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84: The Greatest Showman

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

When John Taylor moved from England to New England in 1630, he came along with John Winthrop who, in turn, was one of the leading figures founding the Massachusetts Bay colony.

John Taylor, on the other hand, moved to Winsor, Connecticut, where he married Rhonda Hobbs and settled down to start a family. Winsor, by the way, is just north of Hartford along the Connecticut River. Sadly, John would pass away just seven years later when his ship making the voyage back to England was lost at sea.

But not before John and Rhonda had a son, also named John and along with extending the family line, the Taylor name became known as one of the earliest settlers in New England. John Jr. would go on to have Thomas. Thomas would go on to have Nathan. Nathan would have a son also named Nathan and Nathan Jr. would decide to go a different route with names when he named his son Phineas.

Of course, it’s not like each of those people only had one child—Thomas, for example, had ten children. I just pointed out the one for each generation to get to Phineas because it was Phineas who had a daughter named Irena Taylor.

In 1809, Irena Taylor married Philo Barnum and the two settled down in Bethel, Connecticut. That’s about 70 miles, or 112 kilometers, to the southwest of Winsor.

Oh, and without getting too sidetracked, Irena was Philo’s second wife. His first wife, Phebe—or Polly as everyone called her—passed away on June 23rd, 1808 at only 27 years of age. But Philo and Polly had two kids together, Minerva and Philo Jr.

So really it was the four of them who settled into life in Bethel as Irena became Minerva and young Philo’s stepmother.

About a year after being married, on July 5th, 1810, Philo and Irena named their first child together after Irena’s father, Phineas Taylor, when they named him Phineas Taylor Barnum or, as we know him today, P.T. Barnum.

Philo Barnum had learned the value of hard work from his father, Ephraim Barnum, who was a captain during the Revolutionary War. That was something Philo then passed onto young Phineas.

At only six years of age, young Phineas had learned how to drive cows to and from the pasture on his family’s farm. He also helped around the farm shelling corn, weeding their garden, as he got a little older riding the plow horse, and plenty of other chores—all things I’m sure most country kids are probably familiar with.

Something else he learned at a young age was the value of money. Again, at only age six, there was one story of how he saved up enough for a silver dollar. This he used to fund a little business of gingerbread, homemade molasses candy and even something he referred to as cherry rum.

By age 12, he’d peddled enough treats to buy things no other 12-year-old in the region had—a sheep, a calf and other things he wanted like clothes. While the items he purchased didn’t really make much sense as a way to keep his little store aloft long-term, it was clear he was a quick learner when it came to money.

And he liked that sort of work a lot more than he did working the farm.

According to his autobiography, “As I grew older, my settled aversion to manual labor, farm or other kind, was manifest in various ways, which were set down to the general score of laziness. In despair of doing better with me, my father concluded to make a merchant of me. He erected a building in Bethel, and with Mr. Hiram Weed as a partner, purchased a stock of dry goods, hardware, groceries, and general notions and installed me as clerk in this country store.”

As it turns out, Phineas had a knack for selling. But perhaps the biggest thing he learned there was, “that sharp trades, tricks, dishonesty, and deception are by no means confined to the city.”

It’d seem Phineas caught on quick, learning that sometimes the best way to make a sale is to add a bit of deception to the mix.

Then, tragedy struck.

When Phineas was 15, his father passed away on September 7th, 1825. He’d been sick for about six months, but he was only 48 years old at the time of his death.

His mother was still alive as were his siblings. We haven’t really talked about them much, but Philo and Irena had one more child after Phineas. So those two plus the two Philo had with his previous marriage meant the Barnum family at the time of Philo’s early passing was a 44-year-old Irena, a 24-year-old Minerva, a 22-year-old Philo Jr., an 18-year-old Phineas, and a 14-year-old Eder.

Now I couldn’t find exactly what happened to Minerva and Philo Jr., but we know after his father passed away, Phineas essentially left home and went off into the world to make his own way. So I’d venture to guess something similar happened to his older siblings, if not at the time of his father’s passing but possibly even before since they were older.

Well, I guess I should say Phineas left home again. There’s way too many stories about Phineas to include everything in detail in a single episode, but at age 16 Phineas moved to Brooklyn for a while to be a clerk at a grocery store. But he returned home after coming down with the smallpox. That was before his father passed way.

