P.T. Barnum

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“No one has ever gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” wrote H.L. Mencken, who was a truly miserable bastard even when he was completely correct.

Some among us have profited wildly from the downmarket: P.T. Barnum, Robert L. Ripley, Chuck Barris, Howard Stern, wrestling promoters, Reality TV producers, and let us not forget, our current Commander-in-Chief, who pulled a con to make the Cardiff Giant scam seem puny by comparison. 

Exactly 150 years ago, Barnum made a play for a major political perch, though none nearly as bigly as the Presidency. The showman took a respite from peddling anomalies, curiosities and menageries to run for Congress in Connecticut. He already held a seat in the state legislature and would later serve as Mayor of Bridgeport, displaying in both posts a relatively progressive record on race and an abiding disdain for contraception. He was defeated, however, in the congressional contest by William Henry Barnum, who is often referred to as “no relation” but I believe was a distant cousin.

An article in the October, 1867 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which reported on Barnum’s failed bid to trade one sideshow for another, remarked on his less-than-honorable reaction to defeat, which included “trumped-up charges.”

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From the December 18, 1926 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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From dime museums to reality TV, freak shows have always been a part of American life, our eyes fixed on something we think is worse than we could ever be, yet we keep watching because perhaps we notice a resemblance? The practice began long before Barnum, though he was the one who eventually ushered the sideshow into the main tent. Via Delancey Place, a passage about the origins of this sideshow from Duncan Hall’s The Ordinary Acrobat:

“The first ‘freak’ display in the United States occurred in 1771, when Emma Leach, a dwarf, was shown in Boston. Around 1840, full ‘freak shows’ began to emerge, traveling with menageries or in the company of ‘handlers’ who managed the promotion and exhibition of the stars, enhancing their natural deformities with a story or an exotic medical explanation. (As Tom Norman, Barnum’s English equivalent and the handler of the Elephant Man, wrote in his autobiography, ‘It was not the show, it was the tale that you told.’)

Barnum was in this tradition, and he excelled at it. According to his biographer, A. H. Saxon, nearly every famous freak of the period spent a few weeks in the showman’s employ: R. O. Wickward, the skeleton man; Jane Campbell, ‘the largest Mountain of Human Flesh ever seen in the form of a woman’; S. K. G. Nellis, the armless wonder, who could shoot a bow and arrow with his toes. Many of the freaks appeared as stars in his museum, either as roving attractions, as part of special exhibitions, or as spectacles in the theater in back. Sometimes Barnum toured with them as well. General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) was a twenty-five inch-tall four-year-old midget, who Barnum claimed was eleven. Barnum coached the boy to perform impersonations of various heads of state, including Queen Victoria, whom he visited on three separate occasions. In Paris, the duo played to Napoleon III and in a series of shows at the Salle Musard that sold out months in advance. ‘The French are exceedingly impressible,’ Barnum wrote of the visit in his 1896 autobiography Struggles and Triumphs, ‘and what in London is only excitement in Paris becomes furor.'”

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“In school I soon learned to unjoint my head.”

A performer of sorts blessed with extreme double-jointedness was the subject of a profile in the May 11, 1890 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. An excerpt:

“A freak in Barnum’s side show, who is in no sense of the word a fake, is Charles E. Hilliard. He dislocates his joints and replaces them at will to the great astonishment of the many visitors. The most eminent physicians in this and other countries have tried to solve the man’s peculiar gift, but all have failed and it remains as great a puzzle, to himself as well as others, as when he first discovered he could loosen himself, so to speak, without doing any harm or causing any pain. Mr. Hilliard is of medium height, lithe and graceful, and is possessed of his share of manly beauty. An Eagle reporter interviewed this stumbling block to science yesterday and drew from him a life history which is full on incident and novelty.

