Discussion Phineas Taylor Barnum, Anti-Slavery Reformer Or P.T. Barnum, Showman? Who WAS This Guy?

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Feb 14, 2012
Central Pennsylvania

Phineas Taylor Barnum's Roman Hippodrome, NYC, part of this man's lavish display with which to entertain, thrill and delight us was the pre-circus of later years. We came, we paid, we either loved or loathed it. And the man. I have a foot in both camps.

P.T. Barnum, sitting out the war in ostentatious, opulent comfort doesn't belong in the biography forum. Men and women who went to war, got shot at, either died or went home belong there, even Sickles. Despite having a few characteristics in common with Dirty Dan, Phineas Taylor Barnum doesn't measure up- whatever else was lacking, Sickles never dodged a bullet. Barnum was however an avowed supporter of the Union and vocally anti-slavery -which has always seemed odd to me given his willingness to exploit fellow humans. He also made quite a few powerful enemies in powerful Southerners, writing at one point to offer 500 bucks for Jefferson Davis's petticoats. You never know what to make of the man, patriot who communicated to Lincoln his willingness to help " Down to his last penny " or opportunistic exploiter? Both? No idea but he sure is interesting.


The still-famous Fiji-Mermaid. You can't exploit a stuffed monkey/fish but you can those who paid to see it.

So determined an advocate of the anti-slavery movement was he and so vocal, his famously garish museum was torched during the NWC draft riots and soldiers were sent to guard his mansion. Of the 3 fires suffered by Barnum's, none seem of innocent origin.

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Found images in era Frank Leslie's what on earth it looked like inside Barnum's American Museum, NYC.

We seem to adore a good rogue, no idea why. Those who prey on the credulous and walk away a winner become legends, not lessons. We're a little weird that way. By the time Barnum and Bailey threw in together P.T. Barnum was already legendary so Bailey had nothing to lose. I'm not posting any of the ' freak ' images. They're on Pinterest and other sites though, where their exploitation continues in 2019. IMO we can do without them in here on CWT.

Here's the opulent comfort built by Barnum, financed by round eyed wonder.

Just one of four ( I think ) massive, overdone mansions, I 'think' this is Waldemere, his home by the sea, occupied just after the ACW. It was razed later, a new mansion erected next door. Lindencroft, the Connecticut home during the war was guarded by Union troops after 1863's draft riots.

Having shopped the elderly black woman Joice Heth around as George Washington's 160 year old nurse ( you could pay money to go see ), sewed a fish and monkey into the Fiji Mermaid, exploited an African American family afflicted by albinism, put a child with hypertrichosis on display ( " Dog Boy ", because his condition caused hair growth over his face ), paraded people born with various forms of dwarfism on stage ( and married off two ), cashed in on severe birth defects like co-joined twins ( married those off, too ) and a man born without limbs ( The Human Torso ), Phineas wrote an entire book about it.

" His early life and struggles, bold adventures and brilliant successes, wonderful career in which he made and lost fortunes, captivated Kings, Queens, nobility and millions of people, his genius, wit, eloquence, public benefactor, life as a citizen, etc. etc. " He wrote these glowing tributes to himself, please remember. Phineas couldn't help himself. The man also bragged in print about the various hoaxes foisted ( in exchange for cash ) on the general public. It's still working in spots. Swear to goodness I saw the Figi Mermaid on Pinterest, caption reading " Look! Proof mermaids exist! ". P.T. would be so proud.

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Street(s) view of " Barnum's American Museum ", a New York City landmark of the day. Being Barnum this was eventually razed and a new museum erected. post war, Pauline Cushman and genuine drummer Robert Henderson were ' exhibits ' here. Both were paid fairly well by all accounts, on the other hand so was PT.


" The menagerie ", inside the museum would have given PETA a collective stroke.
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It did contain a real, live, 3 year old drummer boy named Willie. The Wisconsin Drummer. Well, real, live 3 year old boy anyway, battles engaged in zero.

Anyway, Barnum is tough read. I've gone back and forth on this man a hundred times. I'm not alone, newspapers at the time publishing glowing tributes or blasting his exploits and exploitation of the less fortunate and the public's credulity. Living lavishly while so much poverty existed is in contrast to his very real championship of the anti-slavery movement and the entire war. Barnum was in fact a public servant too, running for office and serving 2 terms in Connecticut's general assembly. He said he wished to be part of the vote to abolish slavery but also battled some of the huge, powerful corporate interests like railroad magnates.

It's not an ' informative ' thread, love to know what the anyone else makes of PT Barnum. Rascal, opportunist, hoaxer and a good Union man using his position to effect some good? Eccentric and frequently tone deaf? No idea.

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Mar 27, 2019
Spring Hill, Florida
I generally agree with your base sentiment. I feel PT Barnum without a doubt exploited those with afflictions for his own gain. He also exploited those with afflictions of the mind that fell prey to believe them and spend their money on them.

I absolutely adore the movie The Greatest Showman; if only the truth were as wholesome.

One thing I do have faith in is those who were exploited by this man did, in fact, make a decent living that they could not have made else where because of their "weirdness". I read somewhere that the little person, Tom Thumb, earned what would have been close to a professional athletes salary, today. I'll have to find that reference and bring it back here. Many of the acts were paid well.

That being said, P.T. Barnum's exploitation did little to no good in creating acceptance and understanding that the souls behind the oddities were human and deserving of equality. To be so vocal as anti-slavery and then choose the acts he did doesn't sit well with me. Was he truly anti-slavery or simply a pot-stirrer?


Sergeant Major
Oct 26, 2016
I can't say I've studied the man or his story in depth. What little I know is surely surface level information. I am interested to see what others have to say.

For me, I think the saying is true. Money makes the world go round and for some (like many in the entertainment business) money is their world.

I have a 1963 New York newspaper with an add for Barnum's show. It is an exciting read.


First Sergeant
Jun 1, 2015
North Balt Co., MD
He exploited individuals and the public for money. Isn't that a form of capitalism? I have not read much about him, but I am interested in his treatment of his circus performers and animals before I judge much further. So if anyone knows....??

As far as his opposition to slavery and contradicting his business....well plenty of modern and historical examples of saying one thing and doing another...

O' Be Joyful

Sergeant Major
-*- Mime -*-
Mar 6, 2015
Use-ta be: Zinn-zä-nätti o-HI-o The BIG city.
P.T. was most definitely a sly and slippery fellow, as one of his most (in)famous crowd movers...suggests.

Welcome to the Egress!
Barnum's American Museum was so popular that people would spend the entire day there. This cut into profits, as the museum would be too full to squeeze another person in. In classic Barnum style, old P.T. put up signs that said "This Way to the Egress."
Many customers followed the signs, not realizing that Egress was a fancy word for "Exit." They kept on looking for this strange new attraction, the "Egress". Many patrons followed the signs right out the door! Once they had exited the building, the door would lock behind them, and if they wanted to get back in, they had to pay another admission charge!
Modern museums make sure that the last thing you see before you exit is the gift shop.


Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
May 12, 2010
Now Florida but always a Kentuckian
Interesting. I have read about many circuses over the years. Always liked to go to them. I guess just never thought as a young person about them being cruel to animals or exploiting people. When a child we are very naïve.

I do think he (Barnum) is an interesting person. I guess as was already written. Many people have contradicting ideas that don't seem to match.

That is a huge mansion. Like to see other homes he owned.

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