But now, with his father gone, Phineas would have to make a living on his own for good this time.

So he tried to do whatever he could to earn a living.

He worked as a clerk in New York, ran a general store, kept a boarding house and worked at a small porter house—all the while behind the scenes he was trading, peddling and even started his own lottery business.

In fact, the lottery was something he’d continue to do to make money on the side. In his autobiography, Phineas explained how it worked:

I made a very remarkable trade at one time for my employers by purchasing, in their absence, a whole wagon load of green glass bottles of various sizes, for which I paid in unsalable goods at very profitable prices. How to dispose of the bottles was then the problem, and as it was also desirable to get rid of a large quantity of tin ware which had been in the shop for years and was considerably “shop-worn,” I conceived the idea of a lottery in which the highest prize should be twenty-five dollars, payable in any goods the winner desired, while there were to be fifty prizes of five dollars each, payable in goods, to be designated in the scheme. Then there were one hundred prizes of one dollar each, one hundred prizes of fifty cents each, and three hundred prizes of twenty-five cents each. It is unnecessary to state that the minor prizes consisted mainly of glass and tin ware; the tickets sold like wildfire, and the worn tin and glass bottles were speedily turned into cash.

Then, only a year after his father’s death, in 1829, Phineas ran into a woman he’d met years before and described in his autobiography as, “a fair, rosy-cheeked, buxom girl, with beautiful white teeth.”

That girl was a tailoress named Charity Hallett and in the movie, Charity is played by Michelle Williams.

Now in 1829, something important happened in the history of the United States. Well, I’m sure many things happened, but what I’m referring to is when Andrew Jackson took office as the seventh president of the United States.

When he did, replacing John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson became the very first president as a part of a new political party—the Democratic Party.

And yes, that’s the same Democratic Party that exists today.

As you can imagine, while politics are always a point of discussion in the nation, it was a very hot topic around the changing of the presidency with a new political party coming onto the scene.

For his part, Phineas wrote a lot of letters to the local newspaper with his thoughts on the happenings. But…they didn’t get published. The newspaper rejected most of them.

So Phineas decided to start his own newspaper, and on October 19th, 1831 he published the first edition of his own paper, The Herald of Freedom.

That didn’t go so well.

His paper made some enemies and he was slapped with a $100 fine and a 60-day jail sentence by a judge after losing a libel suit for accusations he’d printed.

But as they say, there’s no such thing as bad advertising and there was quite a scene when Phineas got out of jail.

This is an excerpt from Phineas’ own newspaper that reported on the grand ceremony that greeted him on the day he left jail:

P. T. Barnum and the band of music took their seats in a coach drawn by six horses, which had been prepared for the occasion. The coach was preceded by forty horsemen, and a marshal, bearing the national standard. Immediately in the rear of the coach was the carriage of the Orator and the President of the day, followed by the Committee of Arrangements and sixty carriages of citizens, which joined in escorting the editor to his home in Bethel.

When the procession commenced its march amidst the roar of cannon, three cheers were given by several hundred citizens who did not join in the procession. The band of music continued to play a variety of national airs until their arrival in Bethel, (a distance of three miles,) when they struck up the beautiful and appropriate tune of ‘Home, Sweet Home!’ After giving three hearty cheers, the procession returned to Danbury. The utmost harmony and unanimity of feeling prevailed throughout the day, and we are happy to add that no accident occurred to mar the festivities of the occasion.

I don’t know how much Phineas himself had to do with that, if anything at all, but it’s safe to say he had a flare for showmanship.

As a result, his newspaper subscriptions went up thanks to many local folks heralding him as a hero for exposing corruption.

But then, in 1833, the state of Connecticut made lotteries illegal. That cut deep into Phineas’ pockets, as he’d continued to use lotteries as a way of making money to support his family and growing businesses.

Without much hope of recouping the lost income, Phineas decided to leave his newspaper and sell his store in 1834 as he moved his family from Bethel, Connecticut for New York City.

It was here, in New York, in the year 1835 that Phineas found his true calling. According to his autobiography:

By this time it was clear to my mind that my proper position in this busy world was not yet reached. I had displayed the faculty of getting money, as well as getting rid of it; but the business for which I was destined, and, I believe, made, had not yet come to me; or rather, I had not found that I was to cater for that insatiate want of human nature—the love of amusement; that I was to make a sensation on two continents; and that fame and fortune awaited me so soon as I should appear before the public in the character of a showman. These things I had not foreseen. I did not seek the position or the character. The business finally came in my way; I fell into the occupation, and far beyond any of my predecessors on this continent, I have succeeded.

