From a Museum to a World Renown Circus: The Creations of P.T. Barnum

Greatest Show on Earth | Courtesy of WOWT.com

In May 2017, a historic event happened: Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus shut down. Almost two centuries ago, it was created by the well-known P. T. Barnum. It had not started off as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, or even Barnum and Bailey. It first started as a museum in New York City as the American Museum.

Museum Attraction | Courtesy of Pintrest

In 1841, Phineas Taylor Barnum purchased the Scudder’s Museum and renamed it the American Museum. He filled this with all different kinds of oddities, from a fabled 161-year-old woman named Joice Heth, who was supposed to have been George Washington’s slave, to a midget named General Tom Thumb, to a FeeJee mermaid, which was the upper half of a monkey sewn to the lower half of a fish.1 Barnum repeatedly fooled the public into believing his outrageous oddity claims, all for the purpose of making money for himself, and also to satisfy curiosities about the odder things in life. Barnum named himself the Prince of Humbug, and the public loved that even more than being duped.2

“The noblest art is that of making others happy.”3

In 1865, Barnum was elected to the Connecticut legislature as a Republican representative. He was noted 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” during one of the sessions on the discussion of African American voting rights. Barnum was a Unionist who advocated for the right of African Americans to vote, despite his years of being a supporter of slavery.4 The same year he was elected as a representative, his first museum was burned down by Confederate sympathizers.5 He was determined not to fail. Barnum rebuilt in a different location, only for another fire to burn this museum down three years later, in 1868; but this time the cause was unknown.

Despite the huge setback, this was one of the stepping stones in creating Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Defeated by the fires and large loss of money, Barnum retired. In 1871, W. C. Coup convinced Barnum to step out of retirement and go on the road with a travelling circus, “P. P. T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome.” By 1872, it was being called the “Greatest Show on Earth” by none other than Barnum himself, though the rest of the country believed it as well. For eight years, Barnum and Coup took the circus around the country.6

Barnum and Bailey | Courtesy of Black Ink PR

In 1880, Barnum took the next step in creating Barnum & Bailey. He met James A. Bailey, who owned the Great London Circus, and partnered with him to create “P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, And the Great London Circus, Sanger’s Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United,” later shortened to Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.7 Bailey was a man happy to give Barnum the light and hide in the background, running the logistics of the circus, earning him the name “King of Circus Men.”8 Josephine Robinson described the two men in a statement: “Mr. Barnum was the advertiser, who loved the limelight, who rode around in the ring, and announced who he was. But Mr. Bailey was the business man, content to be invisible, demanding it in fact, and interested only in the success of the show.”9

Give the people the best—spare no expense doing it—and they’ll reward you greatly. – James A. Bailey10

In 1882, Barnum and Bailey purchased Jumbo, an elephant that they claimed to be the biggest in the world. Jumbo would bring in thousands of people until he was hit by a freight car in 1885, after which the circus was financially devastated. Instead of giving up on the Jumbo act, Barnum and Bailey displayed Jumbo’s skeleton. The show continued and achieved one of Barnum’s lifelong dreams, travelling to Europe, where the circus toured in 1889 for the winter months. In London, a multitude of shows were played, such as the Nero or The Destruction of Rome.11

Ringling Brothers | Courtesy of Pintrest

In 1891, a shock came to the entertainment world: Phineas Taylor Barnum passed away at eighty-one years old in his home. His death left the circus to Bailey, who ran the circus for fifteen years, introducing new shows and acts such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.12 Shock hit the United States again when, in 1906, James A. Bailey passed away in his home from erysipelas.

In 1907, the Ringling Brothers purchased the circus from Bailey’s wife. The brothers ran the circus separately until 1919 when the circuses merged creating the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The new circus traveled the United States until it was dismantled ninety-nine years later.

