The P.T. Barnum of the
Barnum and Bailey Circus
by Joel Benton
In the Beginning
FAMILY AND BIRTH--SCHOOL LIFE--HIS FIRST VISIT TO NEW YORK
CITY --A LANDED PROPRIETOR--THE ETHICS OF TRADE--FARM WORK AND KEEPING
STORE--MEETING-HOUSE AND SUNDAY SCHOOL--"THE ONE THING NEEDFUL."
Among the names of great Americans of the nineteenth century
there is scarcely one more familiar to the world than that of the subject of this
biography. There are those that stand for higher achievement in literature, science and
art, in public life and in the business world. There is none that stands for more notable
success in his chosen line, none that recalls more memories of wholesome entertainment,
none that is more invested with the fragrance of kindliness and true humanity. His career
was, in a large sense, typical of genuine Americanism, of its enterprise and pluck, of its
indomitable will and unfailing courage, of its shrewdness, audacity and unerring instinct
Like so many of his famous compatriots, Phineas Taylor Barnum
came of good old New England stock. His ancestors were among the builders of the colonies
of Massachusetts and Connecticut. His father's father, Ephraim Barnum, was a captain in
the War of the Revolution, and was distinguished for his valor and for his fervent
patriotism. His mother's father, Phineas Taylor, was locally noted as a wag and practical
joker. His father, Philo Barnum, was in turn a tailor, a farmer, a storekeeper, and a
country tavernkeeper, and was not particularly prosperous in any of these callings.
Philo Barnum and his wife, Irena Taylor, lived at Bethel,
Connecticut, and there, on July 5, 1810, their first child was born. He was named Phineas
Taylor Barnum, after his maternal grandfather; and the latter, in return for the
compliment, bestowed upon his first grandchild at his christening the title-deeds of a
"landed estate," five acres in extent, known as Ivy Island, and situated in that
part of, Bethel known as the "Plum Trees." Of this, more anon.
In his early years the boy led the life of the average New
England farmer's son of that period. He drove the cows to and from the pasture, shelled
corn, weeded the garden, and "did up chores." As he grew older he rode the horse
in plowing corn, raked hay, wielded the shovel and the hoe, and chopped wood. At six years
old he began to go to school--the typical district school. "The first date," he
once said, "I remember inscribing upon my writing-book was 1818." The ferule, or
the birch-rod, was in those days the assistant schoolmaster, and young Barnum made its
acquaintance. He was, however, an apt and ready scholar, particularly excelling in
mathematics. One night, when he was ten years old, he was called out of bed by his
teacher, who had made a wager with a neighbor that Barnum could calculate the number of
feet in a load of wood in five minutes. Barnum did it in less than two minutes, to the
delight of his teacher and the astonishment of the neighbor.
At an early age he manifested a strong development of the
good old Yankee organ of acquisitiveness. Before he was five years old he had begun to
hoard pennies and "fourpences," and at six years old he was able to exchange his
copper bits for a whole silver dollar, the possession of which made him feel richer than
he ever felt afterward in all his life. Nor did he lay the dollar away in a napkin, but
used it in business to gain more. He would get ten cents a day for riding a horse before
the plow, and he would add it to his capital. On holidays other boys spent all their
savings, but not so he. Such days were to him opportunities for gain, not for squandering.
At the fair or training of troops, or other festivity, he would peddle candy and cakes,
home-made, or sometimes cherry rum, and by the end of the day would be a dollar or two
richer than at its beginning. "By the time I was twelve years old," he tells us,
"I was the owner of a sheep and a calf, and should soon, no doubt, have become a
small Croesus had not my father kindly permitted me to purchase my own clothing, which
somewhat reduced my little store."
At ten years of age, realizing himself to be a "landed
proprietor" through the christening gift of his waggish grandsire, young Barnum set
out to survey his estate, which he had not yet seen. He had heard much of "Ivy
Island." His grandfather had often, in the presence of the neighbors, spoken of him
as the richest child in the town, since he owned the whole of Ivy Island, the richest farm
in the State. His parents hoped he would use his wealth wisely, and "do something for
the family" when he entered upon the possession of it; and the neighbors were fearful
lest he should grow too proud to associate with their children.
The boy took all this in good faith, and his eager curiosity
to behold his estate was greatly increased, and he asked his father to let him go thither.