To say he fell into the occupation might be a reference to something that P.T. Barnum stumbled upon to start his show.

It happened when a man named Mr. Coley Bartram told Phineas that he owned an African-American woman named Joice Heth who was over 160 years old and the nurse of none other than George Washington.

This was in 1835. George Washington died 36 years earlier, in 1799.

And by owned, yes, I mean owned. Joice was a slave, and this was 26 years before the Civil War which started in 1861.

By the way, Joice Heth is played by the talented Oscar nominee Diahann Carroll in the movie.

Mr. Bartram was a partner with another man named R.W. Lindsay who, together, were selling tickets for people to see Joice Heth in Philadelphia.

According to P.T. Barnum’s autobiography, which I’ll warn you now contains 1830s style racism, explains Joice like this:

Joice Heth was certainly a remarkable curiosity, and she looked as if she might have been far older than her age as advertised. She was apparently in good health and spirits, but from age or disease, or both, was unable to change her position; she could move one arm at will, but her lower limbs could not be straightened; her left arm lay across her breast and she could not remove it; the fingers of her left hand were drawn down so as nearly to close it, and were fixed; the nails on that hand were almost four inches long and extended above her wrist; the nails on her large toes had grown to the thickness of a quarter of an inch; her head was covered with a thick bush of grey hair; but she was toothless and totally blind and her eyes had sunk so deeply in the sockets as to have disappeared altogether.

Nevertheless she was pert and sociable, and would talk as long as people would converse with her. She was quite garrulous about her protege “dear little George,” at whose birth she declared she was present, having been at the time a slave of Elizabeth Atwood, a half-sister of Augustine Washington, the father of George Washington. As nurse she put the first clothes on the infant and she claimed to have “raised him.” She professed to be a member of the Baptist church, talking much in her way on religious subjects, and she sang a variety of ancient hymns.
In proof of her extraordinary age and pretensions, Mr. Lindsay exhibited a bill of sale, dated February 5, 1727, from Augustine Washington, County of Westmoreland, Virginia, to Elizabeth Atwood, a half-sister and neighbor of Mr. Washington, conveying “one negro woman, named Joice Heth, aged fifty-four years, for and in consideration of the sum of thirty-three pounds lawful money of Virginia.” It was further claimed that as she had long been a nurse in the Washington family she was called in at the birth of George and clothed the new-born infant. The evidence seemed authentic and in answer to the inquiry why so remarkable a discovery had not been made before, a satisfactory explanation was given in the statement that she had been carried from Virginia to Kentucky, had been on the plantation of John S. Bowling so long that no one knew or cared how old she was, and only recently the accidental discovery by Mr. Bowling’s son of the old bill of sale in the Record Office in Virginia had led to the identification of this negro woman as “the nurse of Washington.”

Everything seemed so straightforward that I was anxious to become proprietor of this novel exhibition, which was offered to me at one thousand dollars, though the price first demanded was three thousand. I had five hundred dollars, borrowed five hundred dollars more, sold out my interest in the grocery business to my partner, and began life as a showman. At the outset of my career I saw that everything depended upon getting people to think, and talk, and become curious and excited over and about the “rare spectacle.” Accordingly, posters, transparencies, advertisements, newspaper paragraphs—all calculated to extort attention—were employed, regardless of expense. My exhibition rooms in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Albany and in other large and small cities, were continually thronged and much money was made. In the following February, Joice Heth died, literally of old age, and her remains received a respectable burial in the town of Bethel.

At a post-mortem examination of Joice Heth by Dr. David L. Rogers, in the presence of some medical students, it was thought that the absence of ossification indicated considerably less age than had been assumed for her; but the doctors disagreed, and this “dark subject” will probably always continue to be shrouded in mystery.

P.T. Barnum bought Joice for $1,000, or about $23,600 in today’s dollars. Some of that money was borrowed, which gives you an idea of how well off he was financially at the time.

He toured with Joice with some reports suggesting P.T. Barnum made about $1,500 a week selling tickets to people wanting to see the nurse that was, “called in at the birth of George [Washington].”

