Warning: May contain spoilers!
If you have an interest in the circus, you probably know that there isn’t always as much hype around the subject as other sports or activities get, especially in the media. However, the new musical movie “The Greatest Showman,” told the story of mister P.T. Barnum, founder of the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus. The movie brought the viewers through a heartwarming tale of how Barnum brought misfits together, through catchy songs and colorful visuals. The movie tells of Barnum’s want to have an amazing, magical life for him and his family. In the movie, Barnum is portrayed as a fun, inspiring man, but in real life that wasn’t exactly the case.
Barnum was driven to become wealthy and well known. In the movie, his first act towards this goal is the purchase of the American Museum. The movie leaves out altogether his first endeavor, the purchase of a black woman named Joice Heth, who he showcased claiming she was 161 years old. Encouraged by the hype around this impossibly old woman, Barnum then purchased the American Museum in New York City, which contained stuffed and wax animals and “curiosities.” Barnum built on the idea of the strange and unique, bringing in live attractions from all over that had something strange or different about them. Many were fakes and lies like the “Feejee Mermaid,” but others, such as the 25 inch Charles Stratton that we saw in the movie, were quite real.
In “The Greatest Showman,” P.T. Barnum left his museum to go on an American tour with the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind. This was a part in the movie where we saw his flaws, as Barnum left his friends in order to be a part of a higher social class. Before the tour, Barnum had never heard Lind sing, which proves how desperate he was to be remembered as more than a museum owner. Like in the movie, the tour ended early, but not because of a scandalous relationship between Lind and Barnum. Neither were interested in being more than business partners, but they got in a fight that made Lind want to return home to Europe. After the scandal in the movie, Barnum returned to his friends, realizing he shouldn’t have ever left. In reality, he wasn’t the good man who learned his lesson that Hugh Jackman portrays in The Greatest Showman. Although a few “oddities” were also his friends, like Charles Stratton, Barnum was more obsessed with creating spectacles to the public, and making a name for himself. He got to where he was and became so successful mainly because of his lies and scams. For example, the “Feejee Mermaid,” was a source of attraction that he marketed as a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish, but was actually the head of a monkey sewn onto a fishtail.
In 1865, the American Museum burned down, like in the movie. All the employees escaped and no human lives were lost, but some animals weren’t able to escape, and the museum was unsalvageable. Barnum set out to reopen a new museum within a year of the burning of the first one. However, the new museum was heated using boilers, which were new and not very well tested. The second museum burned down to a boiler explosion in 1868. It wasn’t until the end of his career that Barnum became affiliated with the circus. He was in his sixties when he first teamed up with a traveling show in 1871 that he called “The Greatest Show on Earth,” something you’ve probably heard before. By 1875 he had full ownership of the show, and in 1881 he teamed up with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson from the Great International Circus, to form and manage Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, which is still referred to as “The Greatest Show on Earth” today.
Although the real P.T. Barnum wasn’t the good man we saw in “The Greatest Showman,” he celebrated the odd and the unusual the way we still do in the circus. By creating a museum of things that people hadn’t seen before, he demonstrated the spirit of accepting and praising people for being unique. The movie may have not been one hundred percent accurate, but it honored the beautiful message that we have in the circus today. Every single person is at least a little different, learns a little differently, performs a little differently, or has different strengths. Like the movie demonstrated, we all have a place in the circus because all our strengths and specialties end up fitting together perfectly. As a quote from “The Greatest Showman” says, “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”