  1. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013, s.v. “First Modern American Circus,” by Geralyn Strecker.
  2. P.T. Barnum, The autobiography of P.T Barnum:clerk, merchant, editor, & showman (England:Ward & Lock, 1855), 86.
  3. P.T. Barnum, Life of P.T. Barnum (Buffalo: The Courier Company, 1888).
  4. “The Lost Museum Archive,” P. T. Barnum’s Speech on “Negro Suffrage,” May 26, 1865 (excerpts) https://lostmuseum.cuny.edu/archive/p-t-barnums-speech-on-negro-suffrage-may-26.
  5. John Headley, Confederate Operations in Canada and New York (Nabu Press, 2010): 327.
  6. Margo DeMello, Encyclopedia of Body Adornment (Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 2007), 25-26.
  7. P.T. Barnums Greatest Show on Earth, and Great London Circus, Sangers Royal British Menagerie & Grand International Allied Shows,” The Library of Congress, 1879 https://www.loc.gov/item/99471610/.
  8. “James A. Bailey, King Of Circus Men, is Dead. News Kept From Performers Till The Show Was Over. Widow Gets Circus Stock. Showman Died Of Erysipelas At His Country Home Near Mount Vernon After A Week’s Illness,” New York Times, April 12, 1906.
  9. Linda Simon, The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus (London, UK: Reaktion Books, 2014): 85.
  10.  A Pioneer Showman (Public Opinion Company: January 1, 1906), 486.
  11. Ernest J. Albrecht, From Barnum & Bailey to Feld: The Creative Evolution of the Greatest Show on Earth (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2014), 27.
  12.  Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2010, s.v. “Bailey, James Anthony,” by James Craddock.
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58 Comments

  • The first time I heard about P. T. Barnum was when I watched the Greatest Showman. I know the movie did not cover Barnum’s entire life, but the fact that Barnum was a congressman seems like a big detail to excluded. It is hard to imagine that man invented the circus was seen fit to make legislative decisions, but I suppose that it speaks true to Barnum’s charming persona and his way with words.

  • I have never been to the circus before in my life and it was something that I always did want to go see because people would always talk about how amazing that it was to see. I didn’t know any of the history of how this came to be but after reading this article I found it rather interesting. I had no idea that this was a museum before it was ever a circus which sounds so strange to me that something like that could even happen. Overall I really enjoyed reading this article.

  • I remember seeing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when I was very young, and I had fun seeing how traditional circus performances combined with modern acts and feats of danger. It was interesting to find out about the history of this legendary circus, even with major controversy that had ultimately led to the organization’s downfall. However, at the same time, I’m glad that the animals are no longer suffering from abuse. I really enjoyed reading this very nostalgic article.

  • I would have never imagined that a museum could turn into a circus. I found it crazy how Barnum museums due to the belief of the right to vote for African American, which is not just crazy but extremely upsetting. I also never knew that Jumbo had gotten hit by a freight car. Overall, this article was very well written with a great topic selection. Great work with very good images.

  • Nice article. I have seen the movie the Greatest Showman, but it sounds like the real story was not quite as exciting. Still though what these men created was quite extraordinary because they gave the public a chance to get away from real life and just enjoy being hoodwinked for a couple of hours. They were primarily focused on making others happy and they did just that for a very long time.

  • As a child, I remember how envious I was of my friends when they went to the circus because I never got the chance to go. However, now as an adult, as much as I want to like Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey’s circus for their persistence, my mind keeps trailing back to documentaries I’ve watched about the mistreatment of animals within circuses and I find myself not able to. This was a very interesting and informative article though.

  • So recently, a movie came about Barnum and Bailey and it was called “The Greatest Showman”. I am generally not into musicals but this I would definitely recommend seeing. I enjoyed it very much, just as I enjoyed reading this article. Barnum was such a different person. He loved for people to express who they are and not be ashamed of it. I had no idea of the political side of him because that was not really in focus in the movie, so it was interesting learning about it in this article.

  • Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey’s circus was one of my favorite things to go to growing up and it’s such a shame it’s shut down and no longer running. It was really “the greatest show”. It’s interesting that reading this articled I learned the process of how the show came to be. To now know that it didn’t even start off as a traveling circus is shocking to me, and I’m glad that Barnum didn’t give up with 2 of the burnings of his museum and pushed through.

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