Circus pioneer P.T. Barnum covers up how he built his fortune on helpless ‘freaks’ and exploitation over his cruelty and racism

Why does the new Greatest Showman film about P.T. Barnum who built a fortune on freaks and fraud gloss over his outrageous cruelty and racism?

  • P.T. Barnum was once described as the man who ‘invented showbusiness’
  • Once Barnum had fill, neatly reinvented himself as campaigning politician
  • But he regularly exploited mentally and physically disabled, and deformed

Legendary showman P.T. Barnum earned many sobriquets during his 80 years. He was, variously, the man who ‘invented show business’, the ‘Shakespeare of advertising’, the ‘Prince of Humbug’ and the ‘world’s greatest fraudster’.

He once exhibited the skeleton of a ‘mermaid’ (a monkey sewn on to a fish carcass), claimed to have President George Washington’s 160-year-old nanny in his ensemble, and routinely exploited black people, the mentally and physically disabled, and deformed — including conjoined twins and a child with dwarfism — in the name of profit.

Towards the end of his life and aware his health was failing, Barnum decided he wanted to read his own obituary in print before he died. The New York Sun obliged, running its front page ‘Great and Only Barnum’ tribute weeks before he passed away in 1891, following a stroke on stage (where else?).

He had done it all, laying the foundations for the business of show business and how promoters and publicists would operate in the 20th century.

He invented the big top circus entertainment extravaganzas and launched the first superstar tour, with singer Jenny Lind, the ‘Swedish nightingale’.

Then, once Barnum had his fill of all the razzmatazz, he neatly reinvented himself as a campaigning politician, philanthropist and leader of the Temperance movement, promoting sobriety.

It’s quite the story on the life of this guy.

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