Barnum's freaks

America's King Humbug and his Cabinet of Curiosities

What do a small person, an oversized tomb, an impoverished old African-American woman from the southern states and the clinical psychologist Paul Everett Meehl have in common?

I deal with P. T. Barnum because I am currently working on the book Look homeward, angel by the American writer Thomas Wolfe (All articles). I am investigating all phenomena, metaphors, authors and terms mentioned in the book and unknown to me.

It's about that quote:

Wieder gellte das wilde, hämische Gelächter von droben. Gant hielt inne, fing Helenes Blick auf, grinste unvermittelt und unwollend wie ein Schaf.

»Gnad uns Gott«, kicherte er, »demnächst wird sie Barnums Mißgeburten als Gäste hierhaben.

In the original, the passage reads as follows:

There was another long howl of mirth above. Gant paused, caught Helen's eye, and began to grin suddenly in an unwilling sheepish manner.

God have mercy on us, he chuckled. ´She'll have the place filled with all of Barnum's freaks the next thing you know.

Source: Thomas Wolfe, Schau heimwärts, Engel!, Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, Hamburg 1954

What must we imagine Barnum's freaks to be? Who were they? Who was P.T. Barnum?

In the film biography of director Michael Gracey, which was published in 2017 and inspired by Barnum's life, actor Hugh Jackman, born in Sydney, Australia, embodies the American circus pioneer. The musical film The Greatest Showman reels off Barnum's life as a sequence of highlights, numbers and curiosities in a way that is suitable for the audience, colourful and colourful, and at the same time stands in contrast and in logical consequence to the real character of the mercilessly successful businessman, circus pioneer and politician of the century before last. For Barnum paid as little attention to reality and authenticity as the film pays attention to the real historical realities of the real person and story. And just like the film, Barnum was always aiming for maximum effect, no matter what the cost - especially the people around him.

Provincial small town child

Phineas Taylor Barnum

Phineas Taylor Barnum, born on 5 July 1810 in the small town of Bethel, Connecticut, not far from New York, the son of the innkeeper, tailor and shopkeeper Philo Barnum and his second wife Irene Taylor - about whom, unfortunately, nothing is known. Influenced by his grandfather, a Whig politician, landowner and justice of the peace - who also played the lottery according to a system - P. T. Barnum was perhaps something of a match between a shrewd businessman and a successful entrepreneur: he pursued many businesses, for he owned a shop, a book auction house, a nationwide lottery, speculated on real estate, and at the age of nineteen founded a controversial liberal newspaper that wrote against excessive religiosity.

He started his career as an entertainer and showman in 1835 with the purchase / rent of the blind and basically completely disturbed African American Joice Heth from two windy and unsuccessful other marketers. They had bought her themselves as a slave and exhibited her unsuccessfully in Louisville, Kentucky.

Advertising poster from around 1835. Quelle:
Advertising poster from around 1835. Quelle: / Link :
Afroamerikanische Sklavin

Joice Heth

It is as cruel to write as it probably was: Barnum rented it from its previous owners, thus circumventing the New York State's ban on slavery and at the same time adopting the fairy tale from the previous owners that Joice Heth was the midwife of former President George Washington. He paid the previous owners $1,000 a year.

Text from the poster:

Joice Heth is unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the World! She was the slave of Augustine Washington, (the father of Gen. Washington) and was the first person who put clothes on the unconscious infant, who, in after days, led our heroic fathers on to glory, to victory, and freedom. To use her own language when speaking of the illustrious Father of this Country, 'she raised him'. Joice Heth was born in the year 1674, and has, consequently, now arrived at the astonishing age of 161 years.

Quelle: Joice Heth, Wikipedia

Barnum did not hesitate to present the confused woman to the audience as a living legend and 161-year-old midwife of the former President of the United States. Barnum and his partner Levi Lyman exhibited Joice Heth for seven months in taverns, inns, museums, railway stations and concert halls in cities and towns in the Northeast, working 10-12 hours a day, always under the eyes of the gawking audience. Joice Heth died in February 1836.

But even dead she still had value for Barnum. He organized his biggest and most profitable spectacle up to that time: He hired a surgeon, the experienced anatomist Dr. David L. Rogers, who dissected Joice Heth publicly in front of 1500 people in the municipal salon of the city of New York. And Barnum collected 50 cents from each spectator of this unworthy spectacle.