‘I was born at Martinsburg, W. Va.,’ he began, ‘on August 16, 1857. I grew up to a schooling age the same as any other child. One day–I remember it well–I climbed into an orchard from which little boys were supposed to be excluded, and catching sight of a dog, quickly jumped the fence into the roadway, turning my ankle when I struck the ground. It didn’t hurt any, so I kicked against the fence and snap it back into place again. I went home and scared my parents almost into hysterics by repeating my snap act, and they sent post haste for a doctor. He twisted me and hammered me, and found a lot of new places that could be broken without pain, finally giving up the puzzle with the consoling theory that there was a screw loose somewhere. In school I soon learned to unjoint my head and could write on the blackboard and look squarely at the school at the same time. I always cracked my ankles instead of snapping my fingers to attract the teacher’s attention, and if I found I was being beaten in a foot race I always managed to have a broken leg or twisted foot for ten, or fifteen, minutes as an excuse for having lost. When a bucket of coal was needed my wrist was always dislocated; during harvest time a dislocated knee came in very handy. I couldn’t carry water with a dislocated shoulder nor weed a garden with three broken fingers on each hand, so I managed to have things pretty easy during my childhood. As I grew older I found there were few joints in my body that I could not dislocate and it gradually got to worrying me. I consulted one doctor after another and one word, enigma, gives the result of all their investigations.

“He is married, well educated and a very pleasing conversationalist.”

‘I now began to get used to being an exhibition through having so many doctors experimenting with me and resolved to accept one of the many offers that kept pouring in upon me to visit medical colleges, throughout this country and England, and after exhibiting for a time before surgeons and students at home, I took an engagement in the Royal College, in London, where they kept me for seven years and yet could tell no more when I left than when I entered. College work pays me the best, I get $150 a week at a college, but I have worked for $75 in a museum just because I wanted a change so much.

‘By the way I suppose you read in the newspapers a few years ago how I sold my bones. I had received various offers from half a dozen cranks scattered over the country from $1,000 to $4,000 for my body after death, but I paid no attention to them. Finally, one day while I was exhibiting at the Bellevue Hospital, Philadelphia, Dr. Doremus came up to me with a pleasant smile and the equally pleasant greeting of, ‘Well, Hilliard, how much for your bones to-day?’ ‘They’re $6,000 to-day,’ said I, laughing. ‘It’s a go,’ he answered, and the next day he sent me a check for that amount, and I signed a contract giving him my skeleton after death, but reserving the right to use it myself until death occurs.’

Mr. Hilliard has never known what it was to be ill, and is in perfect physical condition. He is married, well educated and a very pleasing conversationalist.”

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Americans loved gadgets before WWII, but the money wasn’t there to invest in machines during the Great Depression. A good part of the American postwar dividends was spent on machinery to ease life’s toil and just amaze, from kitchen appliances to bowling alley pinsetters. They had utility, but they were also fun to watch. Was our desire to see machines do their magic rooted in P.T. Barnum’s chicanery? Probably not. It’s probably an innate thing. But it’s an interesting theory. From Edward Tenner’s Atlantic essay, “The Pleasures of Seeing Machines Work“:

“The cultural historian Neil Harris has coined a phrase for this fascination with seeing things work, the Operational Aesthetic. One of the pleasures of bowling for postwar generations was the introduction of the automated pinspotter, the Roomba of the 1950s, which helped the sport’s explosive growth in the decade.

Who started it all? Harris has suggested it was none other than P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum in New York was widely (and rightly) suspected of fakery. But that helped build business. Visitors wanted to see for themselves, scrutinize the exhibits closely, and detect just how each illusion was accomplished. Barnum’s success was based not on cynicism about ‘suckers,’ but to the contrary, in appealing to critical intelligence to detect how it all was done.”

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The history of Brunswick pinsetters:

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"They saw the elephants lie right down, and had a laugh with every clown."

