25 Fun Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About P.T. Barnum

Published June 24, 2017
Updated November 8, 2023

These fascinating P.T. Barnum facts reveal the story of the infamous showman who brought Barnum & Bailey Circus to the world.

There's no proof that Barnum ever said "There's a sucker born every minute"

Interesting Facts About P.T. Barnum
Though the phrase is widely attributed to him, Barnum respected his audience, crediting them as willing participants in fun pranks, rather than "suckers."Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Barnum really had bad luck when it came to fire

Barnum Museum Burns
In addition to the fire that claimed his opulent mansion, another blaze scorched Tuft University’s Barnum Hall, where his animal specimens were stored.

However, the most devastating fires of his life were the ones that burned his museum to the ground — twice!
New York Public Library

Whales Boiled Alive At Barnum Museum
The second time that the museum went up in flames, in 1865, two live whales were horrifically boiled alive in their tanks. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Barnum Iranistan
To make matters worse, his giant palace (named Iranistan) burned down in 1857. Wikimedia Commons

He was a master hoaxer

Vintage Poster For Barnum & Bailey Circus
Many of Barnum’s most popular acts were nothing but hoaxes, but he managed to make boatloads of money off them — even after they were exposed as frauds. So great was his showmanship that people clamored to see the famous fakes, his most notorious being the Feejee Mermaid, a creature that was a combination of a monkey and a fish.Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Barnum Freak Show
Barnum presented the creature as if it were a flesh and blood mermaid, but it was actually half a monkey sewn to half a fish. Other hoaxes included Barnum’s version of the Cardiff Giant, supposedly a petrified giant, and Joyce Heth, an old woman who Barnum claimed was the 161-year-old former nanny of George Washington.Wikimedia Commons

Public Autopsy For Circus Event
After Heth's death, Barnum set up a public autopsy of her body (charging 50 cents for admission). There, it was revealed that she was likely no more than 80. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

He became a politician later in life

Pt Barnum Surprising Facts
Barnum, a Republican, was a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives between 1865 and 1869 and later became the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.Wikimedia Commons

Barnum helped found Tufts University

Pt Barnum Illustration
The university was founded by the Universalist Church and, as a Christian Universalist, Barnum was one of the school’s earliest benefactors.Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

PT Barnum Facts Animal Specimens
Later on, he donated his collection of animal specimens to the school. This included the stuffed elephant named Jumbo who, while alive, was part of one of Barnum’s most successful acts. Jumbo would go on to become the university’s mascot for almost 100 years until his remains were destroyed in a 1975 fire.Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

Barnum really didn’t like alcohol

PT Barnum Temperance Support
Throughout most of his career, Barnum was a staunch supporter of the temperance movement. While he was mayor of Bridgeport, he instituted and enforced strict liquor laws. Other notable mayoral acts of his included cracking down on prostitution, cleaning the water supply and illuminating the streets using gaslight.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of Barnum’s most successful acts was an opera singer

Jenny Lind
Jenny Lind, Barnum's "Swedish Nightingale," is regarded as one of the finest soprano opera singers of the 19th century,

Between 1850 and 1852, she gave 93 concerts in the U.S., earning Barnum $500,000 and herself $250,000, most of which she donated to charity.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

He almost went bankrupt

Pt Barnum
During the 1850s, Barnum made substantial investments in the Jerome Clock Company so that it would relocate to an area that he was developing. A few years later, the company went bankrupt, severely damaging Barnum's own financial well-being. Wikimedia Commons

Barnum didn't get into the circus business until he was 60 years old

Barnum & Bailey Circus Vintage Ad
His main claim to fame until then was his American Museum, where Barnum exhibited all of his attractions before getting involved with the circus.Mansell/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

PT Barnum's American Museum
At its peak, the museum hosted around 15,000 visitors per day. It is estimated that Barnum’s American Museum had roughly 38 million paying customers during its lifetime. This was at a time when that number was greater than the total population of the entire country.Wikimedia Commons

He designed a cemetery

General Tom Thumb
Another contribution that Barnum made to the city of Bridgeport was the Mountain Grove Cemetery established in 1849. As you’d expect, Barnum is buried there — as is the dwarf known as General Tom Thumb, one of Barnum's performers.Wikimedia Commons

Of the 82 million tickets that Barnum ever sold, Tom Thumb was responsible for more than 20 million

Pt Barnum Facts Charles S. Stratton
At 25 inches and 15 pounds, Charles S. Stratton, "General Tom Thumb," was by far Barnum's most popular act.Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Ironically, Barnum hated swindlers

The Ghost Of Abraham Lincoln And PT Barnum
Barnum condoned exaggeration, so long as people felt they were getting their money’s worth in entertainment. When that wasn't the case, he was willing to go to great lengths to put people out of business. He even testified in court against "spirit photographer" William H. Mumler.

For the trial, Barnum hired someone to create a picture that appeared to show Barnum with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.
Wikimedia Commons

His business savvy was evident even as a kid

Entrepreneurship Of PT Barnum
By age 12, Barnum had sold enough snacks and rum around town to buy his own livestock. By 21, he owned a store, a lottery, and his own newspaper.Public Domain

He spent years writing his wildly successful autobiography

The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself
"The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself" sold more than 1 million copies during Barnum's lifetime.

Barnum published new editions almost every year and instructed his widow to add a chapter about his death after he was gone.
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

He once used elephants to test the weight of the Brooklyn Bridge

PT Barnum Walks Elephants On The Brooklyn Bridge
When the Brooklyn Bridge was constructed in 1883, people were so concerned about its safety that they caused a stampede, killing a dozen bystanders.

Barnum offered to lend a hand, parading 21 elephants and 17 camels across the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn.
Glasier/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Some of his most outrageous stunts were outside the circus tent

Interesting PT Barnum Facts
Half-joking publicity stunts included attempts to buy Shakespeare's childhood home, employ the Zulu leader who had recently ambushed a British army, and tow an iceberg from the Arctic to New York Harbor.Underwood Archives/Getty Images

After his first wife died, Barnum married a woman 40 years his junior

PT Barnum Facts Marriage To Nancy Fish
In 1874, 64-year-old Barnum married 24-year-old Nancy Fish.Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

At one point, Barnum's circus employed the world's only female clown

Lulu First Woman Clown
When the Barnum circus opened at Madison Square Garden in 1939, Lulu, a 35-year old English woman, was the only female clown in the world and one of the event's main attractions. Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

He read his own obituary in the paper

PT Barnum Facts Obituarytku
Barnum asked the Evening Sun to print his obituary a few weeks early precisely so that he'd have the chance to read itGjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known simply as P.T. Barnum, stands today as perhaps history's greatest showman. A founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which eventually merged with the Ringling Bros. operation to form the Greatest Show on Earth, Barnum's spectacles entertained millions for many years.

Nearly one and a half centuries after the 1871 founding of Barnum's original circus, the Greatest Show on Earth's final performance took place in the spring of 2017.

In honor of so many decades of entertainment, we've compiled the most interesting P.T. Barnum facts that reveal a lot you never knew about the intriguing, brilliant, fun-loving man who's creations captivated countless people.

Next after reading these interesting P.T. Barnum facts, learn about "lobster boy," the circus act turned murderer and read about some other infamous sideshow performers. Then, read the sad story of Murderous Mary, a circus elephant hanged by a Tennessee town.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.
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Kuroski, John. "25 Fun Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About P.T. Barnum." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 24, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/pt-barnum-facts. Accessed June 15, 2024.