Today’s Victorian-ager of note is known as the world’s “First Show-Business Millionaire”, the American circus owner Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum.
Nowadays when we think of circuses, we imagine big tops, acrobatics, freak shows, clowns, wild animals and curiosities. But this quintessential “circusness” did not spring fully formed from the earth – for the most part, it was the brain child of the nineteenth-century American entrepreneur P. T. Barnum. Anybody who hasn’t lived their entire life under rock will have heard of Barnum’s Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus – it’s still running, after more than 100 years.
Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum
Barnum was a man of extremes. He wasn’t just a big thinker: he was a huge thinker. From importing a freakin’ African elephant into the country for his circus, to building the outrageously huge mansion “Iranistan” (which would eventually bankrupt him), to paying unprecedented figures to his star performers, he did nothing by halves. This week, I’d like to pay homage especially to some of the people and exhibitions who are part of the Barnum legacy.
People had long believed that strange, half-fish people existed in the outer regions of the seas. The Americans enjoyed a good freak as much as their Victorian England contemporaries, and they were willing to pay an entry fee to see one. Cue the Feejee (Fiji) Mermaid. The ghastly creature was, of course, fake: it was made of a torso and head of a baby monkey, sewn to the back half of a fish and covered in paper-mâché. But it was realistic enough to fool the circus-goers, especially when Barnum trotted out the “doctor” who supposedly caught the creature.
|Well, Ariel it ain't...|
In 1842, Barnum discovered Charles Stratton, a child dwarf. The boy at the time was four years old, but in order to intensify the marvel, Barnum claimed he was eleven. Naming him General Tom Thumb – The Smallest Person that ever Walked Alone, he set out to train the boy to become an entertainer. Barnum had two points of good fortune: first, little Tom Thumb had a natural aptitude for mimicry and was a fast learner, and second, child exploitation laws in those days were virtually non-existent. Within a few years, the lad was drinking wine and smoking cigars for the public's amusement. Of course, he didn’t have to worry about it stunting his growth. (Yes, I went there.) Throughout his life Tom Thumb was immensely popular – he even had audiences with Queen Victoria and the Czar of Russia.
Barnum’s exploitation seems appalling to modern-day readers, but from all accounts Charles Stratton lived a happy life as Tom Thumb. It really was a life most could only dream of – and especially so for a man who would never grow to more than four feet tall.
And now for something completely different - Jumbo
We’re so used to thinking of “Jumbo” as a cute word for something enormous, that you’ve maybe never wondered where it came from. Lucky for you, I live to enlighten! “Jumbo” is, in fact, the name of the hugely popular African elephant that Barnum imported from England for his circus. Barnum bought the elephant for the then-staggering sum of $10,000. Perhaps even more impressive than the price he paid was his skill in drumming up public interest in the creature, even before the elephant left the shores of England. Barnum started a rumour that the British people were mutinous over the sale of Jumbo, and that thousands of schoolchildren had written to the Queen, begging that Jumbo wouldn’t leave England. In response, the American public became outraged that they might miss out on seeing the incredible beast. By the time Jumbo had arrived in the U.S., his popularity was already similar to modern-day Justin Bieber. Barnum made his money back within the first weeks of exhibiting the animal, and the English language gained a new word: jumbo, for anything of unusually large size.
The Swedish nightingale
You can think of Jenny Lind as Barnum’s “Jumbo II – this time, it’s musical.” Popular in Europe, the Swedish opera singer was engaged by Barnum before he’d even heard her performances. It was a calculated gamble – after all, even if she didn’t have the voice, he had the public relations department.
And it paid off: by the time Jenny Lind arrived in the U.S., so much public excitement had been created about her that 40,000 locals greeted her ship at the dock. She toured the States with Barnum, and became phenomenally successful, even spawning a line of “Jenny Lind” merchandising. In fact, she was so successful that she earned $250,000 over the course of just under 100 concerts – an amazing amount at the time; especially considering that the artist in question was a woman.
|Apparently, Jenny inspired Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Nightingale"|
“Siamese Twins” Chang and Eng
Chang and Eng Bunker were born as conjoint twins in Siam (now Thailand). They had previously been exhibited as a curiosity in a world tour with British merchant Robert hunter. In 1860, having married and retired to a plantation in North Carolina, the twins came out of retirement, and did a six-week stint in Barnum’s Museum (one of “those” museums). Although the Bunkers were not Barnum's discovery, "Siamese" twins were to become a mainstay of circus sideshows for decades. (Until we realised that it's rude to stare.)