A firsthand account of the Barnum & Bailey Circus that was allegedly written by a 10-year-old schoolboy–but probably was penned by one of Phineas Taylor’s lackeys–was published in the April 28, 1897 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. An excerpt:

“A school boy who enjoyed last night’s performance of the Barnum & Bailey show sends the following description to the Eagle:

To the Editor of the Brooklyn Eagle:

Despite the gale outside the tent, some 20,000 people went with peanuts primed and eyes aglow, to see the great and only show. First baby camel met their eye and then the lady ten feet high, beside the smallest man on earth, provoked much inconsiderate mirth. The animals next, both caged and tied, were each and every one espied; the side show freaks and platforms, too, were passed before the public view, and then the bugles tooted loud, and to the ring sides rushed the crowd. They tried to watch three rings at one, and follow everything there done; but though they couldn’t quite succeed, they saw a lot of things indeed. They saw the elephants lie right down, and had a laugh with every clown; and watched the goats roll around the ring on a ball as easy as anything, and shooed the dove that rode the wheel and heard the pig’s ‘mamma’ appeal, and held their breath while in the air the slack rope walker combed his hair and trapeze artists swung and jumped, till finally into the net they plumped; and saw the ball roll up the spire, with a man inside to push it higher, and cheered the dog that kicked the ball with the tip of his nose and heard the fall of the clown who tried to stand on his head, but landed in a heap instead, and followed the man with the face so big that he scared the clown with the talking pig, and laughed at the rollicking monkey race, and the dogs that joined in the nightly chase, and watched the Jap shin up the pole and slide to the ground on his slippery sole, and hurrahed for the girl on the milk white steed who stuck to his back in spite of his speed, and marked the time for the horse quadrille and the juggler eyed with a creeping chill as he dallied with carving knives and things in one of the three entrancing rings. The same old circus? Well, hardly true–the same old show, with everything new.

Brooklyn, April 8, 1897

SCHOOL BOY.”

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Barnum and Nutt conduct business.

This undated, classic 1800s photograph of sideshow attraction “Commodore Nutt,” along with his employer, P.T. Barnum, was taken by Charles DeForest Fredricks. An excerpt from the performer’s 1881 New York Times obituary:

“Commodore Nutt, the celebrated dwarf, died early yesterday morning at the Anthony House, after suffering nearly two months from a severe attack of Bright’s disease. He was born April 1, 1844, at Manchester, N.H., and at the age of 17 was brought to New-York by Barnum and exhibited in the old museum, corner of Ann-Street and Broadway. He was widely advertised as the ‘smallest man in the world.’ His full name was George Washington Morrison Nutt. His father was a New Hampshire farmer, over six feet in height and weighing 270 pounds. His mother was average size and healthy. When he engaged with Barnum in 1860 he was 30 inches high, but as years went by he grew somewhat, and at the time of his death his height was 3 feet seven inches. In girth his increase in size was even more marked, and it is not improbable that recently his average weight has been fully twice that when originally presented to the public. The ‘Commodore’ was originally known as ‘$30,000 Nutt,” Mr. Barnum claiming that such sum was paid the dwarf to go on exhibition. ‘The fact is, though,’ said Mr. Hutchings, who used to be known as the ‘Lightning Calculator,’ the old man paid the boy but $15 a week.'”

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George Auger, center, of course.

This undated classic photograph shows George Auger, known in his performing days as the “Cardiff Giant.” Auger, who lived a short life, as giants almost always do, was a Welsh man who was somewhere between seven and eight feet tall, depending on whose hoopla you believe. But he was an authentic titan by any measure. An excerpt from a 1904 New York Times article about his first appearance in America, when he was in the employ of P.T. Barnum:

“A new giant, larger than anything in that line yet seen here, arrived on the steamship La Bretagne from Havre. He will be placed on exhibition with the other prodigies in the museum of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which opens at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night. His name is George Auger, and he comes from Cardiff, in Wales.

Auger is but twenty-two years of age, and now stands somewhat over 7 feet 11 inches in his socks. He wears fourteen size shoes, and gloves which have no numbers on them because nothing so large is made for the trade. His shoulders are almost as broad as those of two ordinary men, and there is cloth enough in one of his suits to fit out a whole ordinary family. With the giant was his wife, who looked like a pygmy beside him.”

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When Barnum went bankrupt in 1871, the money he lost on the Fire Annihilator was among the reasons given for his financial woes. (Image by Mathew Brady.)