In the years that followed, Barnum had rather moderate success with his newly founded variety group Barnum's Grand Scientific and Musical Theater, perhaps also against the background of the financial crisis of 1837.

Freaks and showmen

Barnum's Cabinet of Curiosities

John Scudder

John Scudder was an amateur taxidermist who opened the American Museum at 21 Chatham Street in New York City. He himself took over the museum, founded in 1791, from the philanthropist and merchant John Pintard, born in 1759. The museum, which was mainly open to wealthy gentlemen, offered scientific lectures and scientific exhibits after the opening. However, economic hardship and the war of 1812 prompted Scudder to redesign his museum. Strolling musicians and "Lilliputians" brought new excitement and new visitors to the American Museum. In 1830 the American Museum, as it was now called, began to hold "freak shows" in addition to its natural science exhibits.

The population of New York City passed 120,000 in 1810, more than doubling the population in just twenty years. Many of these citizens and immigrants lived together in close quarters, resulting in tenement buildings and people's need for entertainment outside the home.


In 1841, Barnum took over Scudder's American Museum in New York, a curiosity cabinet dating back to 1791, and developed it into one of the greatest entertainment spectacles of the 19th century. Each new item on the programme was advertised intensively with posters and in newspapers as a "sensation". Barnum's American Museum, which was merged with two other collections in the following years, became an absolute visitor magnet, above all due to its clever PR campaigns. In its heyday, the museum was open fifteen hours a day and had up to 15,000 visitors per day! Between 1841 and 1865, some 38 million customers paid 25 cents for admission. The total population of the United States was less than 32 million in 1860. In the 23 years under Barnum's leadership, it is said that 38 million visitors marvelled at it.

Not that the resulting revenues were enough for Barnum: Barnum put up signs in the museum that pointed to another exhibition in the house, but were in fact signposts to the exit. "He posted signs indicating "This Way to the Egress". Not knowing that "Egress" was another word for "Exit", visitors followed these signs and finally ended up at the door.

Barnum played with the fake, the humbug. Even if one or most of his attractions or exhibits turned out to be fake, people still wanted to see them, for example the supposed giant of Cardiff. Perhaps to amuse themselves in the stupidity of the others.

The so-called museum was actually a mixture of zoo, lecture halls, theatre and freak show, curiosity cabinet and ethnological exhibition; in addition to artists and performers, Barnum's circus was also famous for its performers, who were particularly distinguished by physical features.

And Thomas Wolfe probably alluded to this in his dialogue. So these were Barnum's freaks: fat women, living skeletons, albinos, Siamese twins, people of small stature, giants, the link between man and apes, men and women without heads, arms or abdomen, the real Kaspar Hauser and other strange things.

Poster with Tom Thumb. Source: Wikipedia
Poster with Tom Thumb. Source: Wikipedia
Charles Stratton


Charles Perrault

This wonderful and versatile author is probably only known to us today through his fairy tales and the pieces set to music. Charles Perrault was born in Paris on 21 January 1629 and grew up as the youngest of four brothers in a wealthy family of lawyers and civil servants. He became a lawyer and wrote parallel stories in the style of burlesque. Later he became head of the small academy, an institution that advised the king on the purchase of works of art and literature. He is known to us through his fairy tales told in the collection Histoires ou Contes du temps passé, but mostly probably through the amended versions of the Brothers Grimm and Ludwig Bechstein. Of these tales, Little Thumb, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood and Puss in Boots are probably the best known. Many of these stories have already been filmed or set to music several times, such as the ballet Sleeping Beauty by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Perrault died at the age of 75 in Paris.

Quelle: Gert Pinkernell und Wikipedia

One of the most famous attractions was among others General Tom Thumb, a small actor, whose real name was Charles Stratton. Already at the age of 4 years he was discovered by Barnum in Bridgeport and Barnum got his parents to go on a trip with him around New York for 3 dollars a week. Barnum taught the four-year-old boy to sing, dance and imitate famous people and had him perform in his American Museum. (Source: Wikipedia) At only five years of age Stratton completed his first tour of America, during which he impersonated famous people such as Napoleon.

