Who Was the Real-Life 'Greatest Showman' P.T. Barnum?

This is what the film got right and wrong about the life of P.T. Barnum.
IMAGE Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/ INSTAGRAM @greatestshowman

The Greatest Showman starring Hugh Jackman has been the talk of the town since it premiered in Manila two weeks ago. While the film left many moviegoers with a warm and glowing feeling when they exited the cinemas, history books tell a different story about the lead characters.

The film puts the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum into focus and markets itself as a family film with catchy tunes, colorful cinematography, and lively choreography, but in reality, crucial parts of Barnum’s life were edited out.

Here’s what the movie got right, wrong, and all the details in between:

TRUE: Barnum was a teen when his father died.

His father’s early death left Barnum the breadwinner of his family—which included his mother and five siblings—at the age of 15.  He took on odd jobs such as selling snacks to soldiers, managing a boarding house, and becoming a publisher at a weekly newspaper in Danbury, Connecticut. For the latter job, he was arrested for libel three times.

Phineas Taylor Barnum

TRUE: He married a woman named Charity Hallett.

Then 19-year-old Barnum took 21-year-old Charity Hallett as his wife in 1829. They went on to have four daughters.

FALSE: Barnum’s family life was a happy one.

Despite the family-centered message the film pedaled from start to end, Barnum’s life at home was troubled. One of his daughters died as a child, and his biography under Britannica reveals that he disinherited another for committing adultery. He bequeathed a large part of his inheritance to his grandson, Henry Barnum Seeley. After his wife Charity died in 1873, he took 24-year-old Nancy Fish as his second wife at the age of 64.

FALSE: His first jab at showmanship was with his own emporium of curiosities.

Barnum purchased John Scudder’s American Museum at a bid, which already contained all the objects Barnum first exhibited in the movie. In reality, he called it “Barnum’s American Museum,” and displayed strange exhibits such as the infamous “Fiji Mermaid” (also known as the Feejee Mermaid), which he marketed as a real mermaid but was actually a monkey’s head sewn onto a preserved fishtail. Barnum quickly transformed the building into his den of "freaks," which, to be fair, looked very similar to its Hollywood counterpart from the outside.

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Before all these, then 25-year-old Barnum “rented” an enslaved woman named Joice Heth, from a man who claimed she was the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington, reports Smithsonian Magazine. He rented her for $1,000 a year and made $1,500 a week by exhibiting her. Upon her death in 1836, Heth’s exploitation did not cease. Barnum displayed her autopsy live, conjuring up some 1,500 visitors who each paid 50 cents to see the woman cut open.

TRUE: He did meet Queen Victoria; FALSE: Tom Thumb was 22 years old.

Barnum rounded up his menagerie of “freaks” and earned fame through his museums. In 1842, he purchased the American Museum. That same year, he met four-year-old Charles Sherwood Stratton, whose height was recorded just an inch over two feet. Stratton ceased to grow at six months old and only grew to 40 inches during his teens. Barnum introduced Stratton to the public as 11-year-old British dwarf “General Tom Thumb” who became the star of his act. With his main attraction, Barnum sold 20 million tickets and eventually was invited to meet President Abraham Lincoln. In 1844, they toured foreign countries and gained a special audience with Queen Victoria.

Barnum and Charles Stratton

FALSE: Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind developed feelings for Barnum.

Although it was true that Barnum had never heard Jenny Lind sing before he offered to import her to the U.S., Lind and Barnum did not meet during Barnum’s London tour with Tom Thumb. It is a fact that Queen Victoria was a fan of Lind’s and attended her final operatic performance in 1849. Another dubious storyline in the film was how Lind felt about Barnum.

Jenny Lind

Lind did end her tour early, nine months in, but still racked up a desirable amount of money through Barnum’s contract, which paid her $1,000 per performance for supposedly 150 shows. Barnum, on the hand, earned more than $500,000 from the “Swedish Nightingale.”

FALSE: Barnum took Phillip Carlyle as his business partner.

Barnum was never associated with a Phillip Carlyle or an Anne Wheeler, as in the movie. But he did have partners after retiring from the museum business. Barnum partnered with circus owners Dan Castello and William C. Coup to launch a traveling museum, which he called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In his 60s, Barnum then teamed up with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson, going into the circus business. Their main attraction was “Jumbo” the elephant from the Royal Zoological Society in London. The venture was later renamed “Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” in 1887.


Barnum died on April 7, 1891, using his final breath to inquire about the previous night’s ticket sales.

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