Not even P.T. Barnum could sell the Fire Annihilator, an early flame extinguisher created by British inventor William Phillips. The Big Top legend invested heavily in the apparatus and announced (with great hoopla, of course) a demonstration in Manhattan to be held on December 17, 1851. Things did not go well. According to some publications, Barnum’s friend, Signor Blitz, a ventriloquist, bird trainer and magician, complicated matters by mischievously throwing his voice to make it sound like people and livestock were trapped by the fire that had been set for the trial. That may or not be apocryphal. Whatever the cause, the machine failed, and inside of a year the Fire Annihilator factory in London was completely destroyed–by a fire. Because Barnum had often boasted of his ability to fool all of the people all of the time, the ink-stained wretches were not kind about the public failure. The New York Times panned the Annihilator, and here’s an excerpt from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle story about the doomed demonstration:

The Fire Annihilator, as pictured in the cover of the "Scientific American" on Sept. 20, 1851.

“Yesterday, in order to satisfy our curiosity in regard to the merits of the so-called Fire Annihilator, we preceded to New York to witness the exhibition trial of the machine, which was announced to take place. In order to avoid accidents, the trial took place so far up town as 63rd street in an unenclosed space of ground, without any houses in the neighborhood. A quantity of pitch was ignited, and two of the machines applied to extinguish the flames. The pitch was spread on a frame of boards about four feet by six, and probably made a coating two or three inches in depth. One of the machines was put in operation, and a stream of white vapor resembling steam issued forth and was directed towards the fire; another similarly charged, was applied to the other side of the fire. A hissing noise followed, but when both of the machines were exhausted the fire was burning as strongly as ever. The performance was repeated several times with similar results.

As the trial was long postponed, and publicly advertised to take place on this occasion, it is to be presumed that everything was so well prepared for testing the capacity of the machine as to give fair proof of its character; and after having witnessed the trial we are forced to say, that we would put infinitely more confidence in a bucket of water, in case of a fire, than in Barnum’s Annihilator.”

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The loving couple as they appeared on the cover of "Harper's Weekly." They were much more attractive than this depiction suggests.

Two of New York’s tiniest residents were the principals of one of the largest weddings in the history of the city. It was in 1863 that Charles Stratton, better known as diminutive P.T. Barnum attraction General Tom Thumb, took a bride in the form of fellow little person performer Queen Lavinia Warren. The ceremony was held at Grace Episcopal Church and Barnum made certain that it was the social event of the year.

The New York Times was on the scene to file a breathless 5,000-word article in its February 11, 1863 edition, which was subtitled: “Marriage of General Tom Thumb and the Queen of Beauty. Who They Are, What They Have Done, Where They Came from, Where They Are Going. Their Courtship and Wedding Ceremonies, Presents, Crowds of People.” A few excerpts about the insane scene follow.

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“Those who did and those who did not attend the wedding of Gen. Thomas Thumb and Queen LAVINIA WARREN composed the population of this great Metropolis yesterday, and thenceforth religious and civil parties sink into comparative insignificance before this one arbitrating query of fate — Did you or did you not see Tom Thumb married?

The Scriptures tell us that a little matter kindleth a great flame, and that being the case, no one need be surprised that two little matters should create such a tremendous hullabaloo, such a furore of excitement, such an intensity of interest in the feminine world of New-York and its neighborhood, as have the loves of our Lilliputians. We say ‘feminine world,’ because there were more than twenty thousand women in this City yesterday morning up and dressed an hour and a half before their usual time, solely and simply because of the approaching nuptials of Mr. STRATTON and Miss WARREN. They didn’t all have cards of admission, oh no, but it wasn’t their fault. Fathers were flattered, husbands were hectored, brothers were bullied and cousins were cozened into buying, begging, borrowing, in some way or other getting tickets of admission to the grand affair.

The marriage of Gen. Tom Thumb cannot be treated as an affair of no moment — in some respects it is most momentous. Next to LOUIS NAPOLEON, there is no one person better known by reputation to high and low, rich and poor, than he.”

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Barnum was a very distant relation of the General and taught him how to sing, dance, mime and do imitations. (Image by Mathew Brady Studio.)