"At last," says Barnum, "he promised I should do so in a few days, as we
should be getting some hay near 'Ivy Island.' The wished-for day arrived, and my father
told me that as we were to mow an adjoining meadow. I might visit my property in company
with the hired man during the 'nooning.' My grandfather reminded me that it was to his
bounty I was indebted for this wealth, and that had not my name been Phineas I might never
have been proprietor of 'Ivy Island.' To this my mother added:
" 'Now, Taylor, don't become so excited when you see
your property as to let your joy make you sick, for remember, rich as you are, that it
will be eleven years before you can come into possession of your fortune.'
"She added much more good advice, to all of which I
promised to be calm and reasonable, and not to allow my pride to prevent me from speaking
to my brothers and sisters when I returned home.
"When we arrived at the meadow, which was in that part
of the 'Plum Trees' known as 'East Swamp,' I asked my father where 'Ivy Island' was.
" 'Yonder, at the north end of this meadow, where you
see those beautiful trees rising in the distance.'
"All the forenoon I turned grass as fast as two men
could cut it, and after a hasty repast at noon, one of our hired men, a good-natured
Irishman, named Edmund, took an axe on his shoulder and announced that he was ready to
accompany me to 'Ivy Island.' We started, and as we approached the north end of the meadow
we found the ground swampy and wet and were soon obliged to leap from bog to bog on our
route. A mis-step brought me up to my middle in water, and to add to the dilemma a swarm
of hornets attacked me. Attaining the altitude of another bog I was cheered by the
assurance that there was only a quarter of a mile of this kind of travel to the edge of my
property. I waded on. In about fifteen minutes more, after floundering through the morass,
I found myself half-drowned, hornet-stung, mud covered, and out of breath, on
comparatively dry land.
" 'Never mind, my boy,' said Edmund, 'we have only to
cross this little creek, and ye'll be upon your own valuable property.'
"We were on the margin of a stream, the banks of which
were thickly covered with alders. I now discovered the use of Edmund's axe, for he felled
a small oak to form a temporary bridge to my 'Island' property. Crossing over, I proceeded
to the centre of my domain. I saw nothing but a few stunted ivies and straggling trees.
The truth flashed upon me. I had been the laughing-stock of the family and neighborhood
for years. My valuable 'Ivy Island' was an almost inaccessible, worthless bit of barren
land, and while I stood deploring my sudden downfall, a huge black snake (one of my
tenants) approached me with upraised head. I gave one shriek and rushed for the bridge.
"This was my first and last visit to 'Ivy Island.' My
father asked me 'how I liked my property?' and I responded that I would sell it pretty
The year 1822 was a memorable one in his childhood's history.
He was then about twelve years old. One evening, late in January, Daniel Brown, a
cattle-drover, of Southbury, Connecticut, arrived at Bethel and stopped for the night at
Philo Barnum's tavern. He had with him some fat cattle, which he was driving to the New
York markets; and he wanted both to add to his drove of cattle and to get a boy to help
him drive them. Our juvenile hero heard him say this, and forthwith made application for
the job. His father and mother gave their consent, and a bargain was quickly closed with
"At daylight next morning," Barnum himself has
related, "I started on foot in the midst of a heavy snow-storm to help drive the
cattle. Before reaching Ridgefield I was sent on horseback after a stray ox, and, in
galloping, the horse fell and my ankle was sprained. I suffered severely, but did not
complain lest my employer should send me back. We arrived at New York in three or four
days, and put up at the Bull's Head Tavern, where we were to stay a week while the drover
disposed of his cattle. It was an eventful week for me. Before I left home my mother had
given me a dollar, which I supposed would supply every want that heart could wish."
His first outlay was for oranges. "I was told," he
says, "that they were four pence apiece, and as four pence in Connecticut was six
cents, I offered ten cents for two oranges, which was of course readily taken; and thus,
instead of saving two cents, as I thought, I actually paid two cents more than the price
demanded. I then bought two more oranges, reducing my capital to eighty cents. Thirty-one
cents was the charge for a small gun which would 'go off' and send a stick some little
distance, and this gun I bought. Amusing myself with this toy in the bar-room of the
Bull's Head, the arrow happened to hit the bar-keeper, who forthwith came from behind the
counter and shook me, and soundly boxed my ears, telling me to put that gun out of the way
or he would put it into the fire. I sneaked to my room, put my treasure under the pillow,
and went out for another visit to the toy shop.
