Think you know all about P.T. Barnum, newspaper editor, progressive mayor and hospital founder? Though a legend for his hoaxes and his circus, Phineas Taylor Barnum had a serious side. For example, he lost money to bad investments in the 1850s. But he recouped his losses by traveling on a circuit as a temperance speaker.
Here, then, are 14 other facts about the great showman you may not know.
1. P.T. Barnum never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He did, however, say, “Every crowd has a silver lining.” He also said, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.”
2. P.T. Barnum served a one-year term as a progressive mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., in 1875. He fought for a clean water supply, gaslight in the streets and a crackdown on vice and prostitution. Today the Barnum Museum still informs and entertains visitors in Bridgeport.
3. He served as the first president of Bridgeport Hospital, having helped found it in 1878.
4. Growing up in Bethel, Conn., Barnum was so poor he had to borrow a pair of shoes to attend his father’s funeral.
5. There really was a Grizzly Adams, and he performed with Barnum’s show in New York City.
6. P.T. Barnum was buried in a cemetery he designed – Mountain Grove Cemetery in Bridgeport – after dying on April 7, 1890, following a stroke.
Real Estate Developer
7. He worked for many years as a real estate developer . P.T. Barnum built East Bridgeport, offering an innovative financing scheme that allowed working-class families to buy their own homes. If they put 20 percent down and paid back the rest at 6 percent interest, they would then own the property outright once they settled the debt.
8. He developed one of the first waterfront parks, Seaside Park in Bridgeport, donating land for it and persuading others to donate land as well.
9. He contributed heavily to the founding of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Barnum served on the board of trustees before its founding, and donated $50,000 to build the Barnum Museum of Natural History. The museum, built in 1884, housed his collection of animal specimens and the stuffed hide of Jumbo the elephant. Today Tufts has a mascot named Jumbo.
10. P.T. Barnum started a newspaper in Danbury, Conn., in 1831 called The Herald of Freedom, which fought bigotry and fanaticism. He was arrested for libel three times and sent to jail for 60 days after accusing a Bethel deacon of “taking usury of an orphan boy.”
12. P.T. Barnum served two terms as a state representative from Fairfield, Conn. While serving in office he spoke in favor of ratifying the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He said, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.” He also ran for Congress against his third cousin, William Henry ‘Seven Mule’ Barnum, who defeated him using dirty political tricks.
13. Though he spent much of his career as a showman, he only started ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ late in life, at 61 years old.
14. At the end of the 19th century, publishers printed more copies of his autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, in North America than any other book, other than the New Testament.
With thanks to Only in Bridgeport, by Lennie Grimaldi, for much of the information in this list. This story was updated in 2021. If you enjoyed this story about P.T. Barnum, you may be interested in reading about his grandson, who threw the greatest bachelor party on earth, here.