The Barnum Museum
The Barnum Museum, One of the Great New England Museums
By James Hyde
Phineas Taylor Barnum was arguably the greatest showman of all time. He had a knack for finding and exhibiting unusual people, animals and a range of oddities, some of them hoaxes, such as the Feejee Mermaid.
While the Barnum & Bailey Circus continues as a living testament to his talent for promotion, he was also a politician and journalist and enormously influential both here in the U.S. and in Europe during the 19th century. He could tomanipulate the press in ways that render today's spin doctors inept hacks.
P.T. Barnum, as he was best known, was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810. After his father's death in 1826, rural life faded as his ideal, and he was drawn to the city lights of Brooklyn, New York, where he worked for a short time as a store clerk.
His own fascination with curiosities, strange and bizarre, convinced him that his contemporaries of the era would be likewise captivated, so he set out to make collecting and displaying peculiarities his career. His reading of the sentiments of the times was right on, and people gathered in large numbers at the various venues he built, in particular, the American Museum in New York.
The first of his endeavors involved Joice Heth, whom he billed as "The Greatest Natural & National Curiosity in the World."
Telling those interested that the story-telling, African American woman was 161 years old, he convinced his audiences that, as a slave, she had tended to a young George Washington.