On February 19th, 1836, Joice Heth passed away. But that didn’t stop P.T. Barnum from profiting from her death. As more and more people paid to see the 160-year-old woman, more and more people didn’t believe she was 160-years-old.

So when Joice died, Phineas hired a man named Dr. David Rogers to perform an autopsy in public, with about 15 people in attendance. And yes, they had to pay to be there…P.T. Barnum sold tickets to the autopsy for about 50 cents each. That’s about $10 in today’s money.

Well, as you might expect, Dr. Rogers found Joice to be not nearly the 160-year-old woman that Phineas claimed. In an attempt to cover his tracks, Phineas then said that the woman Dr. Rogers did the autopsy on wasn’t actually Joice and that she was off in Europe.

Some suggest P.T. Barnum eventually owned up to the hoax, but others disagree and point to Phineas’ insistence on the validity of the original bill of sale from when George Washington’s father, Augustine, bought Joice, as well as a claim that he never coaxed Joice to say any of the things she did.

Most historians today believe Joice was no older than 80, probably about 79 when she passed. Sadly, we just don’t know much about her. It does seem that she made claims about being George Washington’s nurse, but with today’s modern medicine we know about so many ailments and illnesses that can cause one’s memory to deteriorate to the point of easily being coerced to say whatever others tell you.

And from P.T. Barnum’s own autobiography and the description of Joice’s finger and toe nails…I think it’s clear that she wasn’t really taken care of very well. It’s really sad if you think about it.

Of course, P.T. Barnum claimed he didn’t coerce Joice to say the things she did, and even if he didn’t, that doesn’t mean Mr. Bartram, the man who sold Joice to P.T. Barnum, didn’t coerce Joice to say things that weren’t true.

Any way you look at it, the story of Joice Heth is quite a sad one…and it’s one that made P.T. Barnum plenty of money while simultaneously kicking off his career in show business.

So what, then, of the other characters we see in the movie?

There’s Zac Efron playing someone named Phillip Carlyle or Zendaya playing Anne Wheeler. As best as I can tell, those are both fictional characters. At least, I couldn’t find anything in any of P.T. Barnum’s books or any other historical records of an Anne Wheeler or Phillip Carlyle.

If you have more information about either of these characters, by all means join the Based on a True Story Facebook group and let us know!

That brings us to Rebecca Ferguson’s character named Jenny Lind. She was a real person, and was a great singer.

But she didn’t come into the picture right away.

About a month before Joice Heth passed away in February of 1836, P.T. Barnum hired a man named Signor Antonio. Signor was a juggler, balancer, stilt-walker, and P.T. Barnum added him to the show after convincing Signor to change his name to Signor Vivalla—something P.T. thought was more exotic sounding.

For a while, the show was pretty much just Signor and P.T. traveling around with the former being the talent, the latter being the salesman getting people to come watch. Then, at one show, another juggler in the crowd heckled Signor, saying that he could do better.

So Phineas had an idea—and pitched a fake competition between two jugglers. Behind the scenes, the two jugglers were in on it, but as far as the public was concerned it was a competition between two talented jugglers with a $1,000 pot on the line.

It worked for a while, but as is often the case, before long the public wanted more. So P.T. Barnum hired a singer and dancer who donned blackface named James Sanford. He didn’t stay around too long, but unfortunately I’m sure it didn’t have much to do with the blackface.

Adding more things to his show, P.T. Barnum brought on horses, a clown and another singer, a black woman, and toured the show around the United States for a few months.

Their show stopped in 1837, with the crew disbanding and going their separate ways. Then later in 1837, Phineas tried another tactic, this time buying a steamboat and bringing on some performers as they went up and down the Mississippi River. As 1838 rolled around, the riverboat idea didn’t seem to be making him happy enough, so he sold the boat and went back to the drawing board.

P.T. Barnum put together another troop, headlined by an African-American man named John Diamond who was a dancer. With John taking the stage, Phineas had the idea of doing something he’d done with the jugglers before—staging a fake competition. That didn’t work so well, and by the time 1841 hit the show had disbanded again and Phineas returned home where he sold Bibles for a time.

Then, on December 27th, 1841, P.T. Barnum managed to secure a local museum that had gone up for sale. That was the Broadway American Museum in New York, and it was here that P.T. Barnum found a place to build a show with some stability.

