November 10th, 2007

Chris Keeley

Despite its prominence in Barnum lore, historians agree that he probably never said, “There’s a suck

Despite its prominence in Barnum lore, historians agree that he probably never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” What he said was less cynical and more astute: “The people like to be humbugged.”





n 1842 Barnum met Charles Sherwood Stratton, a 4-year-old midget whom he christened General Tom Thumb. For four decades the general starred at the American Museum and on international tours, charming Queen Victoria and trading witticisms with the Duke of Wellington.

In 1863 Tom Thumb and the equally diminutive Lavinia Warren Bump, the “Loving Lilliputians,” were wed at Grace Episcopal Church, the Gothic Revival masterpiece at Broadway and East 10th Street, consecrated in 1846. Commodore Nutt, another of Barnum’s little people who had been a rival for Lavinia’s hand, graciously served as best man.

The “Fairy Wedding” was the social event of the season. The cream of New York society, including the Vanderbilts and Astors, were among the invited guests; Mathew Brady took the wedding photos. The tiny couple stood on a platform so that they could be seen during the ceremony. Afterward they climbed onto a grand piano at the Metropolitan Hotel (next door to Niblo’s Garden) to greet 2,000 well-wishers. Their honeymoon trip included a stop in Washington, where the Lincolns received them in the White House.

It wasn’t until the 1870s that Barnum created “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

No one had ever seen such extravaganzas as Barnum, with W. C. Coup and then James A. Bailey, brought to the Hippodrome and Garden before taking them on the road. He combined the exotic animals, human oddities and curios from his museum days with traditional circus clowns, acrobats and equestrians performing in three rings, a first for America. Then he added new spectacles like camel and elephant races, and lavish pageantry like the Congress of Monarchs, a glittering procession of carriages bearing performers dressed as the crowned heads of the world.

It was at the Garden in 1882 that Barnum introduced Americans to his last superstar, Jumbo the elephant, “the Matchless Monarch of Over-Shadowing and Majestic Presence,” which he bought from the Royal Zoological Gardens in London. The Jumbomania Barnum whipped up was even greater than Lindomania had been. When Jumbo’s steamer arrived at the Battery, tens of thousands lined the streets to see him parade up to the Garden. In “Humbug,” his biography of Barnum, the historian Neil Harris relates that the mighty elephant had been fortified with strong drink beforehand to steady his nerves in the tumult. Jumbo’s name, given by the London zookeepers and probably a corruption of a Swahili word for “chief,” historians say, entered the American vernacular as a synonym for “really big.”

In a rare promotional defeat, Barnum’s offer to march Jumbo across the newly opened Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 was turned down. Jumbo did cross the bridge in a grand parade a year later.

In 1885 Jumbo was killed in a railway accident while touring Canada with the circus. With typical ingenuity, Barnum had Jumbo’s skeleton and hide separately mounted and toured both for a few years. The hide eventually went to the Natural History Museum of Tufts University, where it perished in a fire in 1975, and the skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it was last on display in the 1990s.

Barnum died in Bridgeport in 1891, reportedly asking what the circus box-office receipts were for the day. In 1919 the Barnum & Bailey Circus was merged with Ringling Brothers; it still comes to Madison Square Garden (the fourth) every year.