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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This Post Has 61 Comments

  1. I truly loved this article. Although I can only vaguely remember going to a circus show when I was around four-years-old, I think it is one of the best parts of history. Although the company died in May 2017, I hope it is never forgotten. I also don’t agree with their use of wild animals, such as elephants, but the way that the movie, “The Greatest Showman” portrayed the start-up journey makes me believe that it brought a lot of joy to many people. That is what it should be remembered for.

  2. Thomas Fraire

    The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey bazaar were constantly one of my most loved yearly occasions to go to as a tyke. My mom took me each and every year, and I was constantly flabbergasted at the vitality and enchantment behind the shows. I will always remember the traps and fun acts that made me powerless to take my eyes off the demonstrations and marvels of the carnival. This article evoked that equivalent sentimentality in me, and I cherished learning the history behind the carnival and the valor and will it took for P.T. Barnum to accomplish his fantasies and make individuals grin while likewise being reasonable for everybody in the meantime.

  3. Danielle Slaughter

    I only got to see the Ringling Bros. circus once as a child, and I don’t remember enjoying it much. Only now, especially after watching “The Greatest Showman”, do I wish I could experience it just one more time. P.T. Barnum wasn’t a perfect man – indeed, he loved his money – but he did play a small part in ushering in a bit of acceptance in the United States. I was so sad when I heard of the circus’ closing, especially because of animal rights activists, and there will never be a greater show.

  4. This article was interesting to me since I have always been a big fan of the circus. Prior to reading this article I was not very familiar with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. It was very interesting to me that it started out as a museum and ended up turning into a circus. The author did a great job of going into detail and explaining the history and transition from museum to circus.

  5. I first hear of P.T. Barnum when I played a song in band in high school. It was supposedly one of the songs that was played at the circus, but I do not actually know because I never got the chance to go to the circus. After reading this article I wish I could have gone because I love learning about the history of it because it gives me a better appreciation for it.

  6. Samire Adam

    Growing up, I had always heard about the The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus from movies and television. But, I never heard about the circuses shutting down! I could tell from how people described the circus that it was a true work of art and brought happiness and joy to many. This article still made me learn a lot about Barnum’s vision for the circus and its origins.

  7. The topic of the circus struck me as an odd choice, but once I continued to read I understood why you found it so interesting. P.T. Barnum was a man full of creative ideas who wanted to create something special for others. However, I do wish that the article had more information about him and his family. How did they take it that he created a circus?
    The idea behind a circus is a little odd and I wish I could have learned more about the topic.

  8. Who knew that a museum would one day become this great big circus? I’ve always liked the circus so I enjoyed reading about P.T. Barnum and the transformation of his museum. I think it is crazy that the burning down of his museum is what eventually led to his travelling circus. I really liked the first quote you included. It showed Barnum’s dedication to making others happy. This was a good, well-written article.

  9. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus was always one of my favorite annual events to go to as a child. My mother took me every single year, and I was always amazed at the energy and magic behind the shows. I will never forget the tricks and fun acts that made me unable to take my eyes off the acts and wonders of the circus. This article evoked that same nostalgia in me, and I loved learning the history behind the circus and the courage and will it took for P.T. Barnum to achieve his dreams and make people smile while also being fair to everyone at the same time.

  10. I know the story of P.T. Barnum only from the movie “The Greatest Showman” and didn’t know his circus has such a long history. It was so interesting to know his whole life of kind of adventure. The shows which were produced by him must have been a fantastic amusement at that time and I wish I could enjoy it on my own.

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