"There I invested six cents in 'torpedoes,' with which I
intended to astonish my schoolmates in Bethel. I could not refrain, however, from
experimenting upon the guests of the hotel, which I did when they were going in to dinner.
I threw two of the torpedoes against the wall of the hall through which the guests were
passing, and the immediate results were as follows: two loud reports--astonished
guests--irate landlord--discovery of the culprit, and summary punishment--for the landlord
immediately floored me with a single blow with his open hand, and said:
" 'There, you little greenhorn, see if that will teach
you better than to explode your infernal fire-crackers in my house again.'
"The lesson was sufficient if not entirely satisfactory.
I deposited the balance of the torpedoes with my gun, and as a solace for my wounded
feelings I again visited the toy shop, where I bought a watch, breastpin and top, leaving
but eleven cents of my original dollar.
"The following morning found me again at the fascinating
toy shop, where I saw a beautiful knife with two blades, a gimlet, and a corkscrew--a
whole carpenter shop in miniature, and all for thirty-one cents. But, alas! I had only
eleven cents. Have that knife I must, however, and so I proposed to the shop-woman to take
back the top and breastpin at a slight deduction, and with my eleven cents to let me have
the knife. The kind creature consented, and this makes memorable my first 'swap.' Some
fine and nearly white molasses candy then caught my eye, and I proposed to trade the watch
for its equivalent in candy. The transaction was made, and the candy was so delicious that
before night my gun was absorbed in the same way. The next morning the torpedoes 'went
off' in the same direction, and before night even my beloved knife was similarly
exchanged. My money and my goods all gone, I traded two pocket-handkerchiefs and an extra
pair of stockings I was sure I should not want for nine more rolls of molasses candy, and
then wandered about the city disconsolate, sighing because there was no more molasses
candy to conquer."
During that first visit to the metropolis the boy doubtless
many times passed the corner of Ann street and Broadway, where, in after years, his famous
museum stood. After a week in town he returned to Bethel, riding with Brown in his sleigh,
and found himself a social lion among his young friends. He was plied with a thousand
questions about the great city which he had visited, and no doubt told many wondrous
tales. But at home his reception was not altogether glorious. His brothers and sisters
were disappointed because he brought them nothing, and his mother, discovering that during
his journey he had lost two handkerchiefs and a pair of stockings, gave him a spanking and
put him to bed.
A settled aversion to manual labor was strongly developed in
the boy as he grew older, which his father considered simple laziness. Instead of trying
to cure him of his laziness, however, the father decided to give up the farm, and open a
store, hoping that the boy would take more kindly to mercantile duties. So he put up a
building in Bethel, and in partnership with one Hiram Weed opened a "general
store," of dry goods, hardware, groceries, etc., and installed young Phineas as
clerk. They did a "cash, credit and barter" business, and the boy soon learned
to drive sharp bargains with women who brought butter, eggs, beeswax and feathers to
exchange for dry goods, and with men who wanted to trade oats, corn, buckwheat, axehelves,
hats and other commodities for ten-penny nails, molasses or New England rum. It was a
drawback upon his dignity that he was obliged to take down the shutters, sweep the store
and make the fire. He received a small salary for his services and the perquisites of what
profit he could derive from purchasing candies on his own account to sell to their younger
customers, and, as usual, his father insisted that he should clothe himself.
There was much to be learned in a country store, and
principally, as he found, this: that sharp tricks, deception and dishonesty are by no
means confined to the city. More than once, in cutting open bundles of rags, brought to be
exchanged for goods, he found stones, gravel or other rubbish wrapped up in them, although
they were represented to be "all pure linen or cotton." Often, too, loads of
grain were brought in, warranted to contain so many bushels, but on measuring them they
were found five or six bushels short.