“Long before the hour appointed for the ceremony, a great concourse had gathered OUTSIDE THE CHURCH, and that portion of Broadway between Union-square and Ninth-street was literally crowded, if not packed, with an eager and expectant populace. All classes of society were represented, not excluding the ‘spectacle man’ and the woman retailer of apples. As the time approached for the ceremony of the nuptials, the crowd increased in density, every one exhibiting the most impatient desire to catch a glimpse at the happy pair when they should arrive. All the buildings in the vicinity of the church were made subservient to the general curiosity, and not a door, or window, or balcony, which would in the least facilitate view, but was put into practical service. The smiling faces of the thousands of fair ladies thus assembled contributed not a little to the attractiveness and joyfulness of the occasion. The system of police was admirably executed. Order was preserved throughout the entire proceedings, and a general good feeling seemed to exist among the people. Stages, and all vehicles excepting the carriages which contained invited guests and holders of tickets, were turned off Broadway at Ninth-street below the church, and at Twelfth-street above. In the intermediate space, and near each sidewalk, were stationed lines of policemen, who succeeded in maintaining their position until nearly noon, when the multitude became so vast that they were obliged to form new lines nearer the centre of the street. The open space was then hardly of sufficient width to admit of the free passage of carriages, but the drivers threaded their way through, notwithstanding the slight inconveniences which opposed them. To place a correct estimate upon the number of carriages that passed through the line, unless a person stood by and counted them one by one, would be impossible. There was one unbroken chain of them for over two hours preceding the arrival of the ‘little couple.’

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Not even Harry Potter and Lady Middlemarch will have such a wedding.

“Policemen were detailed to preserve order in the vicinity of the hotel, as well as of the church. Vehicles were turned off the main thoroughfare at Houston and Spring streets, and the long line of carriages which was noticed at the church, came pouring down toward the place of reception. The crowd followed, and in less than fifteen minutes the street in front of the hotel block was completely choked with human beings. Upon each side of the hotel entrance was displayed the American colors, as was also the National flag upon the roof of the building. The inmates of the carriages, as they alighted, were closely scrutinized by the outsiders, many of whom naturally envied the good fortune which entitled their inferior, perhaps, in social standing to congratulate the married party. Pickpockets, as usual, were busy plying their avocation. Two of that ‘genteel profession,’ however, were discovered in the act, and taken to the station-house.”

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“THE RECEPTION WAS A SUCCESS, as, of course, it was expected to be when BARNUM was the head and front of the offending. The brilliant assemblage, the delicious music, the merry laughter, the surging sea of laces, tulle, silk, satin, broadcloth, moire antique, muslin, velvet, furs and fine feathers of every imaginable hue and material, have been unsurpassed even in the gorgeous halls of the Metropolitan. All that the Messrs. LELANDS could do for the guests was done, and if a hundred or so did accidentally stray into the dining room, it seemed to be considered in the programme. All was hilarity, jocularity, fun, amusement and the acme of enjoyment, down to the happy moment when the twain retired.”

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"An hour after his demise the body was placed in an ice coffin."

Along with his brothers Louis and Willie, acrobat Rudolph Mette was part of a high-flying nineteenth-century circus act, but he was brought low by drink and found dead in a Brooklyn stable one summer evening in 1887. The July 3 Brooklyn Daily Eagle provided a brief postmortem of the trapeze man. An excerpt:

“Rudolph Mette, aged 41, one of the celebrated Mette Brothers, acrobats, was found dead at 11:30 o’clock last evening in the hay loft of Henry Hamilton’s stable, on Bedford avenue and North Fifth street.

It was rumored that he had died from alcoholism, but Mr. Hamilton says that the cause of his death was congestive chills.

An hour after his demise the body was placed in an ice coffin and Coroner Lindsay was notified. Mette has a sister residing on Graham avenue and another living in New York. Should either of them refuse to bury him Mr. Hamilton will defray the funeral expenses.

The Mette brothers were among the most noted acrobats of this century, having been connected with Barnum’s, Forepaugh’s and other circuses. The deceased was the owner of a trick pony at one time, for which, it is said, Barnum offered him $7,000.”

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More than 5,000 spectators watched Big Mary’s execution in 1916.

