How much was Phineas T. Barnum worth?

Net Worth:$12 Million
Profession:Professional Showman
Date of Birth:July 5, 1810
Country:United States of America
1.88 m

Who Is Phineas T. Barnum

Phineas T. Barnum was one of the most famous people of the 19th century, known around the world for being a great showman. He first attracted attention by exhibiting humbugs and by the mid-1800s his museum of curiosities was one of the major attractions in New York City.

In the decades after the Civil War he operated a traveling circus which entertained millions across America. He was also known for his involvement with acts including General Tom Thumb, the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, and one of the great hoaxes of the 19th century, the Cardiff Giant.

American showman, politician, and businessman P.T. Barnum had a net worth of $12 million dollars at the time of his death, in 1891. Barnum’s fortune has never been fully estimated; it included his mansions as well as a circus that sold to Ringling Bros. for $400,000, worth $10 million today.

Barnum’s name became synonymous with spectacular entertainment. He also dabbled in politics and served as the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut. His interest in various reform movements, especially the temperance campaign against alcohol, gained him considerable respect from the American public.

Though often ridiculed and mocked, especially by newspaper editors he had played jokes upon, Barnum became a beloved figure. When he died in 1891 at the age of 80 the sad news was carried on front pages across America.

Early Life of Phineas T. Barnum

Phineas T. Barnum was born July 5, 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut. He was one of five children. His father died when he was 15, and Barnum went to work in a store to support his mother and siblings.

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For the next decade he learned how to run small businesses, including shops and a newspaper. He married at 19, and committed himself to becoming prosperous.

He eventually decided to try his luck in New York City, and by his mid-twenties he was operating a small boarding house in lower Manhattan. Always interested in jokes and show business, he began to dabble in promoting various acts, without any great success.

In 1835 Barnum somehow became aware of an elderly woman named Joice Heth, reputedly a former slave who had belonged to the family of George Washington. Documents supposedly from the Washington family established Heth’s age as being 161 years old.

Barnum promoted Heth in New York City and later New England. Though the story of her life was met with skepticism, people paid to see her. And Barnum, who was 25 years old at the time, learned valuable lessons about how to entice and entertain the public.

Barnum’s American Museum

Throughout the late 1830s Barnum toured the South and West promoting various acts. He was not terribly successful, and after returning to New York City he learned that Scudder’s American Museum was for sale.

The establishment, on a prominent corner of Broadway, was a collection of “curiosities.” Barnum could not afford to buy it at once, but somehow worked out a deal with the owner so he could gradually acquire it.

He managed to make enough money managing the museum to attain complete ownership by the end of 1842. For the next several decades his American Museum would become the one place in New York City all visitors wanted to see.

The museum housed all sorts of entertainments, from jugglers and ventriloquists to wild and exotic animals brought back from all over the world. A major attraction for years was General Tom Thumb, who, in his prime, amazed audiences with several performances a day.

The exhibits at the museum often did not live up to their billing, but that did not matter. There was so much to see that audiences felt completely entertained and considered the 25 cent admission fee a bargain.

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Besides his success operating the American Museum, Barnum’s other great triumph in the years before the Civil War was his promotion of Jenny Lind. An opera singer billed as the “Swedish Nightingale,” she was unknown and unheard in America. Barnum’s promotion made her a celebrity and many thousands flocked to see her American tour.

The original American Museum burned in a great fire in July 1865. Barnum operated later versions of the museum, but none of them were as successful.

His second museum burned in 1868. A year later Barnum amused himself, as well as audiences, by exhibiting a copy of the Cardiff Giant, which was itself a fraud. Sued by the original owner, a judge ruled that Barnum had every right to exhibit a counterfeit of something which was a hoax in the first place.

The Circus Years

In 1874 Barnum began operating a circus in New York known as the Great Hippodrome. At the same time, Barnum’s longtime interest in politics prompted him to run for office and he was elected mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1875.

In the late 1870s Barnum organized a large traveling circus which would visit American towns and cities by train. Different tents held a museum (which would eventually evolve into the sideshow), a menagerie of animals, and a large hippodrome which featured spectacular acts like teams of trick riders.

In the early 1880s Barnum merged his operation with a traveling show operated by James Bailey. The Barnum and Bailey circus became known as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

When Barnum bought Jumbo the elephant and brought him to America from England, the publicity was enormous. And Jumbo, purportedly the world’s largest elephant, become one of Barnum’s most popular attractions.

Barnum often traveled with the circus, but when he did not he still stayed very involved in its activities. He was often on the lookout for acts he thought would astonish the public. And he was known to pay close attention to the business, usually receiving a daily financial report which told him how many tickets had been sold the day before.

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Barnum as a Public Figure and Writer

An overlooked aspect of Barnum’s life was his career as a writer. He began contributing articles to popular newspapers in the 1840s, and during his life he published several versions of his autobiography.

As he got older he tended to tone down the outrageous deceptions of some of his earlier exploits. And he also became something of a fatherly figure, dispensing business advice to an audience of younger Americans. Bad investments put him deeply in debt in the 1850s, and he bounced back by organizing a speaking tour in which he spoke on how to prosper in business. His business message tended to focus on staying energetic and thrifty.

His political life is also generally forgotten, but his forays into politics were not stunts. Barnum took politics seriously, and had often cultivated friendships with political figures. He tended to support progressive causes, such as the Republican Party’s role in restricting the spread of slavery.

Barnum generally had genteel dealings with the press. He was a longtime friend of Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune. However, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, whom Barnum had tricked in the 1820s, never forgave the showman. The Herald, at times the most popular newspaper in the world, seldom mentioned Barnum without mocking him.

Barnum died at his home in Connecticut at the age of 80, on April 7, 1891. The news was greeted with great sadness by the public. Millions of people had been entertained by Barnum’s efforts over more than 50 years, and stories about his death were carried on the front pages of American newspapers.

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