backdrop of the same song we heard in the opening of the movie — “The Greatest Show.”
That’s all made up.
As we learned, there wasn’t a romantic relationship between Jenny Lind and P.T. Barnum. At least, nothing that’s ever been proven. There certainly wasn’t a photograph of them kissing on stage — that would be some good evidence toward proving a relationship was there, after all.
And as we learned, Phillip Carlyle is a fictional character. What’s more, since there was no kiss between Jenny and Phineas, Charity never left him.
What really happened was that after Barnum’s American Museum burned down in 1865, P.T. Barnum decided to start it up again. He moved it to a different building, though, and he didn’t really need any help with the money this time. Probably the most accurate part of the way the movie ends is showing how Phineas wasn’t as involved in the museum as he once was.
Although it’s for a completely different reason than the movie shows. It never brings this into the film, but before, during, and after the Civil War, P.T. Barnum was very heavily involved in politics. We learned about it briefly when we learned about the debate, he was speaking at during the museum fire, but his political power only grew after that. In 1865, he was elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives.
And it’s probably worth pointing out that he spoke out against slavery, something that’s interesting since his showmanship started when he purchased Joice Heth, an elderly slave woman who Phineas exhibited long before Barnum’s American Museum was a thing. The movie skips over all that, so we didn’t cover it here, but I did mention it in the pre-release episode for The Greatest Showman.
Three years after the museum burned down, the building of his new museum burned down, too. That was in 1868.
It was after this, that he decided not to try rebuilding it. Instead, he decided to merge the performances he had at the theater in the museum along with the traveling troupe he did early in his showman career. In 1870, when P.T. Barnum was 60 years old, he formed his first traveling circus which he called, “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome.”
But it didn’t keep that name. He soon renamed it to, “P.T. Barnum’s Travelling World’s Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show on Earth.” Then, in 1881, he merged his show with another showman by the name of James Bailey. The new show was called, “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.”
It just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?
That’s probably why they shortened it to, “Barnum & Bailey’s.”
Fast forward over a century later and on May 21st, 2017, Barnum’s circus finally came to an end amid poor attendance, high operating costs and plenty of protests over animal treatment. That’s about seven months before The Greatest Showman was released.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
- Episode #84 of Based on a True Story covering the life of P.T. Barnum
- The Greatest Showman (2017) – IMDb
- The Greatest Showman – Wikipedia
- The Greatest Showman (2017) – Plot Summary – IMDb
- Photos Of The Real Charity Barnum From ‘The Greatest Showman’ Show How Michelle Williams Transformed Into The Role
- Charity Barnum (Hallett) (1808 – 1873) – Genealogy
- Books by Barnum, P. T. (Phineas Taylor) (sorted by popularity) – Project Gutenberg
- The Project Gutenberg eBook of Struggles and Triumphs, by P.T. Barnum.
- Notes for Phineas Taylor BARNUM/Charity HALLETT
- The Greatest Showman: The True Story of P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind | Vanity Fair
- Charity (Hallett) Barnum (1808-1873) | WikiTree FREE Family Tree
- Benjamin Hallett – Ancestry.com
- 10 Things You May Not Know About P.T. Barnum – HISTORY
- P. T. Barnum: An Entertaining Life | ConnecticutHistory.org
- P.T. Barnum, The Man, The Myth, The Legend – The Barnum Museum
- PT Barnum | Understanding his (In)Famous Real Life | Greatest Showman
- The Greatest Showman – VFX SCIENCE
- The Selected Letters of P. T. Barnum | Columbia University Press
- Tom Thumb and the Age of Celebrity
- English folktales – The history of Tom Thumb
- Showman P.T. Barnum’s outrageous cruelty and racism | Daily Mail Online
- DISASTROUS FIRE.; Total Destruction of Barnum’s American Museum. Nine Other Buildings Burned to the Ground. LOSS ESTIMATED AT $1,000,000.
- In 1865, Two Captive Whales Boiled to Death as P.T. Barnum’s Museum Burned | | PETA
- Barnum’s Whales | Perspectives on History | AHA
- The Great Showman Dead