I’m familiar, of course, with the electrocution of Topsy the Elephant at Luna Park in Coney Island in 1903. (It was a stunt perpetrated by Thomas Edison to discredit Nikola Tesla’s Alternating Current, which was the chief competitor to his Direct Current.) But I had never heard of the hanging of Big Mary the Elephant in Erwin, Tennessee, in 1916, even though it’s apparently been written about quite a bit.

Big Mary was the chief attraction of the small, second-rate Southern circus owned by Charlie Sparks. The great Long Form pointed me in the direction of a 2009 article about Mary’s demise in Blue Ridge Country magazine. It seems the pachyderm didn’t take kindly to a new attendant and killed him. After guns and electricity failed to put Mary down, she was hanged with the aid of a crane in a railroad yard. Sad and bizarre. An excerpt:

“Mary was billed as ‘the largest living land animal on earth’; her owner claimed she was three inches bigger than Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s famous pachyderm. At 30 years old, Mary was five tons of pure talent: she could ‘play 25 tunes on the musical horns without missing a note’; the pitcher on the circus baseball-game routine, her .400 batting average ‘astonished millions in New York.’

Rumor and exaggeration swarmed about Mary like flies. She was worth a small fortune: $20,000, Charlie Sparks claimed. She was dangerous, having killed two men, or was it eight, or 18?

She was Charlie Sparks’ favorite, his cash cow, his claim to circus fame. She was the leader of his small band of elephants, an exotic crowd-pleaser, an unpredictable giant.

On Monday, September 11, 1916, Sparks World Famous Shows played St. Paul, Va., a tiny mining town in the Clinch River Valley.

Which is where drifter Red Eldridge made a fatal decision. Slight and flame-haired, Red had nothing to lose by signing up with Sparks World Famous Shows: he’d dropped into St. Paul from a Norfolk and Western boxcar and decided to stay for a while. Taking a job as janitor at the Riverside Hotel, Eldridge found himself pushing a broom and, then, dreaming of moving on.

Eldridge was hired as an elephant handler and marched in the circus parade that afternoon. It’s easy to imagine that what he lacked in skill and knowledge, he made up for with go-for-broke bravado. A small man carrying a big stick can be a dangerous thing.”

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"Coffin Cab" is a 1902 illustration by Henry Charles Moore.

“Big Joe” Grimes was the “World’s Largest Man” at P.T. Barnum’s circus at the beginning of last century, when all you needed to be a star was enormous size. (As opposed to current times, when all you need to be a star is enormous emotional baggage.) In a 1902 Ringling tour, he shared performance space with Francisco Lentini, the Three-Legged Boy, and Enoch the Man Fish, among others. But what gave Grimes relative fame and fortune also claimed him–though not in the expected way. It wasn’t a heart attack or stroke or diabetes that ended the sideshow attraction’s life, but rather his huge body straining a cab to the breaking point and beyond.

I came across “World’s Largest Man Dead,” a very brief notice in the September 5, 1903 issue of the New York Times, which details his death but didn’t mention his show biz career, as it were. The piece is subtitled: “‘Big Joe’ Grimes of Cincinnati Breaks Through Cab and Fatally Wounds Himself.” An excerpt:

“‘Big Joe’ Grimes, said to have been the largest man in the world, is dead at the home of his parents in the city, as the result of a peculiar accident. While riding in a cab, his great weight broke through the bottom, one of his legs was gashed, the wound refusing to heal.

Grimes weighed 754 pounds, and was thirty-four years of age. He was 6 feet 4 inches in height, and his body and limbs were of ponderous dimensions.”

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"Wonderful tattooed Greek noblemen."

It cost folks just 50 cents (25 cents for children) in 1872 to see what that braggart P.T. Barnum called the “Greatest Show on Earth.” It probably was the best of all shows of its time, but still! This was the first time that Barnum began billing his circus as such. He had only entered the full-fledged circus business a year earlier.

In addition to his late-career circus greatness, Barnum was a newspaper publisher, museum owner and curator, politician, hoaxer, philanthropist, concert and theater promoter, temperance speaker, abolitionist and the proprietor of America’s first aquarium. He also made some ridiculously bad business investments and drove himself into financial disrepair in the 1850s.

