Meet Mr. Barnum
“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
“The Prince of humbug,” they called him. “The Shakespeare of advertising,” “the king of adjectives.” He was a man with a genius for inspiring lucrative curiosity, like a circus parade lures spectators to the paid admission of the big top. He could convince hundreds of thousands to step right up and inspect the 160-year-old nurse of George Washington, the bearded lady, the smallest man in the world. With whirlwind tours of circus freaks, exotic animals and human feats, he cranked out humbug by the yard.
Phineas Taylor Barnum knew better than anyone else in creation that every crowd had a silver (dollar) lining. Barnum was the master mythmaker and he’s still a favorite subject of playwrights and authors because he was so upfront and amiable about his humbuggery. “There’s a sucker born every minute” is a Barnum quote entrenched in cliché history. Now more than 100 years after his death it’s in some ways fitting and in other ways sad that he is most esteemed and credited for that oft-parroted apocryphal expression. If he ever said it, no historian has ever been able to document it. The statement may have found its place as a corruption of a Barnum suggestion or attributed to Barnum by one of his circus rivals.
The real legacy of Barnum—showman, circus innovator, author, philosopher, humanitarian, public servant, humorist and even Bridgeport mayor—has been clouded over by the obfuscation of the man’s many promotions. That old huckster impression lingering these many years overshadows his contributions to the entertainment profession and to Bridgeport. But as Barnum said, “I don’t care what they say about me if they only say something.”
Beneath the charm and extravagance of his circus persona is a man whose contributions to Bridgeport are unmatched. Barnum is quite simply the single most important contributor to the city’s history. He developed thousands of acres of city property, converting farm and pasture land into choice building lots; enabled the working class to purchase land and houses through an innovative payment system; donated a large part of Seaside Park, one of the first waterfront parks in the country; attracted numerous manufacturing companies; served as the president of Bridgeport Hospital, the local water company and the Pequonnock Bank (a predecessor of Connecticut National); donated the money to establish the Barnum Museum; established Mountain Grove Cemetery; and provided funding for Bridgeport schools, the library system, parks, and other civic ventures. Another side of Barnum was his drive to grant Blacks the right to vote and his sympathy for the women’s rights movement.
Bridgeport’s first citizen is best explained by his biographer A.H. Saxon: “P.T. Barnum has the paradoxical distinction of being one of America’s best-known least-understood phenomena.”
Author of “Only in Bridgeport: An Illustrated History of the Park City”