Business and Labor

Flashback Photo: P.T. Barnum Turns a Jail Sentence Into a PR Coup

p.t. barnum

P.T. Barnum was so good at promoting himself he turned a 60-day jail sentence into a publicity campaign that made him a statewide celebrity.

He actually didn't get into the circus business until he was 61 years old. He pursued a number of business and political ventures before founding the Greatest Show on Earth, including real estate speculation and a term as mayor of Bridgeport, Conn.

Barnum was born July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Conn., to an innkeeper, storekeeper and tailor, Philo Barnum, and his second wife, Irene Taylor. His father died when he was 15, leaving him to settle his debts and care for four siblings under the age of seven. Barnum went to work as a store clerk, and in 1828 set up his own fruit and confectionary store with help from his grandfather. He was soon running a successful lottery business, speculating in real estate and auctioning books. In 1831 he started a newspaper, the Herald of Freedom.

It was the newspaper that landed him in jail. Barnum published an editorial accusing a prominent local church deacon, Seth Seelye, of charging exorbitant interest to an orphan. Seelye accused him of libel. The judge – a ‘lump of superstition,’ according to Barnum – sided with Seelye. Barnum was fined $100 and sentenced to 60 days in jail.

For Barnum, it was a great career move. Subscriptions increased to the Herald of Freedom. Though he had a comfortable cell, ate well and received visits from many friends, Barnum was viewed as a martyr. When he was released from jail, 40 horsemen and 60 carriages escorted him home as a band played during the entire three-mile parade.

Decades later, in a conversation with Ulysses S. Grant, Barnum speculated that the former U.S. president and Civil War hero was 'the best known American living.' Grant disagreed: "You beat me sky-high, for wherever I went, in China, Japan, the Indies, &c., the constant inquiry was, 'Do you know Barnum?' I think, Barnum, you are the best known man in the world."

For 13 more things you may not have known about P.T. Barnum, click here.

With thanks to The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader: Nothing Else Like it in the Universe by Phineas Taylor Barnum and Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum by Neil Harris. This story was updated in 2017.

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