By the time he entered the circus business at age 61 his financial well-being had been restored and all his myriad of experiences served him incredibly well. He became America’s preeminent showman, though he never really uttered the phrase “there’s a sucker born very minute.” An excerpt from the ad copy:

“Occupies many acres with its vast tents and possesses more New and Imported Features, more Marine Monsters, more and rarer Wild Beasts, Birds and Reptiles, more marvelous Human Phenomena–including Huge Giants, Tiny Dwarfs and the wonderful Tattooed Greek Noblemen, more Curious and Costly Mechanical Wonders, more Distinguished Equestrians and Athletes, more Funny Clowns and more Educated Animals and Magnificent Trick Horses, than were ever before presented at any one time in any age or place and More than Ten Times the Price of Admission Returned to Everybody.

I will give $10,000 to anybody who can show that, during the past five years, the daily expenses of my vast establishment have not been larger than the entire gross receipts of any traveling show in this or any other country.”

More Old Print Ads:

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"The Turkish Giant Robbed of his Wife, his Educated Goat, his Money and his Horse and Carriage."

Arthur Caley, better known as P.T. Barnum’s “Arabian Giant,” was born in the 1820s or 1830s, though nobody knows for sure just when. His main stage name was “Colonel Ruth Goshen,” and he was billed as being near eight feel tall and weighing 600 pounds, but that was likely an exaggeration of some inches and pounds.

He traveled the world, adopted a daughter and was married several times (though one of his wives ran off with another man and stole his horse and goat). It was rumored that he was from Jerusalem or the Isle of Wight or several other places.

The Giant and Barnum had a parting of the ways at some point, and the massive man passed away in 1889 in Middlebush, New Jersey. This piece from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle concerns his ill-fated marriage which fell apart a decade before his death. An excerpt from the article, which is subtitled, “The Turkish Giant Robbed of his Wife, his Educated Goat, his Money and his Horse and Carriage”:

“That matrimonial misery may afflict the highest as well as the lowest was never better illustrated than in the affliction which has overtaken Colonel Ruth Goshen, the giant whose enormous figure has towered in Brooklyn for the past two weeks.

The Colonel is one of the most widely known celebrities of his class in the United States. His acquaintances agree that he has agreeable manners and a confiding disposition; and although his stature might easily vie with the inhabitants of Brobdignag, he is but a child in the dark and crooked ways of the wicked world.

Like the Thane of Fife, the Colonel had a wife, and well may he ask in tremulous tones, as he did this morning, ‘Where is she now?’ In fact, Mrs. Colonel Ruth Goshen has eloped with a showman and the gigantic hero of many gory fields has been compelled by perfidy of his spouse to assume the role of the injured husband and is taking steps toward the procurement of the divorce.”

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"General Tom Thumb": I might have been just 31 inches tall, but I was P.T. Barnum's greatest attraction.

  • “Aldiborontiphoscophornio”: James Ballantyne (1772-1833) Scottish printer.
  • “Ape”: Carlo Pellegrini (1839-1889): Italian caricaturist.
  • “Bastard of Orleans”: Jean Dunois (1402-1468) French count/military commander
  • “Blind Traveler”: James Holman (1786-1857) British navy lieutenant who went blind, made long solo journeys.
  • “General Tom Thumb”: Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1882) Diminutive entertainer from Connecticut, worked for P.T. Barnum.
  • “The Great Profile”: John Barrymore (1882-1942) American actor.
  • “Insects’ Homer”: Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) French entomologist.
  • “Mob’s Hero”: James Manners, Marquess of Granby (1721-1770) British military commander.
  • “Nestor of Golf”: Tom Morris (1821–1908) British golfer.
  • “Prince of Interviewers”: Nassau William Senior (1790-1864) English economist.
  • “Puck of Commentators”: George Steevens (1736-1800) Shakespearean commentator.
  • “Sillographer”: Timon (320 B.C.-230 B.C.) Greek poet and philosopher.
  • “Thunderbolt of Italy”: Gaston Foix (1489-1512) French nobelman.
  • “Touch Doctor”: Valentine Greatrakes (1629-1683) Irish physician.
  • “Vinegar Joe”: Joseph Stilwell (1883-1946) American military commander.

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