Phineas Taylor Barnum (/; July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891) was an American showman, politician, and businessman remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus (1871–2017). He was also an author, publisher, and philanthropist, though he said of himself: "I am a showman by profession ... and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me". According to his critics, his personal aim was "to put money in his own coffers." He is widely credited with coining the adage "There's a sucker born every minute", although no proof can be found of him saying this.
Barnum became a small business owner in his early twenties and founded a weekly newspaper before moving to New York City in 1834. He embarked on an entertainment career, first with a variety troupe called "Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater", and soon after by purchasing Scudder's American Museum which he renamed after himself. He used the museum as a platform to promote hoaxes and human curiosities such as the Fiji mermaid and General Tom Thumb. In 1850, he promoted the American tour of Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, paying her an unprecedented $1,000 a night for 150 nights. He suffered economic reversals in the 1850s due to bad investments, as well as years of litigation and public humiliation, but he used a lecture tour as a temperance speaker to emerge from debt. His museum added America's first aquarium and expanded the wax-figure department.
Barnum served two terms in the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a Republican for Fairfield, Connecticut. He spoke before the legislature concerning the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude: "A human soul, 'that God has created and Christ died for,' is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab, or a Hottentot—it is still an immortal spirit". He was elected in 1875 as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut where he worked to improve the water supply, bring gas lighting to streets, and enforce liquor and prostitution laws. He was also instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital in 1878 and was its first president. Nevertheless, the circus business was the source of much of his enduring fame. He established "P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome", a traveling circus, menagerie, and museum of "freaks" which adopted many names over the years.
Barnum was married to Charity Hallett from 1829 until her death in 1873, and they had four children. In 1874, a few months after his wife's death, he married Nancy Fish, his friend's daughter who was 40 years his junior. They were married until 1891 when Barnum died of a stroke at his home. He was buried in Mountain Grove Cemetery, Bridgeport, which he designed himself.
Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, the son of innkeeper, tailor, and store-keeper Philo Barnum (1778–1826) and his second wife Irene Taylor. His maternal grandfather Phineas Taylor was a Whig, legislator, landowner, justice of the peace, and lottery schemer who had a great influence on him.
Barnum had several businesses over the years, including a general store, a book auctioning trade, real estate speculation, and a statewide lottery network. He started a weekly newspaper in 1829 called The Herald of Freedom in Danbury, Connecticut. His editorials against the elders of local churches led to libel suits and a prosecution which resulted in imprisonment for two months, but he became a champion of the liberal movement upon his release. He sold his store in 1834.
He began his career as a showman in 1835 when he was 25 with the purchase and exhibition of a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman named Joice Heth, whom an acquaintance was trumpeting around Philadelphia as George Washington's former nurse and 161 years old. Slavery was already outlawed in New York, but he exploited a loophole which allowed him to lease her for a year for $1,000, borrowing $500 to complete the sale. Heth died in February 1836, at no more than 80 years old. Barnum had worked her for 10 to 12 hours a day, and he hosted a live autopsy of her body in a New York saloon where spectators paid 50 cents to see the dead woman cut up, as he revealed that she was likely half her purported age.