According to P.T. Barnum’s autobiography, “The American Museum was the ladder by which I rose to fortune….The Museum was always open at sunrise, and this was so well known throughout the country that strangers coming to the city would often take a tour through my halls before going to breakfast or to their hotels. I do not believe there was ever a more truly popular place of amusement.”

One of the popular performances came in 1842 when P.T. Barnum met Charles Stratton, who Phineas gave the stage name of General Tom Thumb.

Charles, who is played by Stan Humphrey in the movie, was only four years old when Phineas met him and, according to some historians was actually P.T. Barnum’s half fifth cousin, twice removed—which could be how he found out about Charles.

Charles had stopped growing at about six months old and was only two feet tall, or about 61 centimeters. Throughout his life, Charles would only grow to 3 feet, 3 inches tall, or 99 centimeters.

Phineas taught Charles how to sing, dance and do impersonations that, along with Phineas advertising Charles to be an 11-year-old, made him a hit on stage.

It was in 1844 when P.T. Barnum and Charles Stratton were performing in England when the pair were invited to visit Buckingham Palace and perform for Queen Victoria.

The Queen is played by Gayle Rankin in the movie, by the way. It was on this trip that Phineas heard about Jenny Lind.

Jenny, who as we learned earlier is played by Rebecca Ferguson in the film, was a very popular opera singer in Europe at the time. Without even hearing her sing, Phineas wanted to get her to join his show in New York. His thought was that she could help lend some credibility to Phineas’ other attractions in the museum.

After hearing her sing, Phineas was hooked. He offered Jenny $1,000 per performance to come to America and sing. That’s about $26,000 in today’s money.

That’s a lot of money, and most historians don’t believe P.T. Barnum could’ve afforded her for long.

But it paid off, because Jenny’s performances ended up earning P.T. Barnum over $500,000, or about $13 million today. Needless to say, at this point P.T. Barnum was set, and his show was something that everyone knew.

Over the rest of his life, P.T. Barnum continued to build his show, including going back to traveling performances, but he also did plenty of other things that have made people wonder just how authentic he was.

For example, in 1861 when the Civil War broke out, Phineas became a staunch Unionist, speaking out against slavery. Except, if you recall, he started his showmanship by purchasing Joice Heth and while I didn’t really mention it, he also followed the common practice of the time of banning African-Americans from his museum.

Politics was something he was often wrapped up in, even becoming the Mayor of Bridgeport Connecticut for a time.

Another contradiction of his was when he campaigned heavily against letting saloons be open on Sundays—even though he himself was quite the heavy drinker during his European tours.

Or there was when his wife, Charity, passed away unexpectedly from heart failure in 1873. She was 65. Understandably, Phineas was heartbroken of the woman he loved. He said in his autobiography that, “without Charity, I am nothing.”

So what’s contradictory about that?

Well, some would point to P.T. Barnum, who was 63, marrying a 22-year-old woman named Nancy Fish about 14 weeks after Charity passed away. He tried to keep it secret for a time, but a little less than a year later they had a public wedding.

In 1890, P.T. Barnum suffered a stroke that led to his death the following year on April 7th, 1891. He was, without a doubt, someone who cared more about public opinion than the average person. Just before his death, Phineas gave permission to the Evening Sun newspaper to print his obituary—just so he could read it before he died to make sure it was alright.

For someone like P.T. Barnum, there’s little doubt that his life was something that has impacted the world—whether that’s for the positive or negative is something for each of us to decide.

As you can probably guess, there’s so many more stories about P.T. Barnum’s life. We’ve really only scratched the surface.

But this is where we must end our story today. Before we do, here’s some food for thought as you go see The Greatest Showman in theaters…

Consider the facts, as we know them.

P.T. Barnum did many things in his life that were horrible—like owning slaves, profiting off of making people mock others’ appearance, just to name a few—but we know about a lot of these things because he himself laid them out in his autobiography called Struggles and Triumphs: or, Forty Years’ Recollections of P.T. Barnum that we’ve heard from in this episode.

During those times, however, many of the things he admitted to in his autobiography weren’t seen as horrible as they actually are.

And so, knowing that Phineas Taylor Barnum liked to bend the truth, how many other things do you think he did that didn’t make its way into his autobiography?

Or, put another way, was P.T. Barnum really The Greatest Showman, or was his life just a show for the public that hid a darker, more disturbing underbelly?



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