In the evenings and on stormy days the store was a general
meeting place for the idlers of the village, and young Barnum derived much amusement from
the story-telling and joke-playing that went on among them. After the store was closed at
night he would generally go with some of the village boys to their homes for an hour or
two of sport, and then, as late, perhaps, as eleven o'clock, would creep slyly home and
make his way upstairs barefooted, so as not to wake the rest of the family end be detected
in his late hours. He slept with his brother, who was sure to report him if he woke him up
on coming in, and who laid many traps to catch Phineas on his return from the evening's
merry-making. But he generally fell fast asleep and our hero was able to gain his bed in
Like almost every one in Connecticut at that time he was
brought up to go regularly to church on Sunday, and before he could read he was a
prominent member of the Sunday-school. His pious mother taught him lessons in the New
Testament and Catechism, and spared no efforts to have him win one of those "Rewards
of Merit" which promised "to pay to the bearer One Mill." Ten of them could
be exchanged for one cent, and by securing one hundred of them, which might be done by
faithful attendance and attention every Sunday for two years, the happy scholar could
secure a book worth ten cents!
There was only one church or "meeting-house" in
Bethel, and it was of the Presbyterian faith; but every one in town attended it, whatever
their creed. It was a severely plain edifice, with no spire and no bell. In summer it was
comfortable enough, but in winter it was awful! There was no arrangement for heating it,
and the congregation had to sit in the cold, shivering, teeth chattering, noses blue. A
stove would have been looked upon as a sacrilegious innovation. The sermons were often two
hours long, and by the time they were ended the faithful listeners well deserved the
nickname of "blue-skins" which the scoffers gave to them. A few of the wealthier
women carried "foot-stoves" from their homes to their pews. A
"foot-stove" was simply a square tin box in a wooden frame, with perforations in
the sides. In it was a small square iron dish, which contained a few live coals covered
with ashes. These stoves were usually replenished just before meeting time at some
neighbor's near the meeting-house.
After many years of shivering and suffering, one of the
brethren had the temerity to propose that the church should be warmed with a stove. His
impious proposition was voted down by an overwhelming majority. Another year came around,
and in November the stove question was again brought up. The excitement was immense. The
subject was discussed in the village stores and in the juvenile debating club; it was
prayed over in conference; and finally in general "society's meeting," in
December, the stove was carried by a majority of one and was introduced into the
meeting-house. On the first Sunday thereafter two ancient maiden ladies were so oppressed
by the dry and heated atmosphere occasioned by the wicked innovation that they fainted
away and were carried out into the cool air, where they speedily returned to
consciousness, especially when they were informed that owing to the lack of two lengths of
pipe no fire had yet been made in the stove. The next Sunday was a bitter cold day, and
the stove, filled with well-seasoned hickory, was a great gratification to the many, and
displeased only a few.
During the Rev. Mr. Lowe's ministrations at Bethel he formed
a Bible class, of which young Barnum was a member. They used to draw promiscuously from a
hat a text of Scripture and write a composition on the text, which compositions were read
after service in the afternoon to such of the congregation as remained to hear the
exercises of the class. Once Barnum drew the text, Luke x. 42: "But one thing is
needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her."
Question, "What is the one thing needful?" His answer was nearly as follows:
"This question, 'What is the one thing needful?' is
capable of receiving various answers, depending much upon the persons to whom it is
addressed. The merchant might answer that 'the one thing needful' is plenty of customers,
who buy liberally, without beating down, and pay cash for all their purchases.' The farmer
might reply that 'the one thing needful is large harvests and high prices.' The physician
might answer that 'it is plenty of patients.' The lawyer might be of opinion that 'it is
an unruly community, always engaging in bickerings and litigations.' The clergyman might
reply, 'It is a fat salary, with multitudes of sinners seeking salvation and paying large
pew rents.' The bachelor might exclaim, 'It is a pretty wife who loves her husband, and
who knows how to sew on buttons.' The maiden might answer, 'It is a good husband, who will
love, cherish and protect me while life shall last.' But the most proper answer, and
doubtless that which applied to the case of Mary, would be, 'The one thing needful is to
believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, follow in his footsteps, love God and obey His
commandments, love our fellowman, and embrace every opportunity of administering to his
necessities.' In short, 'the one thing needful' is to live a life that we can always look
back upon with satisfaction, and be enabled ever to contemplate its termination with trust
in Him who has so kindly vouchsafed it to us, surrounding us with innumerable blessings,
if we have but the heart and wisdom to receive them in a proper manner."
The reading of a portion of this answer occasioned some
amusement in the congregation, in which the clergyman himself joined, and the name of
"Taylor Barnum" was whispered in connection with the composition; but at the
close of the reading Barnum had the satisfaction of hearing Mr. Lowe say that it was a
well-written answer to the question, "What is the one thing needful?"
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