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Step Right Up! 14 Little-Known Facts About The Entertaining Life of P.T. Barnum

p.t. barnum

Think you know all about P.T. Barnum, newspaper editor, progressive mayor and hospital founder? Here are 14 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."

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.

3. He was the first president of Bridgeport Hospital, having been instrumental in its founding 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.

7. He was a real estate developer who built East Bridgeport, offering an innovative financing scheme to allow 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 own the property outright once they settled the debt.

P.T. Barnum

P.T. Barnum

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 was on the board of trustees before its founding, and donated $50,000 to build the Barnum Museum of Natural History. The museum was built in 1884 and housed his collection of animal specimens and the stuffed hide of Jumbo the elephant. Jumbo became the university’s mascot and Tufts students are called ‘Jumbos.’

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.”

11. He launched his career as a showman by hiring an old African-American woman named Joice Heth, who he claimed was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s nurse.

12. He was a two-term state representative from Fairfield, Conn., who spoke in favor of ratifying the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, saying, “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."

13. He only started ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ late in life, when he was 61 years old.

14. At the end of the 19th century, more copies of his autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, were printed in North America than any other book, other than the New Testament.

We are indebted to Only in Bridgeport, by Lennie Grimaldi, for much of the information in this list. This story was updated in 2017.

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