This week marks the 207th birthday of the Greatest Showman on Earth, P.T. Barnum. We look at the master promoter’s pre-circus era as a museum owner and the fantastical sideshow performers who were on display there.
“The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy,” so said P.T. Barnum who bought Scudder’s American Museum in 1841 and renamed it as his own. As a consummate businessman and innovative promoter, Barnum transformed the museum into a pivotal institution in New York during the 19th century antebellum era before it was closed down by a colossal fire in 1865.
Drawing in multitudes from all classes and backgrounds, Barnum’s American Museum included a dizzying array of entertainment. For 25 cents, you could set your curious eyes on breathtaking panoramas, a dog running a loom, taxidermists, a flea circus, exotic animals, glassblowers, Shakespearean drama, and the notable freak show.
Of his fanciful sideshow performers, Barnum didn’t mind using “humbug” (another word for hype) to lure people into his museum; he felt justified in a tiny bit of hoaxing, considering the vast entertainment and educational value his museum offered the public.
Here are some of Barnum’s most notable freak show performers.
General Tom Thumb
General Tom Thumb was perhaps one of P.T. Barnum’s most famous performers. Advertised as “the Smallest Person That Ever Walked Alone,” Tom Thumb was actually a dwarf in real life and stood at a little over two feet when he began working for Barnum at the museum. The businessman taught Thumb how to sing, dance, mime, and impersonate people to huge success. By age seven, Thumb was drinking wine and smoking cigars to amuse the public.
Claimed as half mammal, half fish and discovered near the Fiji Islands, the Feejee Mermaid was presented in its mummified form for the first time at Barnum’s American Museum. In reality, the faux creature was actually the torso of a young monkey sewn onto the bottom half of a fish.
Born as Josephine Boisdechêne in Switzerland, she was better known as Madame Clofullia or simply, The Bearded Lady. By age eight, Josephine had a two-inch beard, which grew four more inches at the height of her fame. In 1853 a man named William Charr had taken her to court, claiming she was a man dressed in women’s clothing. However, the case was dismissed after doctors examined her and confirmed she was indeed a woman.
The Living Human Skeleton
Isaac Sprague was a normal boy up until the age of 12 when suddenly his weight dropped dramatically. With his muscle mass amounting almost to nothing, his doctors diagnosed him with a condition described as “extreme progressive muscular atrophy.” At 24 with career prospects looking grim, Sprague came to work for Barnum who, according to Sprague, had said to his agent, “Pretty lean man, where did you scare him up?” Sprague eventually married and had three healthy boys. Although he tried to avoid working as a sideshow attraction, he found himself returning off and on since he not only had mouths to feed but also a bit of a gambling problem.
The Siamese Twins
Similar to Sprague’s situation, the famous Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, also had many mouths to feed (they had 21 children between them) and came out of retirement to go work for Barnum’s museum for a brief period in late 1860. Born in what is now Thailand, Chang and Eng were first discovered by a Scottish merchant who convinced them to go on a world tour as objects of curiosity. The twins eventually went into business for themselves, moved to America, changed their last name to Bunker and established a life in North Carolina. Once there, the twins married sisters Addie and Sally Yates and had their children. Known for their good character, they were held in high regard by their community.