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P.T. Barnum: Life in Variety


February 13, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

In 1882, P.T. Barnum bought 760 acres of land near Denver to use as winter quarters for his circus animals. The land (bounded by today’s Sixth Avenue, Federal Boulevard, Alameda Avenue, and Perry Street) was northwest of the city center. Barnum was a regular at the Elitch Palace Dining Room and became friends with John and Mary Elitch. With the circus quarters located near the Chilcott Farm purchased by the couple, Mary soon became enchanted with the animals and Barnum gifted her with a few of them, forming the basis for the menagerie at Elitch’s Gardens. The area was later annexed by the city and is known as the Barnum neighborhood.

When Barnum purchased the land in Denver, he was already famous. His roots, however, were humble. Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut on July 5, 1810. His grandfather influenced him heavily, teaching him to follow multiple career paths (Phineas Taylor was a Whig, legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and a lottery schemer). P.T.’s father was a storekeeper, inn keeper, and tailor. The boy grew up learning salesmanship and the art of deception and, by his own admission, hated physical work. He learned to haggle early and began to peddle lottery tickets while a teen in the country’s first lottery mania. He married Charity Hallett at the age of 19.

Young Barnum continued the example he was taught, working several businesses including real estate speculation, a general store, book auctioning, and…a statewide lottery network. He also entered politics and campaigned against laws restricting gambling, starting a newspaper to promote his ideas. When lotteries were banned in Connecticut in 1834, he and his wife moved to New York City.

Within a year, Barnum shifted his attention to showmanship. In 1835, he bought an elderly slave named Joice Heth, said to be 160 years old and the former nurse of George Washington. Barnum charged the public to see Heth and promoted her widely. Though Heth died a year later, her true age around 80, Barnum was hooked. He toured with a variety troupe (Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater) for a year then purchased Scudder’s American Museum on Broadway. Barnum renamed the attraction “Barnum’s American Museum”, upgraded the building, and added exhibits. To attract the public, he added outdoor lights and flags and displayed giant paintings of animals in the large windows. On the roof, he created a strolling garden where he launched hot air balloons. Within the building, he offered a series of changing acts that included models of cities and battles, both live and stuffed animals, and curiosity acts (albinos, giants, midgets, jugglers, musicians, exotic women, etc.).

In 1842, he began to add hoaxes to the collection. The first was the Feejee Mermaid, a creature with the head of a monkey and the tail of a fish. Barnum claimed his purpose was to attract and entertain the public, not to dupe them, and later crusaded against fraud. Still, his exhibits were filled with oddities that stretched the truth. General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) was a four-year-old boy whom Barnum claimed was eleven. Stratton was taught to imitate famous persons, drink wine, and smoke cigars as part of the act.

Barnum added other acts as time went by, including Native American dancer fu-Hum-Me. He also toured with Tom Thumb, taking him to England to meet Queen Victoria, then other royalty across Europe. The tour furthered the fame of both Barnum and Tom Thumb. Upon their return to the U.S., Barnum expanded his museums into other cities and drew in hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.

In 1850, he heard of Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale. Lind, famous in Europe for her clear soprano voice, was quiet and unpretentious. Barnum persuaded her to come to the U.S. for a tour, offering her $1000 a night for a 150 night tour. She agreed, pledging to donate her profits to charity. Barnum borrowed heavily to close the deal. Lind’s gentle nature and wholesome reputation, as well as her phenomenal voice, drew thousands. Some 40,000 people greeted her ship and another 20,000 gathered at her hotel. The tour was an incredible success and established Barnum as a national success. On occasion, tickets for her shows were auctioned. Lind became uncomfortable with such actions and disliked Barnum’s blatant marketing and commercialism. They parted ways before the tour completed but Barnum netted at least $500,000 in profits.

By this time, Barnum was pursuing multiple interests. A teetotaler, he was actively involved in the temperance movement. He organized dog shows, beauty contests, and other competitions as well as publishing a newspaper. He made loans to industrialists, sponsored lecture tours, and wrote several books. In addition, he was quite involved in politics and philanthropy. He closed his New York museum in 1868 after it burned beyond repair and sought new enterprises.

In 1871, at the age of 61, he shifted his attention to the circus arena. He first called the operation “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, & Hippodrome.” In 1888, after multiple name changes, a merger with James Bailey and James Hutchinson, and a split with Hutchinson, it finally became known as “Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.” It was the first circus to have three rings and was the largest circus in the world. It was also the first circus to use trains to tour. The first primary attraction of the merged company was Jumbo the African elephant (purchased from the London Zoo). General Tom Thumb and other side show acts were mainstays. Even today, circus and Barnum are synonymous.

He was in his seventies by the time he began wintering in Denver. Mary Elitch Long remembered him as fun-loving and he spent much time with John and Mary. She recalled one day, after a group of good friends had been swimming at the lake on their property, that Barnum, John Elitch, and Eugene Field challenged one another to a pancake eating tournament. Mary prepared batch after batch and finally called the contest a tie when none of them would surrender. Barnum was on hand for the opening day of Elitch’s Gardens, counted among their good friends.

In 1890, Barnum suffered a stroke and was confined to his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He died quietly on April 7, 1891. Statues honoring him were later erected there and in Bethel, Connecticut. His circus continued to carry the Barnum name. Tufts University, a recipient of donations from Barnum, named their biology building in his honor. Stories of homes in Denver having belonged to him continue to circulate though Barnum never lived in any of them.


Please join me next week for a deeper look at the gardens of Elitch Gardens. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.

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