In 1845, at only seven years of age, Tom Thumb celebrated a great success at the Théâtre du Vaudeville, Paris in the play The Little Thumb (in English Hop-o'-My-Thumb, in French Le petit Poucet), which goes back to the French writer Charles Perrault. The libretto was written by the French artists Philippe François Pinel, alias Dumanoir and Louis-François-Marie Nicolaïe alias Clairville. The Théâtre du Vaudeville was initially located on Rue de Chartres, then moved and is still standing on the corner of Rue de la Chaussèe d'Antin and Boulevard des Italien. Now, after its conversion to Paramount Opéra in 1927, it has been the Gaumont Opéra cinema since 2007.

Stratton, who was only 102 cm tall, became a legend under his stage name. He achieved so much fame and success that Queen Victoria saw his performances twice and personally congratulated Abraham Lincoln Thumb on his wedding. At the age of 25, he married Lavinia Warren, who was also of small stature and who now went on show tours with him and called herself Queen of Beauty. Stratton died of a stroke at the age of 45 and was buried at a cemetery in Bridgeport. The representative monument appears larger than that of P. T. Barnum and at the highest point a life-size statue of the deceased crowns the pyramid-shaped pedestal.

Like from a Terry Gilliam movie

Boiling whales, tiger heads splitting firemen

The American Museum, which exhibits whales that are alive, burned down so spectacularly on 13 July 1865 that the New York Times devoted an entire page to the fire. The newspaper estimated the damage at $1 million. (Source: The formerly exhibited beluga whales cooked miserably in their tiny exhibition tanks, an escaping tiger was killed by firefighter Johnny Denham with an axe. Rather less a story for The greatest Showman, but more a story for Terry Gilliam, I think.

Barnum never ran out of ideas: He tried his hand at more serious business and came across the Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who was known as the Swedish Nightingale and still is in Sweden today. Adored by poets such as Hans Christian Andersen, who probably set a literary monument to her with the Snow Queen, and admired by Schumann, Berlioz and Bartholdy, she delighted with her unique voice and performed as a famous singer throughout Europe.

Circus King

P. T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome

It was not until the age of 60 that Barnum founded the great circus that would make him even more famous and which later toured the world under the name Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth and later Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus later maintained two circus trains, each one mile long, with 60 wagons, the red and the blue unit, each carrying the programme for two years.


King of Humbug


A humbug is something that pretends to be significant but is in fact only a hoax, and can also refer to a foolish and nonsensical statement or action. The term originates from English and even today the etymology of the term is not exactly clear.

It could derive from the Italian uomo bugiardo, which means lying man, but also from the Nordic word hum for twilight, which is related to the Swedish hymla for not committed to truth.

In general, we have probably only heard the long preservation of the word from Charles Dickens and his famous character Ebenezer Scrooge with their saying Bah! Humbug.

Quelle: Humbug

Barnum engagierte sich viel in der Politik, gehörte dem Repräsentantenhaus von Connecticut an und war Bürgermeister von Bridgeport. 1867 versuchte er für die Republikaner in den Kongress einzuziehen. Er scheiterte dabei, vielleicht nicht umsonst, denn schließlich wurde er König Humbug genannt, ein Spitzname, den Barnum sich einst verpasst hatte.

In Bridgeport befindet sich auch das P.T. Barnum Museum, das allerlei merkwürdige Gegenstände aus Barnums Leben aufbewahrt. Darunter unter anderem sein beigefarbender Zylinder aus Hasenhaar, ein besonders winziger Fingerhut zum Nähen (von der Ehefrau von Charles S. Stratton), sowie ein eindrucksvolles Poster des tätowierten griechischen Kapitäns George Costentenus. 388 Tattoos sollen seinen Körper bedeckt haben.

P. T. Barnum starb am 7. April 1891 in Brideport im Alter von 80 Jahren an einem Schlaganfall.

Verification phenomenon

The Barnum Effect

The Barnum Effect is a term from psychology introduced by the US-American psychologist Paul Meehl. It is named after P. T. Barnum and describes the tendency of people to interpret vague and generally valid statements about themselves in such a way that they are perceived as an accurate description. One deceives oneself by personally validating a rather generally valid vague image of one's self.

The Barnum Effect is used by graphologists, but it is also used in classical horoscopes, as they always contain general statements that even very different people can relate to themselves.

The name is probably derived from Barnum's cabinet of curiosities, which should offer something for everyone.

tl, dr;

My research on the sometimes cruel but always extremely and mercilessly successful businessman Phineas Taylor Barnum, who should be known to most people through the feature film The Greatest Showman.

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